Open Thinkering


Month: June 2023

Weeknote 25/2023

MozFest House badge

I was in Amsterdam from Monday to Friday this week, for MozFest House and a WAO meetup. We ran a session entitled ‘Fostering Transparency and Building a Cooperative Economy’. I also lied about my personal details and preferences to get free iced coffee, hung out on a boat, and melted in the heat.

The end of MozFest House where it was announced that the next one will be in Kenya.

Our house went on the market while I was away, as things moved more quickly than I envisaged. This is a good thing, as we had five viewings booked in yesterday. I was out with my daughter, who was at a Future Lioness event and then represented East Northumberland in the discus at the area athletics championships. She had to run from that even to take part in the relay, and then pretty much kept on running to do the first leg!

I’m keeping this short as we’re about to go and view a house that would potentially be a backup plan to the one we really want. I published a single blog post this week, other than this one, which I called On the paucity of ‘raising awareness’.

Next week it’s back to work in my home office. I hope it’s not too hot, as the lack of sleep from late nights and being in a really hot room with no openable windows while in Amsterdam really took it out of me.

On the paucity of ‘raising awareness’

This post is about philosophy, memes, and taking action. It’s a reflection on an experience I had this week which caused me to reflect on the paucity of ‘awareness raising’ as a tactic.

I studied Philosophy at university a couple of decades ago. One of the courses was on ethics and involved the trolley problem.

Trolley problem basic setup. A person is standing next to a lever which can divert the trolley (i.e. train/tram) onto a different track. If they do, the trolley will hit one person instead of five. CC BY-SA McGeddon, Wikimedia Commons

The trolley problem is a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology, involving stylized ethical dilemmas of whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number. The series usually begins with a scenario in which a runaway tram or trolley is on course to collide with and kill a number of people (traditionally five) down the track, but a driver or bystander can intervene and divert the vehicle to kill just one person on a different track. Then other variations of the runaway vehicle, and analogous life-and-death dilemmas (medical, judicial etc.) are posed, each containing the option to either do nothing, in which case several people will be killed, or intervene and sacrifice one initially “safe” person to save the others.

It’s a powerful tool to generate insights into your own ethical position on certain topics. These days, it’s rolled out to warn about outsourcing decision-making to the systems underpinning self-driving cars. And, of course, it’s now a recognisable meme.

Trolley problem where nobody is tied to the track. The words read "nobody is in danger" and "however, you can pull the lever to make the train get closer just so you can wave at all the people"

In my experience, most of the trolley problem thought experiments lead towards an understanding of supererogation.

In ethics, an act is supererogatory if it is good but not morally required to be done. It refers to an act that is more than is necessary, when another course of action—involving less—would still be an acceptable action. It differs from a duty, which is an act wrong not to do, and from acts morally neutral. Supererogation may be considered as performing above and beyond a normative course of duty to further benefits and functionality.

Interestingly, in a recent episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, Theron Pummer suggested a twist on this. Pummer, who is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, has published a book entitled The Rules of Rescue. I haven’t read it yet, but to quote the summary on his own web page about the book:

Pummer argues that we are often morally required to engage in effective altruism, directing altruistic efforts in ways that help the most. Even when the personal sacrifice involved makes it morally permissible not to help at all, he contends, it often remains wrong to provide less help rather than more.

I have issues with Effective Altruism, which I’ll not go into here, but I find Pummer’s framing fascinating. Basically, you don’t have to help others in certain situations; no-one would think it was immoral or illegal to go about your business. However, if you do decide to help, then there’s a minimum amount of help that could reasonably be required.

This week, I was at MozFest House. I had a good time. As with all MozFests I’ve been to, there are exhibits with which you can interact. One of them asked you to use a touch screen to fill in details of the kinds of services you use. It then printed out a long receipt on the type of data that is gathered on you when using them. I asked the PhD students who had come up with the machine what I was supposed to do with this data. They intimated that they were merely raising awareness and didn’t suggest a single thing I could do.

I was left in a worse position than I began. One could say that’s the point of awareness-raising, that it’s about making people feel discomfort so that they take action. But if you’re going to make an intervention I would agree with Theron Pummer’s stance that there’s a certain minimum level of guidance to give. A first step, at least.

Contrast this with another interactive exhibit in which you received tokens for free coffee if you answered a series of questions about yourself. I managed to get three by lying and not providing personal data. Which, of course, could be said to be the point of the exercise: be careful about the data you put out there, especially for scant reward.

Once you see people putting in the minimum effort of ‘awareness raising’ you start seeing it everywhere. It’s particularly prevalent on social media, where it takes a single tap to reshare news and make others aware of something you’ve just seen. As humans, though, we tend to have a bias towards avoiding harm so social media timelines become full of doom.

I’m on a bit of a mission to get some more positivity into my life. Not in a mindless way. Not in an avoiding-reality kind of way. But rather following people who have noticed a problem and are doing something about it. Seeking out those who can take a step back and look at the wider picture. And, of course, those who share some of the wonder of the world around us.

Weeknote 24/2023

Temperature sensor showing 25.2 degrees C and 57% humidity

I’m composing this from Newcastle Airport on Monday morning. It’s been a busy weekend, so let’s get that out of the way first.

Saturday morning, I went for a run and then spent most of the day with my wife and daughter at a football tournament for the latter’s new team. They expected to win it, and almost did, had it not been for a penalty given against them during extra time in the final. Back home, shower and change. Out to Wagamama, a family favourite, before our son’s football presentation evening at St James Park, home of Newcastle United. He won Player of the Season, which was not at all expected, although he is awesome (even if I do say so myself).

We were tired enough after the events of Saturday, but on Sunday we had to get the house ready for the estate agent’s photographer, who is coming today (Monday). As anyone who has sold a house in the age of Rightmove will know, the photos are effectively what sell it. So it was a bit of a mission to get everything ready. I was dripping with sweat after gardening, cleaning, painting, etc. So much so that I was thankful for the torrential rain that started in the evening.

It was Fathers Day in the UK yesterday, so we went over to my parents. I’d taken my dad and two kids to see Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse on Friday evening (amazing!) but also bought him a book I’d heard being recommended on a podcast. When I left the family this morning, with my son now finished his GCSE exams, my daughter still recovering from the tournament (she picked up a slight injury), and my wife preparing for a potentially tricky week of user research interviews at work, everyone looked knackered.

I almost can’t remember what I did before this last weekend. Laura’s been away, so it’s been a weird week at work. I published a couple of blog posts in different places:

Other than that, the majority of my work seemed to revolve around community platforms and setting up user research. For example:

  • Helping WEAll (with John) come to a decision not to adopt Hylo but instead trial Discourse. I think they’ll be happy with it, even if it is a bit less shiny.
  • Meeting with Participate to discuss our ongoing work and their new platform which we’ll be migrating the existing KBW community to over the coming weeks/months.
  • Finishing up some of the initial projects I’ve been leading. Now that we’re self-hosting, not only can we run Co-op Conversations (for people interested in setting up worker co-ops) but we can use it to book user research interviews for the Member Learning group. The How to set up a worker co-op email course which I mentioned last week is now live, as well.
  • Updating the privacy policy for Dynamic Skillset to include in a user research form for Bonfire.

I realised this week need to write a post about the difference between social networks, chat apps, and forums. People tend to conflate them, which is unhelpful, as they serve different purposes.

There’s plenty of other things I did this week, including deciding not to respond to an RfP after attending the Q&A, preparing for an interview for some other potential work, and just generally getting ready for my upcoming trip.

This coming week, I’ll be in Amsterdam to meet up with my WAO colleagues and for us to run a session at MozFest House. I’m back on Thursday afternoon and will almost immediately take my daughter to her second trial for Sunderland’s academy. She’s also going to the Newcastle trials, but being a Sunderland fan, and knowing it’s a better setup, I’m rooting for her switching from one to the other.

Photo of new temperature and humidity sensor in my home office. It ended up going up to 28.8 C so I bought an evaporative cooler, which increased the humidity but meant I could work in there! The awesome TRYING patch is bright orange in real life and came via Dan Sinker.