And 3 simple things we can do to share our knowledge
Ben and I had an interesting discussion in our latest FiST Chat about Wikipedia and its importance as an online repository for human knowledge. It would surely be impossible to find anyone who doesn’t value Wikipedia for its fantastic contribution to open sourced information. That being said, Wikipedia will only ever be as good as the contributions it receives. Quality can only be maintained by the efforts of the volunteers who give their time and attention to ensure the accuracy of the posts. With that in mind should all of us be spending our time online more usefully and perhaps contributing to sensible content where possible?
For the most part Wikipedia gets it right. Four of the 5 pillars that guide Wikipedia’s open source contributors include: that it is an encyclopaedia, it is neutral; it is free, open and respectful. The 5th pillar is that Wikipedia does not have firm rules to govern its contributions and in this it includes, “do not agonise about making mistakes”. One can’t argue with the spirit in which this directive is intended, but in practice, this raises the all-important matter of accuracy. A respected encyclopaedia just can’t afford to be wrong; and it is downright dangerous to rely on some member of the online community to repair the damage an error taken as fact might cause.
And what of the ‘missing’ information that possibly should be found on Wikipedia but nobody has ever taken the time to post? Check out the other stuff exists page to see the extension of this debate. There is a danger that these omissions could result in some parts of our historical knowledge being overlooked, or that the overwriting of events over time will only ever reflect the colour of popular opinion. Whatever your thoughts on this might be, for some there will be comfort in that fact that this will continue to increase the value of the printed knowledge found in books long after the last press has stopped.
So what can any of us do about this? Well, as citizens of the digital age it really is up to us to rectify all the errors and omissions in our knowledge base. Wikipedia promotes this very worthy cause itself, but of course not everyone has the time or interest to become an editor on Wikipedia. Yet there are ways in which we can all do our bit just by contributing online. Here are three simple ideas you can try.
Share your knowledge of a special subject
If you have an area of expertise as a professional or even as a hobby, please share your interest. Write an article, take some photos, make a video and connect to others who share your passion. Even if you don’t know how to share online, there will be plenty of others who do (like bloggers who share your interest), and they will be happy to do it for you. Knowledge doesn’t have to appear on Wikipedia to be accessible or important, it just has to appear anywhere people can find it.
Make your own History
The online environment has been a boon to the Genealogy craze. Everyone suddenly seems to have an interest in family trees, history and records. Digital records are easy to create and very easy to share thanks to the internet. Often we forget that living people may have been a part of historical events. Primary sources of information are often very interesting. If you have a friend or relative who was at Woodstock in 1969, or was there at Dealey Plaza in Nov 1963 or was anywhere else of interest, get them to write about their experiences, or record an interview with them. Post it somewhere in the cloud, on YouTube, in Facebook, and share it as widely as possible. Sometime in the future, people will thank you, and you’re descendants will be so happy you took the time to introduce them to their Great-great grandparents.
Run you own campaign
If you feel strongly about an issue, get a group together to do something about it. Recently the Royal Society ran a crowd-sourced Wikipedia-edit-a-thon to improve the number and quality of Wikipedia entries that feature the achievements of women in science. This is a particularly important issue, as historically female contributions to every field of science have been marginalised by the men who have dominated the field. Campaigns like this not only find supporters to assist with the work (and in this case there was a lot of it), but also draw public attention to the cause.
For more on this topic, watch FiST Chat 158: Wikipedia Vs The Traditional Encyclopedia.
The unusual appearance of the Giraffe has earned it a special place in the human psyche. Their long necks, spotted coats and strange head stumps make them visually appealing in an exotic kind of way. Along with other popular African wildlife creatures, they feature in so many children’s books, however they rarely stir the same emotions in humans the way the big apes, big cats or elephants do.
That aside, it was a strange decision by the Zoo in Denmark to slaughter a giraffe in public and perform an autopsy on it before throwing it to the lions next door. Stranger still was the fact that they had made the decision public and in the face of considerable public outcry, still went ahead anyway. The Zoo maintains it acted correctly, ethically and within the guides of its breeding program.
Predictably there were a number of groups who used the visible and graphic evidence of the autopsy and feline degustation to stoke a wave of protest against the Zoo. Within hours the outcry was deafening, but the Zoo stuck to its guns and issued a detailed statement on its website defending its position. It makes very interesting reading and suggests that no matter what the team at the Zoo might lack in terms of tact, they possibly make up for by holding fast to their principles.
Now departed, Marius the giraffe was part of a successful breeding program at the Zoo. With so few animals left in the wild and the main population (approximately 100,000) contained in African animal parks, breeding programs in Zoos around the world are vital for maintaining genetic diversity. Zoos and their programs are limited in the number of animals they can hold, and the number of offspring they can breed. To ensure their programs are useful and can assist the resilience of the wild populations they must concentrate on ensuring significant genetic diversity is generated in every individual offspring. Unfortunately for Marius, his genetic profile just wasn’t suitable for the Zoo’s gene pool and as a result, the zoo deemed he must be culled from the program.
There were offers from other parties to take care of Marius, but the Zoo declined, choosing to kill the animal and then perform an autopsy in front of an audience. This is something that the zoo has done many times before with zebras, snakes and goats; and it constitutes a normal part of their public outreach. As it turns out, a large audience turned up for Marius’ final performance. The dissection took almost 3 hours while the Zoo’s scientific team explained the animal’s anatomy in detail to those gathered. This is a very telling facet to this tale: that a large live audience appreciated the scientific process presented as it was presented to them. But it is a fact of social media that a much larger audience not only heard about Marius’ demise, but were able to deride the decision in the online environment. As a result the Zoo left itself open to looking guilty of poor judgement and guilty of misplacing its ethical responsibility.
Personally I’d have to agree with the public criticisms if for no other reason than any decision or judgement (right or wrong) that causes opinion to run against any zoo is always a bad PR and poor communication of their cause. However, at the same time, the Zoos motivation was perfectly reasonable and they were exceedingly open and transparent in their actions. Their desire to offer the public a better understanding of wildlife through the dissection was admirable, if in some ways misplaced.
It’s a sad fact that today’s society seems to have lost its connection with nature. In our modern society especially for those embedded in the matrix of social media, we are largely removed from the harsh realities of life. One of those realities is that the spread of modern humans and urbanisation are prime reasons species like the giraffe are endangered. While some might complain about a single death, we rarely acknowledge modern lifestyles in the developed world are driving down the numbers of wild animal populations around the world. Breeding programs like the one that gave us Marius are a last ditch effort by those who care to ensure that endangered species are not lost forever.
Emotions aside, every animal’s existence in the wild is very much about life and death. And while it may seem cruel that he was euthanized Marius may just have well met his fate at the jaws of a lion out on the savannah. That his demise should occur because he is surplus to the requirements of a very successful breeding program is no more or less cruel, it’s just a fact of life. Those that attacked the zoo for their actions should recognise that, and for the Zoo’s part it should recognise why.
For more on this topic, watch FiST Chat 156: Marius The Giraffe and Zoo Breeding Programs.
Google Glass is thought to be due for official release in April 2014 but already it’s been banned from some public venues, a woman has been fined for driving with them on, and a man has been questioned by the FBI for wearing them in a cinema. Meanwhile experts see Glass causing a raft of potential medical and legal issues that will take society to the brink of collapse. Civilization has not been so threatened by technology since the Luddites waged war against the industrial revolution.
Google say that part of the motivation for the Glass design was to relieve us from the distractions of the smartphone and free up our hands once again. So no more socially awkward moments as you wait for a friend to check their phone for updates: now they can do that while looking (almost) directly at you. The idea is that glass will allow us all more time to participate in life by keeping our smartphones in our pockets.
Time will tell whether or not Glass achieves its aims. In a world where everything else is shrinking, the smart phone is rapidly becoming a cumbersome device that gets used less for calls and more for browsing. The watch phone is too small to be functional in its present design, but might actually make a decent phone. Either way, a wearable device like Glass is exactly the sort of product that will send both the smartphone and smartwatch directly to the museum.
But Glass is only one of many wearable devices to be released this year. There are the aforementioned watches, a variety of lifestyle logging bracelets, tie clip cameras and headsets, but in comparison to Glass they don’t seem to carry either the tech or social weight necessary to make an impact. The only other product deserving of our interest is the LG flex (flexible) phone which had the design team at LG been a little more awake could have been as big as Glass. Does someone have to spell it out to LG that flexible =wearable?
Strangely Apple are the only large player yet to announce a wearable device. Perhaps they realize the dangers of attempting to release a gimmick product, and there is no doubt that the critics would be merciless if they did. After producing three game changing devices in the last decade, it may well prove a sound strategy for Apple to sit out of this round of hardware releases and let someone else take the risks. In the meantime they seem keen to pursue other transitional technologies such as the Apple Pay system which no doubt will work just fine on future Apple wearable devices.
Which brings us back to Google and Glass. Sure Google has tried to innovate in recent times, and they’ve had a mix of success and failure. But never before have they taken a punt of this size on game-changing hardware. There is now so much riding on Glass; success will put them into the same league as Apple, failure will send them back to the drawing board. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Like all true tech advances, Glass is not about the hardware, it’s about the impact and public acceptance. Glass does nothing new, or indeed different to any of the handheld devices available today. The triumph of design is that it does it so differently via hands-free. Glass is not a simple product progression like the iPhone or iPad, it’s a giant leap forward for technology. It’s the first step in the post pc era, it’s the mother of all wearable devices.
Who knows if the team at Google anticipated the potential negative sentiment generated by their new product. Did anyone expect that traffic cops and the FBI would have got themselves involved in promoting the product? Considering Police Departments across the world are talking Glass up, perhaps they just want to keep it for themselves? And how many tech fans are just going to have a pair at a price around US$500? Analysts suggest that there will be close to 20 million units in service by 2018 and if Google hit that target, Glass will definitely have been a success.
With the release just around the corner, the public will soon deliver its verdict on Glass. No doubt wearable devices do have a future, so it’s just a question of how long it takes society to adopt the new technology. What happens next is now out of our hands and right in front of our eyes.
For more on this topic, watch FiST Chat 155: Apple Experimenting With Payments?
Imagine our modern world without electricity. First thing that comes to mind is that it wouldn’t be very modern. Just about every piece of technology you own wouldn’t be possible. Social media would not be possible. We would still be reading newspapers and books, and using typewriters. Our nights would be spent around the gramma phone, in front of a roaring fire and we’d rely on gaslights to get around the deserted streets after dark.
If that’s not enough to unsettle you, imagine medicine without the discoveries that gave us anaesthesia, penicillin and antiseptics. Medical X-rays have only been possible for the last 100 years, but imagine a world without the non-invasive scans, tests and medicines we have today. A century ago life expectancy sat at around 30; today it’s heading towards 90 years of age in the developed world. If medicine keeps advancing at the same pace, it will hopefully have the answers to combat the scourges of aging; fragile bones and mental decline.
Can you imagine going back to an age where you could only eat local, seasonal produce because the storage and transport technologies didn’t exist to supply you certain foodstuffs all year around? And whether you liked it or not, average servings were only a half the size. What about a world without plastic or synthetic products? Where the machines that mass manufacture so much of what surrounds us right now just didn’t exist, and everything was still done by hand and the power of steam.
Life without the benefits of the applied sciences would be bleak indeed. Yet we often forget that the innovation and invention that comes with applied science is only possible due to the pure scientific knowledge that underpins it. If we didn’t understand the basic science behind the fundamental experiences ubiquitous to our lives; gravity, magnetism, atomic structure, evolution, thermodynamics and buoyancy, then none of the technology we see around us today would be possible.
This is why it’s essential to support endeavours in pure science, even when the wider community might not be able to see an outcome. In our increasingly corporatized world, returns on investment and business models are constantly pressed upon science. It is understandable that large amounts of money invested in the scientific endeavour should be returned in some way to the community, but the expectation of a quick return and redistribution of dollars is only part of the equation.
Woz and Jobs didn’t create Apple, they built it from the endeavours of scientists fascinated by the silicon chip. Their revolutionary application of the PC was only a handful of years after an engineer at IBM was reported to have seen a microchip working in a lab and ask, “…but what is it good for?” Perhaps he was still following the lead of Thomas Watson, president of IBM, who infamously said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” The point is the benefits of pure science are not always immediately clear. It is up to human ingenuity to harness the knowledge and create innovation.
Plenty of great technologies and business opportunities have come from missions with a pure science focus. Space exploration is sometimes maligned as not having relevance or being indulgent, but it has produced some very important spin offs that are common in our modern lives. Water filters, scratch resistant lenses, infrared thermometers and food technology are just some every day applications that come from the NASA space program.
A Google search will reveal many more examples of pure science being adopted into our everyday lives, some uses which don’t instantly come to mind. So it is worth reflecting on the impact electricity has had on humanity. Electro-magnetism wasn’t invented, it was discovered, lots of times and in lots of different circumstances. Of course there didn’t appear to be a clear or immediate use for this peculiar phenomenon. But nonetheless, scientists studied it for several centuries for no other purpose than to satisfy their curiosity and unravel another mystery of nature. They did not follow a business model and there was no imperative to create a return. The aim of these endeavours was simply to explore our universe and share that knowledge to build our civilisation. Without a desire to expand our understanding of the world around us, we couldn’t live the way we do today. It’s a fair bet then, if not for centuries of pure scientific exploration, tonight we’d all be going to bed as soon as the sun went down.
For more on this topic, watch FiST Chat 153: Pure Vs Applied Science.