Monthly Archives: March 2007

Killam lecture 2007

I just returned from Dalhousie University where I delivered the final lecture in the Killam Lecture series ( The trip was fraught with travel difficulties that make one wonder at the false confidence provided by technology. My return flight was cancelled when I arrived at the airport, fully 45 minutes (and a $55 taxi ride) after I had checked the web site which reported it as on schedule. The lack of any human representative at the United desk meant passengers were forced to call a helpline and wait over 60 minutes to get help – if you had no cell phone, who knows what you would do? That one hour turned into news that it would be 2 days and 4 flights before I could get home again, though it was only 65 minutes before I made my views on this particular socio-technical structure known to its designers in less than technical language. Just how hard can it be to leverage the interconnectedness of everyone to provide clear instructions on what is happening and how it will be resolved? Very hard, one imagines, but very much harder when the attitude of the airlines seems to be one of shoulder-shrugging indifference and the knee-jerk locking down of all spare seating capacity to control its allocation in the days ahead for maximum profit.

Travel woes aside, the Killam lecture was a marvellous event and allowed me to speak fairly directly about third force issues of design ethics, human and social values, and the need for new perspectives that transcend simple disciplinary divisions. The Q&A at the end took us even further into such territory and I was delighted to have the chance to hear so many voices raised in favor of us taking greater control over our information architecture.

Continuous partial attention syndrome

The Chicago Sun Times explored the idea that we are overwhelmed with data and cognitively suffering from multitasking in an interesting piece this week: And for once, the journalist actually reported what I said accurately. The angle taken seems to be that too much digital information use is in danger of dumbing us down and while that plays well as a story, the various people interviewed don’t actually offer much support for this. The real point is that humans are limited information processors (‘skinny pipes’ rather than broadband, as my colleague Randolph Bias likes to say) and multitasking can carry a cost.

Wikipedia antics

Seems an author for Wikipedia has been claiming academic credentials he never had: The question of credibility is hardly unique to digital authors but this news will confirm the suspicions of some who find Wikipedia just too questionable an entity to trust. Amid the media coverage of this topic it is easy to forget how much plagiarism and fakery exists in all written work, and it may just be that structure of Wikipedia enables it to more easily identify such errors. Certainly “Essjay” was exposed faster here than many incidences of scientific fakery uncovered over the years – just check out the life and times of Cyril Burt!

Connectile dysfunction

On a trip to DC this week I experienced the other side of our networked world when engine trouble forced me to re-route. First, the airline set up a special telephone number (apprarently in real-time) to handle the customers on our non-functioning airplane but the rush from all and sundry to connect seemed to tax the system (you have never seen so many people dig out phones simultaneously to dial the same number with the same problem). This resulted in a person I spoke to advising me to “hang up and speak to an agent at the gate!” Once that little problem was solved I decided to purchase wifi access for the duration of my stay in the airport. Easier said than done. T-Mobile proved so difficult to connect with that I gave up. At first it seemed mildly irritating that I had to go through so many form fields and so many variants of a possible password to spend my money but it soon became far worse when ‘for security reasons’ the screen wiped out my just-entered credit card details before I could complete registration process. Not once, twice. The design assumes that user name creation is a simple matter of typing six letters, and that delays caused by failing to use a unique name don’t occur. Deviate from this and your time is up and you have to start again. Cue to quit T-Mobile and try Wayport. I succeeded with them (far easier process of account creation) but my account was good only until I left that airport. Once I landed in Houston (a mere 25 minutes later) I not only had no further coverage but Bush International Airport only offers coverage through Sprint. What a litany: telephone hotlines unable to deliver the service for which they they are created; three different wireless companies, no easy joining or extended coverage; 20 minutes of ‘registration’ to have 30 minutes of email. And THIS is the networked society?