What Does It Matter If AI Writes Poetry?

Robots might take our jobs, but they (probably) won’t replace our wordsmiths.

These days, concerns about the slow proliferation of AI-powered workers underly a near-constant, if quiet, discussion about which positions will be lost in the shuffle. According to a report published earlier this year by the Brookings Institution, roughly a quarter of jobs in the United States are at “high risk” of automation. The risk is especially pointed in fields such as food service, production operations, transportation, and administrative support — all sectors that require repetitive work. However, some in creatively-driven disciplines feel that the thoughtful nature of their work protects them from automation.

It’s certainly a memorable passage — both for its utter lack of cohesion and its familiarity. The tone and language almost mimic J.K. Rowling’s style — if J.K. Rowling lost all sense and decided to create cannibalistic characters, that is. Passages like these are both comedic and oddly comforting. They amuse us, reassure us of humans’ literary superiority, and prove to us that our written voices can’t be replaced — not yet.

However, not everything produced by AI is as ludicrous as A Giant Pile of Ash. Some pieces veer on the teetering edge of sophistication. Journalist John A. Tures experimented with the quality of AI-written text for the Observer. His findings? Computers can condense long articles into blurbs well enough, if with errors and the occasional missed point. As Tures described, “It’s like using Google Translate to convert this into a different language, another robot we probably didn’t think about as a robot.” It’s not perfect, he writes, but neither is it entirely off the mark.

Moreover, he notes, some news organizations are already using AI text bots to do low-level reporting. The Washington Post, for example, uses a bot called Heliograf to handle local stories that human reporters might not have the time to cover. Tures notes that these bots are generally effective at writing grammatically-accurate copy quickly, but tend to lose points on understanding the broader context and meaningful nuance within a topic. “They are vulnerable to not understanding satires, spoofs or mistakes,” he writes.

And yet, even with their flaws, this technology is significantly more capable than those who look only at comedic misfires like A Giant Pile of Ash might believe. In an article for the Financial Times, writer Marcus du Sautoy reflects on his experience with AI writing, commenting, “I even employed code to get AI to write 350 words of my current book. No one has yet identified the algorithmically generated passage (which I’m not sure I’m so pleased about, given that I’m hoping, as an author, to be hard to replace).”

Du Sautoy does note that AI struggles to create overarching narratives and often loses track of broader ideas. The technology is far from being able to write a novel — but still, even though he passes off his perturbance at the AI’s ability to fit perfectly within his work as a literal afterthought, the point he makes is essential. AI is coming dangerously close to being able to mimic the appearance of literature, if not the substance.

Take Google’s POEMPORTRAITS as an example. In early spring, engineers working in partnership with Google’s Arts & Culture Lab rolled out an algorithm that could write poetry. The project leaders, Ross Goodwin and Es Devlin, trained an algorithm to write poems by supplying the program with over 25 million words written by 19th-century poets. As Devlin describes in a blog post, “It works a bit like predictive text: it doesn’t copy or rework existing phrases, but uses its training material to build a complex statistical model.”

When users donate a word and a self-portrait, the program overlays an AI-written poem over a colorized, Instagrammable version of their photograph. The poems themselves aren’t half bad on the first read; Devlin’s goes: “This convergence of the unknown hours, arts and splendor of the dark divided spring.”

As Devlin herself puts it, the poetry produced is “Surprisingly poignant, and at other times nonsensical.” The AI-provided poem sounds pretty, but is at best vague, and at worst devoid of meaning altogether. It’s a notable lapse, because poetry, at its heart, is about creating meaning and crafting implication through artful word selection. The turn-of-phrase beauty is essential — but it’s in no way the most important part of writing verse. In this context, AI-provided poetry seems hollow, shallow, and without the depth or meaning that drives literary tradition.

In other words, even beautiful phrases will miss the point if they don’t have a point to begin with.

In his article for the Observer, John A. Tures asked a journalism conference attendee his thoughts on what robots struggle with when it comes to writing. “He pointed out that robots don’t handle literature well,” Tures writes, “covering the facts, and maybe reactions, but not reason. It wouldn’t understand why something matters. Can you imagine a robot trying to figure out why To Kill A Mockingbird matters?”

Robots are going to verge into writing eventually — the forward march is already happening. Prose and poetry aren’t as protected within the creative employment bastion as we think they are; over time, we could see robots taking over roles that journalists used to hold. In our fake-news-dominated social media landscape, bad actors could even weaponize the technology to flood our media feeds and message boards. It’s undoubtedly dangerous — but that’s a risk that’s been talked about before.

Instead, I find myself wondering about the quieter, less immediately impactful risks. I’m worried that when AI writes what we read, our ability to think deeply about ourselves and our society will slowly erode.

Societies and individuals grow only when they are pushed to question themselves; to think, delve into the why behind their literature. We’re taught why To Kill a Mockingbird matters because that process of deep reading and introspection makes us think about ourselves, our communities, and what it means to want to change. In a world where so much of our communication is distilled down into tweet-optimized headlines and blurbs, where we’re not taking the time to read below a headline or first paragraph, these shallow, AI-penned lines are problematic — not because they exist, but because they do not spur thought.

“This convergence of the unknown hours, arts and splendor of the dark divided spring.”

The line sounds beautiful; it even evokes a vague image. Yet, it has no underlying message — although, to be fair, it wasn’t meant to make a point beyond coherency. It isn’t making a point. It’s shallow entertainment under a thin veil of sophistication. It fails at overarching narratives, doesn’t capture nuance, and fails to grasp the heartbeat of human history, empathy, and understanding.

If it doesn’t have that foundation to create a message, what does it have? When we get to a place where AI is writing for us — and be sure, that time will come — are we going to be thinking less? Will there be less depth to our stories, minimal thought inspired by their twists? Will it become an echoing room rather than a path forward? At the very least, will these stories take over our Twitter feeds and Facebook newsfeeds, pulling us away from human-crafted stories that push us to think?

I worry that’s the case. But then again, maybe I’m wrong — maybe reading about how an AI thinks that Ron ate Hermione’s family provides enough dark and hackneyed comedy to reassure our belief that AI will never step beyond its assigned role as a ludicrous word-hacker.

For now, at least.

By |2020-06-12T21:03:46+00:00April 17th, 2020|Culture, Technology|

Cable is Dead, Long Live (Streaming) Cable

It’s no secret that cable is on its way out. Ever since Netflix’s sparked an explosion of public interest in streaming entertainment with its 2013 series hit House of Cards, traditional channels of access — cable, satellite, dish — have been rendered all but obsolete.

According to reports published by Leichtman Research Group, a firm that centers its research and analysis in the media and entertainment sectors, the six most popular cable companies lost a whopping 910,000 video subscribers in 2018. Satellite TV and DirectTV services fared even worse — analysts estimated that the former lost around 2,360,000 subscribers and the latter 1,236,000 that same year. The sharp decline isn’t new, either; LRG researchers believe that the user base for traditional services has sunk by nearly ten million since the first quarter of 2012. 

Streaming is slowly outmoding cable — except, of course, in cases where cable has managed to latch onto streaming itself. Interestingly, cable’s primary source of subscription growth has been via virtual MVPDs (vMVPDs), or services that offer a bundle of television channels through the internet without providing traditional data transport infrastructure. LRG analysts estimate that roughly four million subscribers have signed on for vMPVD services such as PlayStation Vue, YouTube TV, and Hulu Live. But these services seem more like a speedbump on cable’s decline than an actual stop, a gateway service to help longtime cable enthusiasts transition into a streaming norm. 

Streaming entertainment is the new normal, and any millennial could build a compelling case for why the change is a good one. After all, why would you pay for expensive cable bundles and struggle with limited viewing schedules when you can see your favorite shows and movies on Netflix or Hulu for less than $15 per month? Streaming offers original content at a reasonable price point and — unlike cable — is accessible from wherever an internet connection is available. It’s so popular that new streaming services have begun popping up like weeds. Apple TV+ goes online on November 1st, Disney+ opens for registration in November, and NBC’s Peacock is set to go live sometime in 2020. 

Cable is dying. But will streaming, the reason behind cable’s slow extinction, one day face the same decline? 

Cable is Dead, Long Live (Streaming) Cable

As it turns out, the streaming coup we see today may be just another remix of the same old industry song. 

Consider the now-giant HBO’s humble roots as an example. The service was arguably the first network to offer premium cable and ask viewers to pay a subscription fee — and it launched its experiment in the town of Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania shortly after Hurricane Agnes hit the area in 1972. The initiative had a rocky start, reportedly losing nearly $9,000 per month as it struggled to lay cable and pay for a microwave link to transmit entertainment offerings from New York City. But the project ultimately paid off in spades, heralding a new era for paid cable television. 

Cable television was new, convenient, and engaging. Its subscribers could view new and exciting content that wasn’t limited by the profanity and nudity guidelines imposed on basic cable programs. Eventually, cable providers began offering bundles to aggregate channels and make accessing paid content easy, convenient, and affordable.  

Sound familiar yet? 

Today, streaming entertainment services offer the same convenience, aggregation, and affordability that characterized cable — but better. Importantly, they also provide channel subscriptions a la carte, a move which cable companies tended to avoid out of concern that it would negatively impact subscription numbers

When giants such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime claimed dominance over the market, streaming seemed like the answer to all of cable subscribers’ problems. However, as more niche entertainment stream providers enter the field, we appear to be falling back into cable’s old woes. 

Today, viewers have over 300 streaming video services to choose from, each with their own subscription price. Many host original content, knowing that high-quality and exclusive offerings attract subscribers. According to one recent study from Deloitte, 57% of paid streaming users — and 71% of millennial users — report subscribing to access original content. However, users’ willingness to pay for content has its limits. As Deloitte’s researchers put the matter: “nearly one-half (47 percent) are frustrated by the growing number of subscriptions and services they need to piece together to watch what they want. Forty-eight percent say it’s harder to find the content they want to watch when it is spread across multiple services.”

Consumers don’t want to make a patchwork out of their streaming services to get the content they want. The fragmentation and consumer difficulty we face now is likely to intensify, given the sheer number of high-profile streaming platforms set to launch soon. As a result, talk of using bundling as a solution to subscriber frustrations has returned; according to IndieWire, WarnerMedia is reportedly aiming to launch a streaming platform that would bundle HBO, Cinemax, and some Warner Bros. content into one service. It would have a higher price point, too — $16-$17 per month. It seems only fair to expect prices to creep up further as other, competing bundles undergo discussion.  

Digital streaming is, without question, more convenient and better-suited to audience needs for affordable original content than paid cable. Streaming’s coup is a well-deserved one. However, it seems naive to think that the problems consumers complained of with cable — higher prices, annoying bundles — won’t appear as time goes on. 

Cable is dead. Long live (streaming) cable.

By |2020-02-11T15:15:14+00:00October 15th, 2019|Culture, Technology|

Dancers, Rejoice: NYC’s Antiquated Cabaret Law is Dead

New York City’s bizarre Cabaret Law was finally laid to rest on Halloween, at the ripe old age of 91.

Cause of death? Common sense.

The law, enacted in 1926 (i.e., at the height of Prohibition, as well as the Harlem Renaissance), infamously prohibited dancing in bars and clubs that had not obtained a cabaret license. It was unevenly enforced and often amended over the years, but nonetheless remained on the books until city council repealed it by a resounding 44-1 vote at its Oct. 31 meeting.

At different points during its long (and in many eyes, troubling) history, the law effectively muzzled jazz luminaries like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Thelonius Monk, and turned Frank Sinatra into an activist. Rudy Giuliani weaponized the statute. Others have bristled over it, but until this year it survived many repeal attempts.

Finally Rafael Espinal, a councilman from Brooklyn, introduced a bill quashing it, pending the approval of mayor Bill de Blasio.

“It’s great to see how excited the city is,” the 33-year-old Espinal told the New York Times. “We have shown that there’s an appetite for expanding dancing around the city.”

The law applies only to clubs located in areas zoned for commercial manufacturing; as the Times reported, zoning laws will have to be altered for dancing to be permitted in other parts of the city.

The repeal is in some ways academic. Because of the Byzantine (and costly) application process, few establishments even bothered to obtain a cabaret license. The Times reported that only 97 of some 25,000 spots had one, while a 2016 anti-Cabaret Law petition put that number at 118.

And as mentioned, enforcement has been spotty, though as recently as 2013 club owner Andrew Muchmore was assessed a Cabaret violation when some of his patrons engaged in what was described as “unlawful swaying” during a rock show at his night spot. He responded by filing suit against the city, dropping it only when the law was repealed.

The law was originally enacted to regulate the speakeasies that cropped up during Prohibition, though it is widely suspected that the real purpose was to crack down on jazz clubs, where mixed-race crowds often congregated.

A 1940 amendment also required musicians to obtain cabaret cards, a process that called for fingerprinting, interrogation, and renewal every two years. Parker, Monk, and Holiday were denied cards for one reason or another, and thus barred from performing. Sinatra, citing the demeaning nature of the application process, declined to appear as well, in a show of solidarity; that led to the repeal of the cabaret-card system, albeit after it had been in place for 27 years.

Other permutations of the law prohibited wind, percussion and brass instruments (i.e., the type of instruments used by jazz bands) or barred musical groups numbering more than three from appearing on stage. Those restrictions were eased in 1986 and 1988, respectively.

During Giuliani’s term as mayor (1994-2001), he used the Cabaret Law to crack down on so-called nuisance clubs. One club owner went so far as to say Giuliani’s tactics were reminiscent of a “Gestapo state,” but Giuliani, amid his “quality of life” initiative, argued that he was dealing as best he could with establishments that dealt in illegal activities (particularly drug-dealing), as well as those that had become a nuisance to their neighborhoods because of noise, unruly behavior, littering, etc.

The law has also been used in recent years to ensure that clubs were up to snuff in regards to fire safety and security, though its critics have argued that other regulations (and regulatory boards) were in place to deal with those issues.

So the law died a peaceful death. And everyone was only too happy to dance on its grave.

By |2020-02-11T16:51:35+00:00November 16th, 2017|Culture, Current Events|

Don’t Fear the Fearless Girl

Whether you consider it “a powerful beacon” or “incredibly stupid,” “corporate feminism” or “revolutionary art,” Kirsten Visbal’s “Fearless Girl” statue has been impossible to ignore since it popped up overnight this past March. Placed in a defiant stance before the furious charge of the iconic “Charging Bull” near Wall St. in Lower Manhattan, in a short amount of time the girl has come to represent a spectrum of opinions on feminism, capitalism, art and commerce. Especially since the events of last fall, these issues have been at the forefront of public conversation, and the Girl is the latest iteration of such.

One opinion that’s garnered a great deal of attention (for obvious reasons) is that of Arturo Di Modica, sculptor of “Charging Bull.” Modica considers the girl an “attack” on his piece, and has even retained a lawyer in order to have her removed from the public square. His counsel has said “‘Charging Bull’ no longer carries a positive, optimistic message,” declaring that the original statue “has been transformed into a negative force and a threat.”

To discuss in such concrete terms, through a lawyer or on his own, the meaning of this piece of art is certainly Mr. Di Modica’s right as it’s creator. One can consider the opinion of the maker of a public artwork to be the essential stance. After all, who would know better what a piece of art is supposed to mean?

Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it ends up working. Art, especially visual art, doesn’t carry a proscribed meaning. It’s not a textbook or instruction manual. Every viewer brings to it their own unique set of experiences and ways to understand the world. That’s the beauty of it. A painting as plain as the Mona Lisa, or as busy as a Jackson Pollock, becomes an endlessly fascinating set of questions when one considers all the ways to look at it.

The 20th Century French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote a great deal on this subject in his essay Death of the Author, published in 1967. Barthes found popular reception of art to be too frequently “tyrannically centered” on the opinions and experiences (whether inferred or stated outright) of the creator. He felt that meaning of art is created in the mind of the person experiencing it, not by the person who brought it into being.

Consider the great statues of Greek and Roman antiquity that populate the world’s most prestigious museums. Few would question their value in the context of art and global history. Originally created as exultations of the glory of gods and other mythical figures, so many of them now stand headless and limbless, stunning visual representations of the ravages of time. Should a modern viewer take away from these statues a new found appreciation of the greatness of Athena or Zeus, as they were possibly intended? Even if that’s what this hypothetical viewer does, are they “incorrect?”

Mr. Di Modica, while naturally defensive about the perception of his creation, needs to come to terms with the fact that people’s reaction to the Bull was never up to him. For years before the Fearless Girl arrived, his work was in the public sphere, standing for whatever each individual viewing it believed it stood for.

The origin story of Mr. Di Modica’s “Bull” is an illuminating one. Much like the Fearless Girl, it was placed overnight without notice, smack dab in the middle of the nation’s financial capital. It lasted only a day in its original spot before calls to the police led to it being trucked to an impound lot in Queens. Eventually, public outcry led the New York City Parks Department to find it a permanent home a few blocks south of Wall St. on Bowling Green. Those in charge of keeping order on Wall St. were aghast at the Bull, despite Di Modica’s intentions that it be a tribute to them. Although they were to be exalted by it, they were in fact repulsed. Surely this wasn’t part of his idea of it, either.

Consider the “Charging Bull” on its own face. It’s a fierce, massive creature in the midst of a potentially deadly strike. The statue weighs over 7000 lbs and looks it. It’s rippling muscles and kinetic pose imbue the chunk of bronze with the fearsome quality of the real thing. Considering the damage done in 2008 (not to mention 1929) by the denizens of the area, does this symbol of Wall Street really carry such a “positive, optimistic message?” Maybe you think so. Maybe you don’t. One group of you, according to Mr. Di Modica, is correct.

Which is a ludicrous premise. Especially for a piece of art that sits on public land, which by definition belongs to the citizenry. But even if the Bull were in a museum, it would be served well by being confronted by the Fearless Girl. Any viewer is well served by the interaction between the two pieces. Perhaps Mr. Di Modica himself could see the benefit of it, if he let go of his own fears.

By |2018-10-31T18:56:52+00:00July 18th, 2017|Culture, Current Events, Urban Planning|

Bodegas in New York City: Convenience for the Ages

It’s not completely a convenience store, not completely a deli, you know one when you see one, but they’re not a total cinch to define. Uniquely of and representative of New York City, the bodega is a place every New Yorker regularly visits for their day to day needs. Whether for a daily coffee and bagel or an emergency 2 AM cereal run, the local bodega is a neighborhood cornerstone.

But where exactly did these places emerge from? As with many traditions, a combination of various ethnic traditions led to what we know know as a bodega. In a city as richly diverse as New York, it comes as no great shock that our corner stores contain the legacies of several generations of immigrants.

For one, it would appear that the post-WWII influx of migrants from Puerto Rico established the foothold that allowed modern-day bodegas to multiply. Rooted in the Spanish word for “storeroom” or “wine cellar” (but eventually coming to mean “grocery store”), many of the early examples simply advertised themselves with that one word splashed across a sign out front. Their customers knew what they’d find inside.

Of course, the idea of a small corner store didn’t start exactly there. Earlier sandwich shops in Jewish enclaves held the same position as an indispensable neighborhood establishment. However, these shops and grocery stores in those days hadn’t evolved into the self-service stores we visit today. Most still were run by the “grocer” who would find your items for you, and many more were sit-down eateries. It took a few decades before things sped up to the satisfaction of all New Yorkers.

Another example of such is the Dominican enclave of Washington Heights, where the old-country tradition of the colmado is an important part of the bodega’s local role. These convenient stores also function as a meeting place, where locals can meet up with neighbors and friends in a relaxed atmosphere. Groups of people chatting in folding chairs outside the store is a not very unusual sight. The same can be found not only in Washington Heights but in bodegas across the city. Their position as impromptu meeting points underscores the importance of bodegas to their communities.

More recently, a growing number of bodegas are operated by immigrants of Middle Eastern origin. As the latest set of arrivals to set down entrepreneurial roots in the city, these owners face the same challenges as those who came before them, along with a few unique ones. The idea of selling pork products or alcohol is for many Arab bodega owners a source of conflict, but many have assimilated and accept this practice without partaking in it themselves.  

No matter who they are owned by, bodegas survive by serving their community. More and more frequently this means offering healthy options alongside the usual snack cakes and sodas. New, so-called “organic bodegas” offer up kombucha and organic pasta to their customers looking for hip, nutritional fare in their neighborhoods. City leaders have gotten in on the act as well, with several initiatives aimed at improving access to healthy food in all communities.

Beloved by all New Yorkers for many years, it’s hard to imagine the city without these ultra-convenient quick-shopping stores. Whether you’ve been here all your life or are new to the city, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the neighborhood bodega.

By |2018-10-31T18:15:55+00:00May 16th, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|

How NYC’s Public Sector Is Tackling Innovation

In New York City, the goal to merge innovation with government is apparent on various fronts. This objective has been about a decade in the making, and while we’re only scratching the service of its potential, NYC has made great strides.

For various reasons, the public sector often lags behind when it comes to technology and innovation. While some of such reasons are valid, the tendency can be overcome. Opportunities aplenty lie in wake, especially on a city level where governments have more autonomy.

Partnering with the private sector is the best strategy thus far for bringing innovative solutions to public sector issues. Following are some of the most notable ways NYC’s public sector is bringing innovation into its governing, and what this means for the future of city government.

NYC’s Office of Tech and Innovation

In 2014, New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Tech and Innovation (MOTI) was launched. According to their website, the office “facilitates citywide coordination and collaboration on technology issues, serves as a catalyst for and advises agencies on innovation, and interacts with the wider New York City technology ecosystem.”

The office was started by Mayor De Blasio, who made it his mission to help New York City become the most innovative city in the world. Whether you love or hate De Blasio, this initiative has already made a measurable impact in its creation of tech-driven public initiatives.

The idea, according to the Mayor’s office, is to “expand economic opportunity and reinvent government for the 21st century.” MOTI’s website continues, “We will continue to attract the top talent to New York City, deepen our efforts to grow and foster local talent through education and workforce development programs.”

It should be mentioned that New York City has been leaning into private-public partnerships long before De Blasio. As one example, NYC BigApp competitions have been happening annually since 2009, challenging “developers, designers, and entrepreneurs to create functional, marketable tech tools that help solve pressing civic challenges.”

Innovative Projects

What BigApp has been accomplishing for seven years is similar to what MOTI is currently undertaking in different city departments. The city puts out calls for innovation (CFIs) and accepts proposals from individuals, startups, and companies.

CFIs are “an open solicitation of ideas and proposals that aims to help define the urban challenges facing our city.” There are currently several CFIs: two from the New York City Housing Authority, seeking solutions for electrical and heating issues, one from the NYC Department of Education, seeking data models for public schools, and one seeking ideas to bring broadband internet to all New Yorkers.

Besides from CFIs, MOTI has over a dozen innovative projects underway already. One of these is LinkNYC, “a system of 7,500+ high-tech public communications structures that….will each provide completely free, ultra-high speed encrypted Wi-Fi service (up to 1 Gigabit in speed) out to a radius of 150 feet….[and] provide free domestic phone calls, free emergency 911 calls and non-emergency 311 calls, and free cell phone charging stations.”

Other projects include the Department of Transportation’s Midtown in Motion, a program meant to improve traffic using sensors and data collection; the NYPD’s IdeaScale pilot project, which allows neighborhood residents submit issues they want addressed by their local precincts; and the Department of Education’s Short Cycle Evaluation Challenge, which lets educators pilot new edtech products.

Looking to the future

As we push further into the future, technology is quickly, and inevitably, following suit. We will all be in good shape is the government stays as up-to-date as possible. When innovation is saturated in both the public and private sector, and the two work together to public benefit, the economy and people will thrive as a result. NYC is a great example of this theory in action, and hopefully other cities will follow its example.

By |2020-05-07T19:09:37+00:00March 21st, 2017|Culture, Technology, Urban Planning|

5 Startling Ways Humans Are Completely Phone-Dependent

Smartphones have become a crutch–a portable hub–for many users in our permanently plugged-in society. Although they can make our lives infinitely easier, the control and influence they exert over our habits can be alarming. The limitations of current technology (battery life, for examples) impacts us in an exaggerated fashion.

I’m often put out when I see people checking their phones during dinner, for example; it’s as if basic etiquette has been erased by a base desire for connection. It’s true that smartphones have some great qualities improving society and humanity, but they are also driving mass dependence.

Here are five surprising ways in which people rely on their smart phones.

1. Information Directory

Many people use their phone as a kind of external hard drive for the storage of vital information, like phone numbers and other contact information. Your phone may also store passwords and house other critical access information, as phones are often used in money management and health monitoring.

Even something as simple and powerful as your location can be monitored by your phone and used to personalize directions for your convenience. If your phone dies while out and about, you could lose directions to where you’re going and not know what number to call to let your friends know.

According to research by Canadian psychologists published in Computers in Human Behavior, “those who think more intuitively and less analytically when given reasoning problems were more likely to rely on their Smartphones (i.e., extended mind) for information in their everyday lives.” In other words, offloading information to technology erodes our ability to think intuitively, effortfully, and analytically.

2. Internet Access

Some people rely on their phone for internet access, choosing to forgo service from internet providers like Fios, Comcast, or Time Warner in favor of a simple cellular data plan. In this case, your phone serves as a conduit to the vast and increasingly vital data stream that is the internet. Like an umbilical cord, this option makes it almost impossible to disconnect.

Separation from phones, then, can lead to a perceived loss of information. According to Psychology Today, “having virtually any fact available at our fingertips creates an enriched environment that may make it more difficult to process information when we’re cut off.”

Our realities have been so changed by access to the Internet — whether it’s Google or SnapChat — that loss of Internet has become akin to loss of a sense like taste or smell, without which the world is totally different.

3. Communication

For all that smart phones now offer a dizzying array of ways to connect–via phone, video conference, text, email, social media and do on–they also seem to serve as a buffer for face-to-face communication. People rely on their phones more and more to communicate virtually, in many cases minimizing in person interaction. And people are handling increasingly intimate and delicate via these digital channels.

The inevitable impact of this effect is evident but the extent remains to be seen, as does the root cause. Maybe phones offer too many communication options. Or maybe people opt to connect with more people via these channels than they could reasonably do in person. Maybe people prefer these channels because they offer more superficial or deeper connections than in-person meetings.

Whatever the case, the ability to communicate digitally has had a measurable effect on people. The way we talk has changed, and studies have found that mobile communication correlates with an increase in face-to-face social anxiety among school-age children.

4. Digital rather than Physical

Just as virtual interaction has increased with the presence of smart phones, so have the online alternatives to physical chores, like shopping. The convenience of the smartphone makes it easier to order something online than to visit the actual store. Thus, the burgeoning digital network is reducing humans’ physical footprint.

The impact of this is manifold. It may seem like an oversimplification to claim it’s made us lazy, but the sheer amount of mobile services available supports this assumption: people can use their phones to delegate errands, order food, buy groceries, tour houses, acquire movies, music, and entertainment, all without leaving their couch.

That doesn’t mean we’re literally dependent on our phones for these things, but it does make physical shopping feel like an inconvenience.

5. Camera

Although virtual reality is now possible with your phone, looking at everything through the camera lens is its own kind of virtual reality. As phones became an increasingly essential part of everyday life, the camera came along for the ride. Now built into almost every smartphone, the camera creates a filter for reality, a Pokémon Go-like overlay, a digital portal.

With a camera accessible at almost all times, pictures, videos, and live streams became an increasingly important stand-in for real life, fueling the immediacy of social networks. When you go about daily life with a camera in hand, you end up looking through a certain kind of lens that can prevent you from fully partaking in the moment. You may even end up conflating your memories of an event with the media context of event records.

Altogether, it’s clear that mobile technology has become a phantom-like limb with new senses that we’ve become very accustomed to. While in some contexts this may seem like a superpower, we’d all do best to keep in mind that there is more to life than tech — and if our dependence level is high enough, we might be missing it.

By |2018-10-31T18:07:53+00:00March 13th, 2017|Culture, Philanthropy, Technology|

NYC Youth Taking the Reins of Civics, Culture and Community

This generation and the next have large shoes to fill–and extra work to do–when it comes to maintaining the culture, history, and integrity of cities like New York. As time goes by, any community’s essence can be eroded if it isn’t preserved and enhanced. That doesn’t seem to be the case in New York City, where public initiatives, institutions, and charity projects are encouraging young people to take an active interest in their communities.

It takes a passion for civic engagement, culture, and history to ensure a brighter future and a remembered past. It can be a challenge to light such ambitions in young people, and while many older millennials are already on board, teenagers remain especially difficult to reach.

Getting young people involved and dedicated to their city early on is key. Luckily, it seems we’re already nurturing an active and informed youth that will eventually take the reigns when it comes to the betterment of NYC.

Civic engagement

When we think of who is involved on community boards, it’s often an older crowd that comes to mind, and for good reason—one community board in the Bronx, for example, is comprised half of members over age 50. Recently there has been a push for diversity on NYC community boards, and a bill passed to bring down the age limit to 16. Since this bill, five 16- and 17-year olds were appointed in the Bronx, six in Manhattan, and eight in Brooklyn.

Teens bring a unique perspective to the table when it comes to community betterment. They have insight into issues older board members may not, and can bring fresh solutions to the table as well. The hope is that such involvement will not only add depth to the boards, but kickstart young careers in public service.

The problem is that while young people are idealistic and want to change the world, few want to do so through public service. Young people are disenchanted by the political system, and it’s not hard to see why given today’s political climate. Polarization is rampant and hostility high during an election between two historically disliked candidates. Local politics may be slightly better, but numbers indicate that youth would prefer to get involved elsewhere.

We’ll see if the encouragement of groups like Generation Citizen will empower more students to become engaged and effective citizens with bright futures in the political realm.

Cultural institutions

Beyond politics, young people developing interest in cultural institutions will help keep art and culture in New York City at the forefront of its evolution. As the cultural capital of the country, New York City is defined by its many museums and cultural hubs.

In September, The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs began an initiative to improve the involvement and diversity at the city’s cultural institutions by financing paid internships for students. Many of these kids will be lower-income or minority students, adding even greater sense of diversity into the equation. According to Cultural Affairs commissioner, Tom Finkelpearl, “The idea is not to just expose people in the short term, but encourage the institutions to stay in touch with these young people, foster their growth, and maybe hire them in the long run.”

Cultural institutions and periphery organizations and businesses have been doing their part to get young people involved as well. For example, the National AfterSchool Association partnered with 19 institutions across all five boroughs to sponsor experiential, educational events through a program called Adventures in Innovation. Activities that stimulate curiosity in young minds are good for the future of these institutions and the youth they inspire.

Museums like the Guggenheim are also increasingly courting the Millennial generation as future trustees and donors. By hosting events like the Young Collectors Party, cultural institutions can get young people involved early in a path toward board membership. Says Ford W. Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums, “The generational shift is something a lot of museums are talking about….The traditional donors are either dying, stepping back or turning it over to their children or grandchildren.”

Charities & Volunteering

Lastly, cities like New York will always thrive when its citizens, old and young, involve themselves in charity work. Unfortunately, volunteering rates have been dropping over the years and it’s not clear exactly why.

There are several hypotheses on white might be keeping younger generations from charity work. For one, youth are often financially constrained, which would certainly hold them back from making donations. This is especially true in NYC where cost of living and education high.  Secondly, technology and social media have become the new normal, potentially rendering in-person volunteering obsolete and uncomfortable.

How do we overcome these potential issues? Charity has changed, becoming increasingly mobile, so nonprofits that can make digital donations easy will have better luck reaching Millennials. Programs that provide educational and career incentives for volunteer work are also key.

Because younger generations are idealists, they want their contributions to count. As a result, nonprofits are courting young startups, many of which are run by millennials, with partnerships. In New York City, businesses that align themselves with causes attract young talent, allowing young people “give back” in a way that doesn’t interfere with busy work schedules.

All things considered, it appears that New York City’s youth have the ability to step up with the help of some great initiatives. It’s clear that New Yorkers of every generation love their city and want to see it thrive beyond our time–if we all work together to preserve and enhance our communities, there is no doubt NYC will continue to be as rich in culture as it is influential and unique. But youngsters, take note: the city won’t maintain itself.

By |2018-10-31T18:02:07+00:00February 21st, 2017|Culture, Philanthropy|

How Urban Planning Shapes Art, Music and Culture

The structure and a design of a city is integral to the way in which communities come to use its space. This is true of the basics — like recreation, work and residential — but it’s also true of art: where it thrives, where it’s created, and how it’s consumed. From music venues to street art and theater districts, there are reasons why certain cities and spaces spawn cultural renaissances.

You see, the size and layout of homes and public places impact what people choose to do there. So if a building is conducive to creative activities, the area will develop to reflect it. Then, as the location begins to adopt creativity into its ethos, the art has it’s own impact, and may affect urban planning moving forward. This cycle of environment and art is something often considered overtly.

For people interested in art, culture, urban design or all of the above, the cause and effect of environment on cultural innovation is a topic worth exploring. With this knowledge, urban planners can design spaces that organically spark creation, and artists can choose spaces that serve their needs based on both historic accomplishments and future goals.

Art & culture

Artistic movements are induced by time, attitude, persons and place. The importance of environment in art-making cannot be overstated — just think about the classic pastoral, impressionism, and expressionism, all inspired by nature.

The natural world has always been impactful for artists, but so have cities in a different way. Urbanisation has birthed its own art movements based on factors like the city layout, population, and the social and political realities of the times. The symmetry and tight design of a cities contrasts greatly with nature, so it makes sense this the art that comes from it characterizes more grit than greenery; more angles than angels.

For example, modernism as an art form was shaped by the rapid growth of cities and industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th century. When people began to move into cities to seek their fortunes, the environment inspired a new outlook that rejected the certainty of enlightenment and the limits of traditionalism. Modern cities, defined by order and the promise of enlightenment, inspired art, literature and philosophy that affirmed human power to create with the aid of science, technology, and practical experimentation.

In this way, modernism was a reflection of urban environments: their stoicism, their nihilism and their promise. It’s a testament to the functionality of city design during the industrial revolution: when machines and manufacturing were introduced via factories and plants, economic growth and innovative thinking flourished. In fact, modernism inspired a new era of urban design that followed the logic of mass production by implementing large-scale solutions citywide.

Around the same time, city design that prioritized industrialization faced artistic pushback in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement. Due to anxieties over the prominence of industrial life, handcraftsmanship surged in the early 20th century to prove the value of human creativity and design.

But in the wake of two world wars, cities and cultural attitudes would change. Times of hardships and the inability of cities to keep urban spaces safe and clean made clear that even modernism had its faults: in city planning, architecture, and in philosophy. Postmodernism emerged as a result of these failures, exemplified by the decline of American cities. It rejected the totality of modernism in favor of a more contextual and skeptical approach less devoted to perfection.

But even in times and places in strife, art has thrived: as it turns out, abandoned warehouses served the needs of artists as well as they did mass production. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, large abandoned factories proved ideal for artists seeking cheap rent and ample, light-filled spaces. The town was revived as a hub for creative types, and remains one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city.

Music making

Another key example of how our designed environment shapes culture is music, which has developed in garages, living rooms, churches and garages. The distinct personality of different genres has in part to do with the history of the space through which they first emerged.

1960s Detroit, it’s argued, gave birth to MoTown for several reasons: first, the northern migration of African Americans from the South for factory jobs, and second, because single-family houses had ample space for pianos. A musical heyday was relinquished even in the face of the city’s imminent decline because African American residents used this extra space to gather and make music.

“What this suggests is that cities shouldn’t despair too much about their existing built form, even if in many cases they are struggling with it,” wrote Aaron Renn on this phenomenon. “The question might be, what does that form enable that you can’t get elsewhere?”

The Detroit-Motown connection prompted journalist Ian Wylie to explore how urban planning shaped other music scenes in an article for the Guardian. When considering the grunge scene in Seattle, Wylie writes, both architecture and weather contributed to its cultivation. The inclusion of garages in local homes gave musicians a place to practice, and the damp, moderate climate convinced them to spend more time there making music, regardless of season.

Wyle also writes of how tower blocks in London made ideal transmission spots for illegal radio stations promoting grime music: the towers were fortress-like labyrinths that concealed the pirate stations from police, allowing the widespread broadcasting and popularization of grime music.

Then there are Berlin’s abandoned warehouses, which gave rise to electronic music. Not unlike Williamsburg’s abandoned factories, these large spaces provided ample from for experimentation and dance parties.

“DJs enjoyed the liberation of making music in places where previously they might have been jailed or even shot for trespassing,” Wylie writes. “The large warehouses of cold war-era Berlin also became spaces for artists and musicians to convert into studios.”

Lastly, New York City’s community centers played a part in the growth of hip hop: DJs and other hip hop artists held shows at sponsored community talent shows and dances more often than they did on the streets. The existence of these centers allowed a blending of generations and cultures, which contributed to hip-hop’s unique and eclectic sound.

What it all means

Where there are cities there are humans, and where there are humans there is art. Whether the city as a whole inspires a political and artistic movement, or simply certain elements of its design, environment will always play an important role in cultural evolution.

Many of the world’s cities tell the stories of the complex relationships between buildings, communities, and art. When the space informs the artist, the art informs the community, and then the community informs the future of the space. It’s a known phenomenon that when art flourishes, it invigorates neighborhoods, and invites the further development of both art and business.

Both urban planners and artists can take this information into stride in their future endeavors. It’s a common goal of developers to build spaces that are hospitable to young, artistic individuals and communities. Building spacious community centers, rooms, and public spaces where collaboration can happen could prompt the artistic renaissances of the future.

For young creatives, cities continue to offer the inspiration and flexibility to kickstart new projects, movements, genres, and works of art. Whether or not urban planners intend it — and as evidenced by abandoned spaces, perhaps especially when they don’t — creativity finds a way to fill in both cracks and canals.

Featured image: Vincent Anderlucci via Flickr

By |2018-10-31T16:10:38+00:00March 29th, 2016|Culture, Urban Planning|

Have Smartphones Made Us More or Less Charitable?

In the minds of many, smartphones and narcissism go hand in hand, in pocket. From selfies to social media, mobile technology has become a digital extension of the physical self, or a means through which to carefully curate one’s personality and values. For some, this means mirror shots at the gym, brunch photographs, or vaguely political articles and memes. For others, it’s photos of missionary work, Kickstarter campaigns and philanthropy apps. Almost always, the aim is the same: to promote and enable an identity to be admired. Whether that identity is generous or conceited is up to the choices we make with the power of a million apps at our fingertips.

Where does charity fit into the smartphone experience, and does mobile technology actually encourage people to be more giving? It would be easy to assume that smartphones promote vanity above all else, an argument many have made while sneering at Snapchatting youngsters. Just consider the breadth of tools dedicated to selfies, the weight of likes and upvotes, and the shallow mentality of viral news trends.

At the same time, smartphones make donating easier than ever, to more causes than ever. This ability has been wildly impactful, if not only because the availability and simplicity of the tools that enable it.

The truth is complex — a little of this, a little of that, and a lot of speculation. It may just be that humans are both more charitable and more self-absorbed, and that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It may just be that the effects of smartphone ubiquity can steer us toward a greater good.

Cell phones and selfishness

We all can picture the stereotype of a grumpy teenager texting at the dinner table, oblivious to both conversation and food. This negative image isn’t completely without warrant: studies have shown that those that spent more time with smartphones were less socially minded. They are also less inclined to volunteer for community service compared to those without their noses in screens. The feeling of connectivity a phone provides, in theory, may in the moment feel like enough to replace physical connection. And so, when we’re digitally connected to our closest friends and family, the impulse to engage with or help outsiders diminishes. We remain glued to Instagram, instead of donating gifts to homeless shelters or building schools for kids.

This effect is called “virtual distance” by some analysts, and it has measurable impacts. The greater the distance, researchers have found, the more separated we become from those around us. We are less inclined to share our ideas, especially in the workplace. Smartphone usage also may prevent us from engaging with and helping others, whether out of distrust or isolation.

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Photo: Brandon Warren via Flickr.

The point is, when technology is used as a default for human relations, it can be harmful to their ability to produce real-world benefits. The key is to step back from the digital distance and re-engage with the world, including strangers. For children growing up in the golden age of smartphones, this may be more difficult task than it is for today’s adults, who grew up in a less tech-driven era.

Because mobile apps let users create their own worlds with like-minded individuals and friends, people have a tendency to become more insular in their beliefs and interests. Within a carefully curated social group, there is little room for discovery or new ideas. This can make people less empathetic, and block access to new social causes. While the availability to expand our minds and hearts is greater with smartphones, there’s also just enough information to reinforce complacency.

That’s not to mention the instant gratification of smartphones, which can breed mindsets unwilling to embark on new and potentially difficult journeys without immediate returns. The ease of mobile technology makes delaying gratification harder; the gratification of charity, in comparison to a tangibility of a Seamless delivery, appears more abstract in value.

Whatever the cause, interest in volunteering and charity has seen a precipitous decline in America. Volunteering hit its lowest rate in a decade in 2013.

The case for mobile charity

Every factor that might contribute to a perceived selfishness and detachment among smartphone users can also be used to the benefit of charities worldwide. The trick is in the delivery and expression.

Giving is a social act. Mobile technology can fuel anti-social behavior, as detailed above, but in the digital realm it begets a whole new type of social behavior: social media. Online networks can have enormous reach, and facilitate the constant sharing of thoughts, ideas, and content. When this content is philanthropic in nature, the reach alone can prompt awareness and drive donation.

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Photo: m01229 via Flickr.

Researchers say there are three reasons people give: one, because they want to; two, because they think it’s valuable to do so; and three, as a form of showing off. The third reason is a significant one when it comes to mobile donation, which has in many ways become a form of social performance. Think of the ALS Icebox Challenge, which had participants pour icy water on their heads, or the no-makeup selfies for cancer awareness. Neither explicitly required donation, but both raised huge funds along with stroking the egos of the people that jumped on the bandwagon.

Instant gratification works in the favor of charity, too — mobile technology makes donating as easy as one or two taps. When Facebook implemented a “Donate Now” button for nonprofit pages, they positioned themselves to become a hub for online fundraising. Mobile-responsive crowd-funding also lets users get involved in peer-to-peer donation projects. These easy social options have been hugely successful so far on all digital platforms, including mobile.

Text message donations can also be made by smartphone owners — for example, in 2012, the Red Cross launched a donate-by-text initiative, generating $46 million in relief funds after a deadly earthquake in Haiti. Now, there are various SMS processes and campaigns people can use to text pre-set micro-donations to different causes.

Lastly, mobile technology opens completely innovative ways for people to donate to causes that catch their interest. Mobile app Instead let users make small donations in lieu of daily expenses like coffee; One Today showcases a different cause every day; and Tinbox donates money from corporate sponsors in exchange for ad placement on your phone.

What’s the verdict?  

By numbers alone, people are more charitable than ever. As the planet’s overall wealth amasses and spending increases, statistically more of this money goes to charitable causes (every year, more of these are made on mobile phones.) Americans give about 3 percent of their income to charity, and this figure has not changed in the decades before or after the smartphone’s rise.

Generally speaking, then, it’s rather dubious to claim that smartphones have changed our charitable virtues for better or worse. More accurately, they have changed not what we do, but how we do it. It just so happens that smartphones have the ability to amplify our actions ad infinitum.

That’s not to say that mobile technology doesn’t have its pitfalls in terms of the behavior it can bring out in users. It sometimes seems as if people have traded in working to help their actual communities in favor of their digital ones, at a loss to psychical spaces in need of extra hands. I think that we should all be careful to engage more with real people and their needs than we do with front-facing camera phones — this said, there is a lot of value behind screens in terms of reach and convenience.

Nonprofits should definitely lean into mobile donations and campaigns that jive with what’s shown to drive progress. It’s simple: Make it a selfie. Make it instant. Make it social. Heck, make it a game. These are the new vehicles of charity — and though may never replace soup kitchen style volunteering, they do work. We can only keep faith that the desire to give back remains part of the human DNA, not to be overwritten by iPhone coding.

Featured image: Jon Fingas via Flickr

By |2018-10-31T16:02:10+00:00January 28th, 2016|Philanthropy, Technology|