Tech That Connects Usand Makes Us Better Humans
Much of what we hear about technology these days is a grim, dystopian recitation of what tech is doing to us: We have become addicted to our screens; our every move is being watched, overheard, recorded, predicted; and malign forces are manipulating us to believe that down is up. And we should be deeply concerned about all that. But it’s also important to take stock of what tech is doing for us—how we, as human beings, have seen our agency expanded and deepened by digital tools.
Technology is a medium; sometimes it’s a humanizing, enchanting one. “Something about the interior life of a computer remains infinitely interesting to me; it’s not romantic, but it is a romance,” writes Paul Ford in his WIRED essay “Why I (Still) Love Tech.” “You flip a bunch of microscopic switches really fast and culture pours out.” To accompany Ford’s essay, we reached out to a bunch of people to ask them about the technology they love—the tools that make them better at being human. Here’s what we heard back.
Jerome Hardaway, Geek-at-Arms, Vets Who Code
As told to Gregory Barber
Shudder Streaming Service
Meredith Graves, Director of Music, Kickstarter
I have a lifelong obsession with the dark and creepy. As a little kid, I liked weird, scrompy music and unpleasant sounds. I was also obsessed with literary horror—the Goosebumps series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. In third grade, I read Stephen King’s Rose Madder, which involves domestic violence and is totally not an appropriate book for that age. It was my first woman-turns-on-all-of-y’all horror novel.
Later on I got into horror movies and all the adjacent genres. I’d rummage through the dollar bins at the Salvation Army, trying to find that ultra-obscure early-’80s Italian movie that some people claimed was actually a real murder. Then, a few years ago, Shudder came about. It’s very punk how they do things. The people behind it are appealing to a community that enjoys archival stuff, that worships the low-budget and the DIY. They have an open comments section, and they use that to figure out what movies to get next. This is by us, for us, 150 percent.
Every time they put things on the site, it feels like a friend saying, “Hey, guys! I spent all last Saturday doing bong hits and finding weird horror movies on YouTube. Let me show you.” But it’s not niche, and the original content they put out offers a diversity of voices. They have a podcast that’s all about women in horror, hosted by a woman in horror. And they just released Horror Noire, the first comprehensive documentary about the history of black horror in America.
I’m an early riser. I can watch two movies on Shudder before work. When I see the notification that I’ve paid my subscription, I’m like, “Shit, yeah. That rules.”
As told to Anthony Lydgate
Colonel Enrique Oti, Director, Project Kessel Run, US Air Force
The U.S. military spends billions on IT, and I’m one of the people in charge of getting new software built and deployed. But I doubt I’ll ever build something people love as much as their free chat apps.
mIRC, our weapon of choice, is free and open source—a type of Internet Relay Chat. We started using it almost 20 years ago, and it spread organically. Now it’s at the center of how we manage just about everything, from coordinating rescue missions and strikes to monitoring the ebb and flow of combat. The technology is so ubiquitous and simple, you can almost forget its importance—until a chat server goes down. For IT, that’s a five-alarm fire.
In combat ops, it’s common to see officers with 30 chat windows open. Some will swivel their chairs between computer systems, chatting across multiple security levels with coalition partners. They’re running the wars, chat line by chat line. Lives depend on keeping information flowing, not stuck in silos. Chat is our backbone.
Outside of combat, chat apps are flattening the military’s strict hierarchy. On my software team we’ve started using more modern tools than mIRC to converse, like Slack and Mattermost. Yes, we all appreciate having #Random to blow off steam with weird news articles and programmer memes. But the main benefit is collaboration and being able to engage a generation of recruits raised on Twitter and Snapchat. Today, one of my newest airmen can ask a question in a Slack channel and see a response from a colonel in minutes. For both of us, that’s empowering. (To be clear, these are my personal views, not the official policy or position of the Air Force, DOD, or the US government.)
As told to Gregory Barber
Concordia Open Source Software
Kate Zwaard, Director of Digital Strategy, Library of Congress
Nothing tells people they belong to an institution like asking them to help out, so at the Library of Congress we built an open source software package called Concordia that allows crowdsourced transcribing. Then we set up By the People—a site that invites people to transcribe handwritten and original documents.
Transcription really called to us because it is how you get people deeply into the library’s collection. They are reading images of primary source material. They’re reading Clara Barton’s diaries, Mary Church Terrell’s papers. They’re reflecting on history.
Anybody can volunteer; one person transcribes and another person validates that transcription. The site went up in October, and 4,200 people have set up accounts. So far 43,040 images have been transcribed and more than 11,000 validated.
People sometimes ask for help, and history Twitter will jump in. There was a professor using our Letters to Lincoln collection in a class and had a hard time figuring out one of the words in a letter from a Republican club; 51 people in a social media thread worked to decipher the word pervades. Then the product of that is so exciting. We have a searchable database of text.
I do it a lot myself. Branch Rickey’s papers are just awesome. He is most famous for bringing Jackie Robinson into Major League Baseball, and through crowdsourcing we were able to transcribe 1,926 pages of his scouting reports on prospective players. I would never have guessed how fun baseball scouting reports could be! One of my favorite lines is “I doubt if he has any adventure in his soul.”
As told to Vera Titunik
Signia 7Nx Hearing Aids
Dan Kohn, Executive Director, Cloud Native Computing Foundation
I was diagnosed with mild to moderate hearing loss about 12 years ago, which is unusual for someone who was in their early thirties and had no clear cause. I had just gotten married, and I was missing some things that my wife was saying. Her voice was at the higher frequencies, where I have the most trouble. I started wearing a hearing aid a few years after that.
I run an organization that puts on the largest open source developer conference in the world. We believe in these conferences because developers are so much more productive and successful when they interact in person. But the events were always difficult for me: In addition to having trouble hearing higher frequencies, I also struggle when there’s background noise.
Just over a year ago, I switched to Signia Pure Charge&Go 7Nx hearing aids. I jokingly describe them as my bionic implants. They’re Bluetooth-enabled, and they can do what’s called beam-forming: From my phone, I can direct them to focus in on the sound coming from my right, say, or just in front of me, and reduce noise coming from elsewhere. Another magical thing about them is my phone can ring and I’m the only one who hears it.
In Copenhagen last year, I attended a conference for the first time with the Signias. I remember speaking with a senior developer from Microsoft, and it really felt different to be in that noisy environment and not have to focus on making out her words, but instead just try to connect with a human being.
As told to Brian Barrett
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