Appropriate technology – Traeger’s pedal radio


I’ve used Question Box in some recent presentations as a example of appropriate technology. I’ve just become aware of this Australian innovation from the early part of the last century – the pedal radio. Invented by Alfred Traeger with the encouragement of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, it overcame the challenge of communication with remote homesteads that lacked a telephone or radio link. Traeger later improved this idea by creating a Morse keyboard.

The pedal radio solved three problems for users in the Australian bush:

  • It didn’t require a battery;
  • It could be operated by one person; and
  • With the Morse keyboard, it didn’t require knowledge of Morse code to send a message


Book Review – Cyburbia (or a history of Cybernetics and Cyberspace)


I have to admit that picking up Cyburbia was a bit of a random act – and I almost didn’t. But if you can get past the title and bizzare introduction, this book turns out to be a rather dense, but interesting history of our online society and cybernetics.

Norbert Wiener, the originator of cybernetics, is a constant feature through the book along with a cast of other familiar people, places and online things. The famous Ebbsfleet United crowd management experiment even gets a mention.

Once you are past the introduction, the books works through a logical sequence of chapters titled The Loop, The Peer, The Tie, The Network Effect, Peer Pressure, Non-Linear, Multiplicity, Feedback and Network Failure.

As I said at the begining this book is pretty dense, so its hard to pin point a particular insight or seminal moment. As a result, I think its fair to say that there aren’t a lot of answers in this book, although the general tone is both a little sceptical whilst also being ultimately optimistic. The author, James Harkin, eventually manages to pull together his thesis into a satisfatory conclusion at the end of the book.

Its worth considering that cybernetics has its origins in Wiener’s attempts to create a better anti-aircraft gun, through the use of feedback loops. However, human-computer interaction has evolved to become much more importand and influential. Harkin’s writes in his final few pages that:


The system is certainly self-steering and running on autopilot, but only because it has us as its automations, darting around through information clouds in response to an endless stream of instruction and feedback.

Part of his point here, I think, is that we shouldn’t forget that both the message AND the medium are important. Of course, what we shouldn’t underestimate is the value of the message these new Web mediums create.

He also makes some good arguments about the strenghts, weaknesses, oppourtunties and threats of the weak ties that the Web medium enables.

I wouldn’t make this my first or only book on this topic, but I found it provided me with another perspective on the history of technology in society. As someone once said (or something similar), a nation without a history is like a man without a memory. And in the respect, Harkin has added a little more richness for me to that history.

From RN Future Tense: Hackers revisited

Wired magazine’s Steven Levy says the ‘Hackers’ of the late 20th century set the philosophical base for the digital information age of today — and he says their mind-set will shape our future.

I remember reading an electronic copy of Steven Levy’s Hackers book downloaded to a PDA (I’m pretty sure, if I recall correctly, I had a Psion Series 5 at the time) during my daily commute across Sydney harbour back in the later part of the 1990s. I remember it feeling quite subversive just to be reading an electronic text, while everyone else had their heads stuck in a newspaper! Of course, the beauty of this book is that it challenges the common view of what hacking culture is all about – less about being illegal and more about being collaborative, through open technologies and an open and experimental culture.

In this radio interview with Levy, he comments:

There were so many people who read my book and told me it changed their lives, and this was then a fantastic experience. For me, to see so many people who have read my book saying it had an effect on them.

I’m not sure this book changed my life, but it certainly was very influential. It really must rank along with other books like Cluetrain (which Euan Semple reminded us about in his workshop at Headshift yesterday) and Being Digital as one of the classics of the digital era. BTW It appears that Hackers has recently been re-released as an updated 25th anniversary edition.

PS. What other *classics* of the digital era would you recommend? Feel free to add your suggestions to the comments.

Tim Brown on Design Thinking today

Good TED talk video about the role of design thinking today.

I’m not quite sure about the references to Isambard Brunel, as his biggest idea the Great Eastern was never commercially viable. I also think its interesting to reflect on that early industrial era that they didn’t quite fully understand the technologies they were working with – the first iron bridge was built using carpentry techniques, which was neither cost effective or good engineering for that kind of material. Having said, people learnt from those mistakes.

Hat tip to Jordan Willms.