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Some random thoughts on sociotechnology

Did you know that it was not Gutenberg who invented moveable type – known as 'printing' to most of us? Actually, it was the Chinese who first thought of it in 1040 CE using wood and later ceramic, and the Koreans improved it in 1324 by using metal type; Gutenberg developed it later, "around 1450" (thanks Wikipedia, oh fount of all knowledge).

Interestingly, with regards to sociotechnological analyses, although a Korean king developed a phonetic alphabet of 24 characters which would have made printing a lot easier (otherwise they had to use thousands of Chinese characters. But, "Adoption of the new alphabet was stifled by the inertia of Korea's cultural elite, who were '...appalled at the idea of losing Chinese, the badge of their elitism.'"; in addition, there was also a "Confucian prohibition on the commercialization of printing" which restricted the use of printing to the state.

These examples highlight the ways in which technologies never automatically drive social change, but interact with existing social practices and come up against entrenched social hierarchies and so on.

On a vaguely related other random thought, these news stories seem to be examples of what Adam Greenfield meant when talking about a shift from "wayfinding to wayshowing" (the first story is the most amusing)
Swedes miss Capri after GPS gaffe
Sat-nav dead end at crematorium
Sat nav misdirects football fans

As we are increasingly given means to guide us around geographical space – GPS for the moment mostly, the example he gave (in a talk at QUT) of apps that can guide you to the right exit in Tokyo subways, and in future one can imagine devices to lead you around malls to a shop, guided tours for tourists, etc. – he argues that our awareness of the environment may change. Instead of finding our way ('wayfinding'), by picking out landmarks and spotting random things on the way, we are more likely to move around by staring at our 'steering device' - being shown the way ('wayshowing'). It's an interesting point, and reminds me of something my sister brought up recently – how when travelling using a GPS you don't read a map anymore, and thus find out less about the landscape you're moving through.

Authenticity and self-interest

Some thoughts after reading this: Quiggin, J. & Potts, J., 2008. Economics of non-market innovation and digital literacy. Media International Australia, (128), 144-50.

The article is a debate about the significance of the non-market productive interactions - with Open Source as the main example.

Quiggin argues that the non-monetary sector will begin to direct the monetary sector, reversing previous pattern of monetisation of non-commercial practices etc. Potts argues that the sectors always interact, and non-market innovations lead into the market.

Quiggin sees a shift back to household production: "innovation is coming from the collective contributions of individuals and households driven by a range of non-economic motives." (146); he also pronounces on forms of rationality - "It is difficult to be both a profit maximiser and a charity. They are indeed competing versions of rationality." (147)

Later Potts kicks in with: "altruistic or otherwise community-minded behaviours are entirely consistent with individual rationality once we account for the existence of the implicit other (mostly future) markets in which the agent perceives themselves to be potentially engaged." (147)

--> Are they arguing about whether or not it's rational to do something altruistically? I'm not sure... but it's a different argument to the one about whether or not the monetary and non-monetary markets are linked. Potts argument ultimately depends on speculating about the motives of the actors, and implying that - whatever they say - the actors are rational and self-interested.

Potts later makes a good point: "it is not the case that there is a domain of markets and market activity on one side, and a domain of non-market activity on the other, but rather an ever-shifting process where behaviours in markets fnd non-market contexts, and this in turn creates new market contexts, and so on." (149)

--> But this does not relate directly to the intentions or motivations of the actor. Motivation is often relative to the beholder, and frequently a post-hoc rationalisation. The assumption of intrinsic self-directed and self-aware action is fundamental to the construction of the authentic self. In contrast to the modernist self-interested rational individual, this authentic self can be marked out symbolically by her ability to deny self-interestedness; the lack of agency implicit in the rational self-interested argument is in opposition to the post-modern paradoxical search for authenticity.

Brisbane, Internet studies, malls

I’m feeling a bit lost without my camera, which is interesting as it says something about how important pictures have become for my blogging. For most of my posts, the process is like this: I load pictures (of a blogmeet, a place I’ve been, food I’ve eaten...) onto my computer, delete the ones that are no good, then do a simultaneous process of choosing which ones to use for a blog post and how I will tie them together with words... So now, without pictures, I have change my way of writing posts.

Anyway, I’m still very busy so I’ll just do little stream-of-consciousness thing :-)

I’m in Brisbane right now - attending the OII Summer Doctoral Programme, hosted by the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology (QUT): basically, 30 PhD students from various disciplines who study the internet have been brought together, we are given seminars by luminaries from Internet Studies and explain our PhDs to each other. In other words, it’s perfect for me and I am thanking my lucky stars (maybe the Southern Cross? :-P) for being here. It’s tiring, but good.

Talking about lucky stars, the reason I don’t have a camera is that WW’s car was broken into and her bag stolen; and then I was loaned a camera to come here, but the card decided to die on me...

Brisbane is very nice! The public transport is great (the buses have their own roads!), people are friendly and helpful (though the Australians tend to mumble/swallow their words a bit - which I find difficult to follow), food is good, and you can even get a decent curry laksa! Another thing that struck me is that there are many local public libraries, and there was even one in a mall that I went to yesterday. Now that strikes me as a useful function for a mall! There was also a Post Office in the mall. I don’t think that happens in Malaysia: I think that every mall should be required to fund some public services too - they could have a post office, a health clinic, a police station (may be more complicated), a library, a children’s crèche, an arts centre... Not all of these necessarily, but at least a couple. When you think of it - all that money is spent on malls and for what? So people can spend money and give profits to (mostly) big shop owners and property developers. Not to say there isn’t a social benefit in that too, but malls have become such an important focus of life that is almost completely dedicated to one narrow realm of our social life - the buying of material goods.

I’m here for one more week and will try to update more frequently.

Are humans selfish?

People often disagree with me when I say that most humans want to help others, and will help others, and it ends up being a debate about whether people are basically selfish or not.

There’s a difference between being selfish and self-interested: selfish means – for example – not helping another person when there is little or no cost for you (e.g. not giving one ringgit to someone who clearly needs it, and you can easily spare it); self-interested means not sacrificing yourself – it is not selfish to refuse to give your car to someone, when you need it to get to work and support yourself, for example.

One of the reasons I decided that most people are not selfish is that I used to travel quite a lot, and I used to hitchhike often too. I travelled thousands of kilometres in strangers’ cars, and often they would go out of their way to drop me somewhere convenient for me. In all the places I travelled to, I have always been able to count on someone helping me out if I’m lost, or for some other reason.

OK – you may say that it was only a minority that helped me, and that’s true. But think of this – if everyone was really so selfish, how would societies work at all? We all cooperate willingly with other people every day, and think nothing of it. The idea that if there were nobody to force us to cooperate, under pain of punishment, we would turn around and become crazy beasts just flies in the face of all evidence. Wherever people group together, the first thing they will do is try to find some common means of communication and common standards to operate on. The problem, in my opinion, is that so many people are trained to expect others to make decisions for them, so when they are faced with a situation where there are no clear and obvious rules, they turn to someone to lead them – depending on that individual leader, they may or may not end up acting in violent and unsocial ways.

Anyway, all of this is because I was pointed to this interesting experiment - tweenbots. It sounds like some marketing cartoon for kids, but in fact
Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Check out tweenbots to see what happened when this was tried in Central Park, New York


Ever since I’ve been in Malaysia, I've heard people talking about foods being 'heaty' – e.g. someone will say 'Don't eat [insert type of food here] when you have the flu because it's heaty', or something like that. Recently, I finally discovered what 'heatiness' really is – I was out in the sun for a bit too long one day, and got some sunburn: then, after a few days, I noticed that I kept feeling a bit uncomfortable - overheated, an unpleasant feeling in my stomach, and a bit tired. But even if I turned the aircon on and had a nap, for example, I still felt too much 'internal heat'. Suddenly it dawned on me - I was suffering from 'heatiness'! (Another symptom was an itchy neck. I didn't connect to it at the time, but later someone told me it was typical of heatiness - apparently you can even end up with boils on the neck).

Anyway, so WW got some herbs from the Chinese herbalist - I boiled it all up and drunk a big glass or two every day for a week or so, and felt better.

Some time before that, I had received a free bottle of Cool Rhino which is meant to be a cooling drink (apparently it's rebranded 'Three Legs Cooling Water'). I was curious about the main ingredients Gypsum fibrosum, and 'calcitum', and on what basis they are meant to be 'cooling'.
Cool Rhino cooling drink with Gypsum fibrosum

Gypsum fibrosum, is known as a 'stone drug' - i.e. it is a mineral (it's also used in building!) which has beneficial health properties. Investigation of the use of minerals in medicine was particularly common amongst Taoist alchemists who sought immortality, and knowledge of its use goes as far back as Ge Hong's (281 -341 AD), book Bao Pu Zi's Inner Treatise ("Discovering Chinese Mineral Drugs")
"Raw gypsum (Gypsum Fibrosum) has been shown to have an antipyretic effect, that is, it can be used to reduce fever. However, pure manufactured gypsum does not display this property. This suggests that the antipyretic effect is produced by one or more of the impurities normally associated with gypsum in its raw state (Guo et al, 1958)." ("Discovering Chinese Mineral Drugs")

In its prepared form it is known as Gypsum Fibrosum Preparata or Duan Shi Gao.

I noticed dosages "9-30 grams, up to 90 grams for very high fever", or "10-50 grams"; in the bottle there is 90mg, so I can't imagine there is much chance of overdosing, even if you take 4 times a day as they recommend.

As study on rats shows that it "can accelerate the formation of collagenoblast and micrangium in wounds, and the proliferation of granulation tissues, thus promoting the skin wounds to healing" (Source) (whatever that means :-S)

Calcitum, or Han Shui Shi, is also apparently good for relieving heat. The recommended dosages are also well above the 45mg in each bottle of Cool Rhino ( "9-30 grams" and "3-10 qian" – 1 'qian' is 5 grams). I think 'calcitum' is basically the same as calcium, which is also a mineral.

Basically – it seems that traditional Chinese medicine does support the use of these ingredients for heatiness, but at much higher doses than there is in Cool Rhino. As for me, unfortunately I did not have it at the time I had heatiness, but I had previously got round to testing it one day when I was feeling hot after working in the garden. It was not chilled, but I can’t say I felt any different… My advice is, if you want relief from heatiness – go to a herbalist and chuck down the bitter stuff!

Here are some resources on Chinese medicine
The Essentials of Chinese Medicine
• A detailed explanation of different “Herbs that clear Heat”
• What looks like an authoritative Introduction to Chinese Herbology

Three hundred and thirty three thousand kilometres

Well I'm feeling a bit down, disoriented, and blehh - work stress, dealing with people stress, and general planet misalignment I suppose... Solution? Do a random blog post to feel like I've done something useful! :-D

I have an old Nissan Sunny 130Y (aka 'Sunny Boy'); it's about 16 years old, and I paid RM6,000 for it in 2005 - honestly it's probably the best car I've had, if one takes into account its age. It still works wonderfully and I've never had a significant problem {touching wood :-O } (though it needs new aircon now).

A couple of days ago I noticed that it has done 333,003 kilometres!

I've decided that is a good luck number, and therefore I feel better! :-P

Have a good day all!