That Inequality Thing

This is an open question to my friends and colleagues who have more experience in economics than I do.

I’m trying to understand the factors behind accelerating economic inequality. I have no formal training in economics, so my understanding is naive, I’ll admit. So please bear with me.

I get the argument that the problem could lie in the difference in growth between wages and capital (Piketty, right?). That is, that capital is growing faster than wages, so people who have capital are getting richer faster than people who don’t, and therefore subsist on wages. I have read some counter-arguments, but so far they’re all neoliberal trickle-down arguments, and we’ve seen the effects of that since the 1980’s and before, so I’m gonna go with this line of reasoning until someone shows me a better counter-argument.

I get the proposal that raising wages puts more money in employees’ pockets and makes them better consumers (Henry Ford, right?). Furthermore, I understand what theoretically happens when you combine these ideas. Any raise in wages (“growth” in wages) that’s politically feasible in the US would likely still be smaller than the current growth in capital. So you might slightly slow the inequality gap, but in the long run, you’re just delaying the problem. A wage raise would be a temporary injection of cash into employees’ pockets, making them happy for awhile. But unless you get them to use that extra cash to invest in capital, you don’t really make a difference, right?

I think I understand the carrot/stick approach that governments can use to tweak things: roughly, the carrot is lowering taxes or adjusting interest rates, and the stick is increasing them or applying stricter regulation. A higher minimum wage is a carrot to wage earners, but a stick to capital owners. Tax incentives to start a business are a carrot to investors, and more palatable because trickle-down adherents argue that new businesses mean new jobs. Which means more wages.

What I don’t understand is this: what are the incentives — the carrots — to redistributing capital, as opposed to creating jobs? What are the ways a government uses to make the people who have capital want to redistribute it?

Sure, there are sticks you can use to redistribute capital, like capital gains taxes. But you can’t influence an economy with sticks alone. And sure, you can incentivize the flow of capital by devaluing your currency, but that seems like bad monetary policy because in the long run, you’re moving your capital offshore, not redistributing it to your own citizens. That’s a stick to both wage earners and to domestic investors. And lowering interest rates appears to be moving capital from one rich guy to another, but that’s not the kind of redistribution I was thinking of.

For example, are there any business tax incentives specifically for creating employee-owned businesses? Or incentives for established businesses to create employee profit-sharing programs? Maybe instead of saying “no corporate taxes for a year!” a government could say “no corporate taxes in perpetuity as long as XX% of your business is owned by employees!” Are there small business loans that specifically incentivize employee ownership? Maybe more generous repayment schedules if YY% of the company is in employees’ hands?

That would probably lead to the need for some corporate training in how to be an effective investor, but surely there are some success stories out there in employee-owned business-land, right? It seems like a population that’s smarter about investing is going to lead to a better economy. It also seems that a company where employees care about the health of the company are going to work harder in its favor.

Are there any carrots for raising wages? Setting a minimum wage is a stick, I get that. And shifting your taxes off to employees by making them all contractors seems like a common fix that many companies do, artificially raising wages in response. Companies pay a higher hourly, but pay the person as a contractor not a contractor, so that social security and insurance are externalized, and placed on the wage earner, not the company. The gross wage may look great, but the net wage is often actually lower than what it would be as an employee (e.g. Uber et al). What are the incentives to a company to hire and support employees rather than contractors? Is there a tax break on social security, for example, if you’re paying it for ten people rather than one? Or 100? 1000? I don’t buy the “every contractor is an entrepreneur” line that on-demand economy companies often use, because every contractor lacks what the companies have: access to capital.

So there’s my question for the day: how do we currently provide incentives, rather than compulsions, to redistribute capital? And what ways could we be doing it that we’re not currently doing?

If you’ve got suggestions for further reading, please email me. I’d like to hear how we can effect some change in this area.


Posted in economics, equity | Leave a comment

Modularity, Openness, and Glass-Box Enclosure

Though I wasn’t able to attend this year’s Solid conference, I received messages from a number of colleagues there about one talk in particular, Kevin Czinger’s talk on Dematerializing Auto Manufacture. In that talk, Kevin compares the work he’s done at Divergent Microfactories with Arduino, referring to their system at one point as “Carduino.”

The talk is worth watching. In it, Czinger discusses the life cycle analysis of car manufacturing, and points out that the greenhouse gas emissions of electric vehicles over the course of their manufacture, use, and disposal is actually higher than the emissions for traditional internal combustion engine cars (I’m paraphrasing here; check his talk for the facts). He mentions that in the next 35 years, the world will likely produce four billion more cars, and that if we do not make significant changes now, the impact of that on the environment will be devastating.

He then goes on to talk about the work Divergent has done to develop a modular chassis system to reduce significantly the environmental impact of manufacture, if not use, of the electric vehicles they will produce. Discussing the modular system, he refers to it as “carduino” because it “hides the complexity and is simple to use.”

There are a number of points on which I agree with Kevin. I applaud Divergent’s work on life cycle analysis of their product, and I think the node system is very clever. I was struck by his forecast that we’ll see 6 billion cars in the next 35 years.  Is that inevitable, I wonder, or is that also a possible point of intervention?  Rather than accepting it, could we look for ways of changing the transportation industry itself?  But that is a moot point, since Divergent has decided to manufacture cars. For them, 6 billion cars is an inevitability.

I’m flattered by the comparison to Arduino, but I think Kevin is missing a key element of what I consider to be Arduino’s philosophy. It’s not just about simplicity and modularity, but also transparency. Though he mentions that they set out to build a modular system to simplify the design of cars, he doesn’t mention who will have access to that modular system. Nowhere in his speech does he mention sharing the knowledge of how they build their cars beyond Divergent, though he does invite listeners to join them.

I don’t think Arduino’s impact came only  from the fact that we made things modular and hid the complexity. Those are important features, sure, but we weren’t the only ones do to that, nor the first.  I think that sharing the plans for Arduino openly and producing plenty of examples early on had as much to do with its impact as the modularity and simplicity.

From the beginning of Arduino, numerous collaborators and critics have tinkered with, complained about, praised and improved upon the system. They just worked not just with the API, but also on the code behind that API (which has its origins in Programma 2003, Wiring, and Pascal Stang’s avrlib, among others), and on the circuit design and on the code and design of the IDE (which was built upon the foundations of the Processing IDE, of course). They are some of our most enthusiastic supporters and also our harshest critics.

We’ve also seen lots of people take their second step in learning about microcontrollers by diving into the details of that underlying code and customizing it. This is what I call “glass box enclosure” as opposed to “black box enclosure” — the box is still nicely packaged, but the complexity is not hidden, it’s just wrapped up so you can ignore the details when you want to. You can look inside the package if you want, and learn from it.

In taking this approach, we’re participating in a strong intellectual heritage, both of the open source movement starting with Richard Stallman and of the informal sharing of knowledge that often happens as colleagues move from one learning institution to another.

“Democratization” of a technology means that you allow others to get their hands on it and to participate in its development. It’s a messy process, and you open yourself up to lots of criticism in the process. You  also enable your competitors. Many would say it’s not good business sense. But if you’re lucky, your community and your competitors recognize that competition can be fair, that it can be collaborative, and that it can serve a greater good. No one person or one company can have all the good ideas for an industry. There are derivatives of Arduino which we do not make, but which are important and positive contributions to the ecosystem of which we are a part.  That’s what I think of when I think about democratization of a technology. 

I’m wholeheartedly in favor of companies who want to do this, and I’m hopeful that Divergent will democratize their industry. I think the ideals Kevin expressed in his talk about environmental consideration and systems thinking are great. Those ideals will spread if Divergent enable more people to practice them. They will create some fierce competition as well. Although Kevin didn’t explicitly say that Divergent’s system was open in his talk, he also didn’t say anything that precludes it, so I’m hopeful. I look forward to more concrete statements from Divergent in the near future. The publication of the plans for their modular system would be a great next step, so that everyone can democratize the car industry.

Knowledge sharing doesn’t have to take just one approach, however. Just as I’m hopeful that Divergent will make an open platform to support a thousand small car companies (similar to Local Motors, perhaps?) I’m equally enthusiastic about Tesla’s announcements about their patents. Although I’m an advocate and practitioner of open source hardware, I recognize that it’s got its limitations, particularly for larger scale enterprises. Tesla’s approach is an interesting back door to openness. Since patent filings are accessible through a country’s patent office, the method and system behind any patent can be obtained by anyone who wants it. By stating that they will not enforce licensing of their patents, Tesla’s saying “We explained how we did it in our patent filing, go read it and give it a go yourself. We won’t stop you.” Duplicating or building on that is not as simple as downloading an open schematic or source code, but it’s a step toward a more open culture in big enterprise.

To address the kinds of systemic problems Kevin Czinger referred to in his talk will take more than one company, one industry, or one nation. It will require lots of interlinked efforts and intensive interoperability of the things we invent. This can’t be done if each company’s bottom line is the only consideration. Cooperation is risky, but I believe it’s our most promising way forward.

Posted in environment, open innovation | 1 Comment

Physical Responses of Dials

Here’s a really nice video of one of the more memorable (for me) presentations at TEI15. The paper/demo was “Comparing Pictorial and Tangible Notations of Force Image Schemas”, by Jörn Hurtienne (Julius-Maximilians-Universität), Diana Löffler (Julius-Maximilians-Universität), Patty Gadegast (Hochschule Magdeburg-Stendal), and Steffi Hußlein (Hochschule Magdeburg-Stendal).

In the paper/demo, they showed various models for the behavior of a knob to indicate something about the property it was controlling. For example, a knob might resist turning past a particular range, might be attracted to default values or repelled by impossible values, and so forth. The video (see below) shows a series of knobs they built to demonstrate all of these different behaviors. It’s one thing to see them, and another to feel them, of course. But I felt it was a very clear demonstration of how simple controls could be given behaviors that reflect more complex states.  Watch the video and enjoy.

Thanks to Diana Löffler for sending me the video link.

Here’s the paper, linked from Diana’s page. Here’s the ACM archive link too.

Comparing FIS-Dials: a Demo at TEI 2015 from Interaction Design Group on Vimeo.

Posted in interaction design, misc, physical computing, research | Leave a comment

Ada Day 2014

Happy Ada Lovelace Day. It’s one of my favorite celebrations of the year, a day to celebrate the contribution of women in science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s a good day to say thanks to the many women who’ve guided and inspired us in these areas. Granted, every day is a good day to do that, but nevertheless, here is Ada Day.

Deborah Estrin is one of my heroes in this area. She currently  is a professor of computer science at Cornell’s New York City campus, and co-founder of Open mHealth, a not-for-profit foundation focused on applications of mobile and networked computing for better health management. I first met Deborah when she was at UCLA, where she was the founding director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, which focused on using wireless sensing systems to collect and analyze data about the physical world and the activities of people therein.

Deborah’s CV speaks to her brilliance and her achievements,  but what impresses me most is her way with her collaborators. She has an ability to simultaneously listen deeply to details, yet see the larger context of any idea immediately. She’s very fast and direct in her responses, challenging without being adversarial. She does not accept lazy thinking from her collaborators, yet she never makes anyone feel stupid. And she has a  sense of humor about her work that reminds you that in the end, if you’re not making people’s lives better, you might as well do something else.  She’s an example of what scientific leaders should be. I’ve learned a lot from my interactions with her, both about research and about teaching.  Thanks, Deborah.

(and if you want to see her in action, here’s a TEDMed talk she gave on mHealth).

Posted in networks, open innovation, research | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What My Browser Looks Like After Sketching in Hardware 2014

The Sketching in Hardware 2014 conference just ended, and before I leave Berlin, I want to get some notes down from the conference. Most of my notes consist of stuff I saved in browser tabs from people’s talks. This is not a comprehensive set of notes, just the links from the talks in which I caught a reference and opened the link for later browsing.

This year’s theme was “Borders and Crossings” but it might as well have been “Internet of Things” for the number of times it was mentioned.

Meshblu, formerly A cloud hub for devices. “Meshblu allows you to query devices such as drones, Hue light bulbs, Belkin wemos, Arduinos, and server nodes that meet your criteria and send IM messages to one or all devices.” I’ve seen a lot of these, and I suspect we will see several disappear in time. What happens to the data they hold when they go bust is something I wonder about.

Adrian McEwen wasn’t there, but he tweeted in for a bit, and left this post from his talk at the Italian Internet of Things day. It contains a few examples of IoT applications.

Jordan Husney mentioned Trello as a tool for managing a team, particularly when the team is spread out geographically.

Stefan Brunner showed some really nice interactive musical pieces for public spaces, and mentioned a really uncomfortable 11-minute sound piece composed from the sounds of boxers (the athletes, not the undershorts) hitting each other.

Claire Rowland gave a really good talk on the user experience of the consumer internet of things, and hit on many points that I’ve been thinking about a lot myself, regarding responsiveness, making it clear to customers where things happen, and much more. Here’s another talk she gave on the same topic. She’s working on a book on the subject for O’Reilly which I imagine will be a good read.

James Tichenor and Josh Walton did a really good talk as usual, and the piece I took away from it to think about later has to do with sensor abstraction. This is a problem many folks have mentioned, but no one’s solved really well yet. What James and Josh made me realize is that there’s another way to think about sensor abstraction, and maybe I’ll post some more on that later.

Tod Kurt gave a talk on Bluetooth Low Energy, which is why I’ve got a tab open to a brief intro to Bluetooth LE that Alasdair Allan, Sandeep Mistry, Don Coleman, and I took a few months ago.

Kipp Bradford mentioned his Solid conference talk for more information on his presentation dealing with mechanisms of economic change. The twems Kipp threw into the mix that buzzed around the most were Mean Time To Blink, or how long it takes you to get the basic application running on an embedded platform, and Mean Time To Abandonment which is how long it takes you to abandon the platform when you can’t do anything more than Blink.

Steve Hodges gave a talk on prototyping small devices with conductive ink and a pick & place machine, and passed around a tiny, tiny Cortex M0, which reminded me of Prabal Dutta’s talk on mm-scale devices at the Microsoft Faculty Research Summit a couple weeks ago.

Eric Schweikardt introduced us to FARKUS, his open source factory automation system that he and his team are building at Modular Robotics.

Phil Van Allen’s NETLab Toolkit has come a long way, and is looking really nice these days as a way to program connected microcontroller devices graphically. Now in HTML5! Phil also shared a link on his thoughts on Animism in Interaction Design.

Andy Carle introduced us to Kinoma, a JavaScript framework for embedded devices from Marvell. I’m eager to compare its performance to Tessel and Espruino.

Travis Lee and Evan Shapiro from IDEO introduced, another framework for connecting things. This one’s graphical, and features useful tools for debugging your network of connected devices.

Julian Bleecker gave a good talk on speculative futures and design fictions, and mentioned the TBD catalog that he’s about to release. For those interested in speculative fiction based on current tech and societal trends, you might also want to check out Adrian Hon’s A History of the Future in 100 Objects.

Justin Bakse told us about how he likes OpenSCAD because he can create 3D objects with code, and told us about a project he’s been working on, Comb Script, which he describes as “the best possible tool for creating a comb”. It’s “a language for describing technical vector designs and a tool that exports these designs as SVG files.” As it develops, it should be a useful tool for laser cutting. There’s a gitHub repo if you want to contribute. He (or someone in the twitter backchannel, I forget which) also mentioned Toby Schachtman’s ITP thesis, Recursive Drawing.

In the swag bag, we all got Blink(1)s, and many of us got Electric Imps and breakout boards as well.

Finally, here is Tod Kurt’s archive of the tweets with the hashtag #sketching14

There were a lot of other good talks, but I didn’t end up with links from them, so I hope others from Sketching 2014 will post their own notes as well.

Thanks to Mike Kuniavsky for making Sketching happen all these years. It’s a really great conference, and Mike does it as a labor of love. He’s never really made any money from it, but it’s been a real catalyst for those of us who make tools for designers and others to develop new interactive devices.

Posted in interaction design, networks, open innovation, physical computing | Leave a comment

Notes on CES 2014

Last week I went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, mostly to see interesting connected devices. What follows is a summary of some of the highlights, for me.

If you’re in the motion tracker business, you’re in trouble. There were several dozen of your competitors on display. In fact, many of the trackers appeared to be little more than a light wrapper of user experience design and industrial design around existing accelerometers, gyrometers, and other motion sensors. The silicon vendors making the sensors themselves, like InvenSense, showed a wide array of sensors that have the motion detection algorithms built right into the sensor.

If you’re a Bluetooth Low Energy expert, you’re in high demand. a large number of the devices on display connected to other devices using Bluetooth LE.  There were some WiFi-connected devices as well, of course. Other than Samsung and LG, I saw very few manufacturers using NFC to connect devices, however.

Continue reading

Posted in interaction design, networks | Tagged | 2 Comments

Ada Lovelace Day 2013: Thanks for the HTML (and great conversations)

Ada Lovelace Day is an annual celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, and a good time to say thanks. There are two women whom I’ve never properly thanked for what they taught me: Cynsa Bonorris and Laura LeMay.

I originally met Cynsa and Laura online through the WeLL‘s genx conference. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if I’ve ever met them in person more than once. But through discussions there, they both got me interested in and excited about this new thing called HTML back in 1993 or ’94. Cynsa spent several hours online with me one evening explaining how it worked, using one of her own pages as an example. I probably wouldn’t have gotten so interested in web development were it not for that conversation. Laura’s technical writing helped me to take that interest and go further with it. Her book Teach Yourself HTML in a Week helped me to understand it in more depth, and later on when I got introduced to Java, Teach Yourself Java in 21 Days was my bible. I probably wouldn’t understand classes if it weren’t for Laura’s work.

So Cynsa, Laura: thank you both. I hope you’re continuing to help other folks get interested in and empowered by technology.

Posted in books, misc | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Goodbye, Red, and Thank You

Red Burns changed my life.”

Those words are popping up frequently on Twitter, Facebook, and all over the web today. Red passed away yesterday, leaving a great big hole in the hearts of those of us who were lucky enough to learn from her.

Red didn’t mince words. She knew how to make you see what you needed to see in yourself. We sometimes called her the Great Equalizer, because if you were feeling down, she’d be your greatest champion, and if you were high on your own success, she’d cut you down to earth fast. Mostly what she did well was to make you believe in yourself, and to convince you that you not only could change your world, but that you had a responsibility to do so. For her, I think the technology focus of ITP was just a vehicle to get her students to see their own strengths, and to realize what they care about in the larger world.

Red gave me a professional home along with a wonderful group of colleagues and helped me to realize my abilities and my values. Hopefully all of us who learned from her can carry on this legacy, and help others realize the same. Everything else we do is just wires and blinky lights.

Thanks, Red.

Posted in misc | Leave a comment

In defense of open source innovation and polite disagreement

First off: congratulations to the MakerBot team on Replicator 2, and on the store. It looks like a good product, from first impressions. It’s a lot of hard work getting a product out, and more opening a store. The team who did this deserve praise.

I’ve been seeing a lot of inflammatory language in my news feeds the past couple days about the Replicator 2, specifically whether or not it’s open source. I haven’t got enough information to say, but I think well of Bre and Adam and the MakerBot team. I believe their ideals regarding open source software and hardware are more or less in line with my own, and I trust that they’ll do their best to meet those ideals.

What concerns me is the inflammatory language many have used to criticize MakerBot.  A lot of fundamentalist, angry language is being thrown around; language similar to that we usually hear from people who blow things up, or who buy elections. I don’t think this kind of language is necessary. I have an aversion to fundamentalism of any sort, even when it’s in support of my own ideals.  It leads to bad things.

MakerBot is one of many companies working to establish source principles in mainstream corporate culture. Doing that means a lot of compromise. There will be steps forward in the direction of openness, and there will be steps back.  There are a lot of people in the corporate world who need to be convinced that open source is a good thing. We won’t change their minds with overthrow. We will change their minds by competing fairly on their playing field, sometimes by their rules, and offering better products and services. We won’t always meet our ideals with every product or service.

Chris Anderson’s new book refers to what’s happening as “The New Industrial Revolution”. I hope he’s wrong. Revolutions tend to be bloody, vicious things, leaving many scars. I hope it’s the new industrial evolution. That means slower change, but it’s change that benefits everyone and hurts as few as possible.

We are all compromisers. Did you tweet vicious language about MakerBot from your iPhone or iPad? Are you reading this on a Dell, a Sony, an HP laptop, a Blackberry phone?  Then you bought a closed source product.  What kind of a fundamentalist are you?  I know I’m a terrible one, because, as much as I disagree with Apple’s corporate strategy, you can have my MacBook Air when you pry it from — strike that. You can have it when the newer, shinier one comes out. When that happens, I’ll be even happier if Apple takes a step in the direction of openness.  Probably won’t happen, but, like the dog that goes happily to the front door when the doorbell rings even though it’s never for him, I am an idealist.

One dynamic that happens in a lot of idealist communities: we praise our opponents who make even a small step in our direction, but we attack our own mercilessly when they make even a small step away from us.  It’s counter-productive.

I don’t know what MakerBot will do regarding the Replicator 2’s licenses and source material, but if they do something I disagree with, I will talk to them in the same tone that I’d expect them to address me in if I did something they disagreed with. I won’t call them names.

So: if you’ve got an objection to what MakerBot or anyone in your own community does, speak up. But do it politely. Before you say anything, phrase it as if you had the person you’re addressing in front of you. Check the language with your grandmother, if you need to.  If she tells you you’re being impolite, listen to her. She’s probably right.  She changed your diaper once, you know. She knows when your poo stinks.


This post is dedicated to Grandma Farley, who probably would have told me that I “don’t have enough sense to pound sand into a rathole.” I still don’t know what that means.

Posted in open innovation | 5 Comments

Making Interactive Art: Set the Stage, Then Shut Up and Listen

 Don’t interpret your own work. 

Quite often I see artists who venture into interactive art start by making interactive artworks and offering interpretation in the notes beside them.  They’ll describe the work, then tell you what each element means,and what the participant will do with those elements.  They pre-script what will happen. When you do that, you’re telling the participant what to think, and by extension, how to act. Is that what you wanted?

It’s a hard shift for some artists to think about making interactive work because we’re taught that a work of art is a work of expression. It’s a statement.  Interactive work is different. The thing you build, whether it’s a device or a whole environment, is just the beginning of a conversation with the people who experience your work. What you’re making is an instrument or an environment (or both) in which or with which you want your audience to take action. Ideally they will understand what you’re expressing through that experience.

Your task in designing an interactive artwork is to give your audience the basic context, then get out of their way. Arrange the space, put in the items through they can take action, suggest a sequence of events through juxtaposition. If you want them to handle something, give it a handle. If they’re not supposed to touch something, don;t make it approachable. If they’re supposed to discover something hidden, give hints. Remove anything extraneous.

Once you’ve made your initial statement by building the thing or the environment and designing its behaviors, shut up. Let the audience listen to your work by taking it in through their senses.  Let them think about what each part means, which parts afford contact or control, and which parts don’t.  Let them decide how they will interpret the parts, and how they will respond.  Let them speak through their actions.

The next part of the conversation is to listen. Listen to what they say through their actions, through how they understand, or misunderstand, how to manipulate the parts that you designed to respond to them. Pay attention to their reactions. Some will be emotionally moved, some will not get it, others won’t care. Some will get excited and show others what they learned.  How people interact with your work will change over the course of its presentation. If you’re making interactive artwork, that is the conversation you’re having with the people for whom you make your work.

For me, planning interactive artwork is similar to a director working with actors.  (caveat: I haven’t directed anyone since class in undergrad.  I have worked on several stage productions, but this is years of observation speaking, not firsthand experience) If you want an actor to offer an authentic emotional performance, you can’t tell him what to think or what to do. You can suggest intentions, but you can’t give him interpretations. You can give him props to work with, or place them in the way so he’ll discover them. You can suggest actions, but you can’t tell him how to feel about those actions; he will have to find it for himself. He’ll discover the statement you’re looking to make through that conversation you have in rehearsal, and the resulting expression will be your collaborative effort.

So if you’re thinking of an interactive artwork, don’t think of it like a finished painting or sculpture.  Think of it more as a performance. Your audience completes the work through what they do when they see what you’ve made.  Figure out how to suggest to them what their course of action could be, and how they might uncover their story, and their own emotional interpretation of the work.


Posted in art & performance, interaction design, physical computing | 12 Comments