Qwiki wants wikis to act human

homepage qwiki

Just a quick shout here about Qwiki, which does something extra with wikis: “working to deliver information in a format that’s quintessentially human – via storytelling instead of search.” The site explains:

We’ve all seen science fiction films (or read novels) where computers are able to collect data on behalf of humans, and present the most important details. This is our goal at Qwiki – to advance information technology to the point it acts human.

It’s pretty cool: Qwiki tells you in voice about your selected topics, showing pictures and videos, automatically generated. They’re working on a platform allowing any web publisher to turn their content into Qwikis.

Just do some searches and be surprised about the slick results, and imagine how things could evolve in a not too distant future. How cool it would be to have this service on a wearable device, enabling you to command it using simple voice, and getting the voice response and pictures wherever you are.

The service is in private alpha but you can join and suggest improvements.

Hat tip to my colleague Raphael Cockx who found out about this new service.

That dangerous Singularity

Talking about the future: I’ve been reading insightful posts by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing and Annalee Newitz on i09 about the Technological Singularity, described by Wikipedia as

(…)a hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so extremely rapid, due in most accounts to the technological creation of superhuman intelligences, that it makes the future after the singularity qualitatively different and harder to predict. It has been proposed that a technological singularity will occur in the 21st century via one or more possible technological advances.

Doctorow discusses Newitz’ post and agrees with her identifying

a common flaw in futuristic prediction: assuming that technology will go far enough to benefit us, and then stop before it disrupts us. For a prime example from recent history, see the record industry’s correct belief that technology would advance to the point where we could have optical disc readers in every room, encouraging us to buy all our music again on CD; but their failure to understand that technology would continue to advance to the point where we could rip all those CDs and share the music on them using the Internet.

I think in the media industry most of us learned to see the disruptive effects of technological change. But as mentioned in my previous post, one of the common themes in near-future science fiction is security, which goes far beyond the upheaval in particular industries and has to do with our survival.

If the bold predictions by the singularity-thinkers are even remotely true, the growth of our technological capabilities risks to enable even small groups or individuals to produce and use weapons of mass destruction. These weapons could very well be designer bioviruses (read Doctorow’s interview with Ray Kurzweil).

In order to avoid such a catastrophic event to happen, authorities could try to establish a Big Brother regime. They could try to heavily regulate the dissemination of technology and knowledge. Kurzweil does not believe that would be the right response:

In Huxley’s Brave New World, the rationale for the totalitarian system was that technology was too dangerous and needed to be controlled. But that just pushes technology underground where it becomes less stable. Regulation gives the edge of power to the irresponsible who won’t listen to the regulators anyway.

The way to put more stones on the defense side of the scale is to put more resources into defensive technologies, not create a totalitarian regime of Draconian control.

This of course acknowledges the danger in a rather optimistic way – science and technology will deliver the tools necessary to stop the ultimate evil use of that same science and technology.

We could expand this discussion to media in general. Our networks, our beloved internet and the way it allows us to spread and discuss ideas, also helps those who are sufficiently alienated to dream of mass destruction. Even discussing how difficult it is to design a biovirus capable of erupting and spreading silently with long incubation periods, could incite some disgruntled young man (for a number of reasons, it seems primarily young males have such destructive desires) to actually try it out. But then again, talking about it openly could make more people aware of the dangers ahead and stimulate ideas and policies to deal with them.

What is fascinating as well as frightening is that the blending of augmented reality, virtual reality and the physical reality is a very fundamental process. Often we think of augmented reality and virtual worlds as ‘constructed’ environments while the physical reality is more stable, more solid. In fact, what we call ‘physical reality’ changes all the time – the ancient insight of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. We humans are working hard trying to control matter on an atomic and molecular scale, adding insights from biology and using our ever-expanding computing power – which one day could no longer be ‘our’ power.

Somehow the question in this ‘mixed realities’ world is whether we’re realizing the old dreams of ensuring the conditions for prosperity and happiness for all or whether the endgame of humanity is near.

Learning about globalization, terror, and media by reading near-future sci-fi

How will the future look like, for media and for society in general? It’s impossible to predict, but what we can do is work with plausible scenarios. One of my sources of inspiration is literature, more specifically near-future science fiction which seems to extrapolate trends we already see happening today. These are books I’ve read recently or which I’m reading now:

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. There is lots of augmented reality in the book, and the world has to deal with major security issues. Among the many fascinating characters: an anthropomorphic virtual rabbit. What about media? There are still paparazzi (maybe more than ever) and Vinge dedicates the novel to the internet-based cognitive tools that are changing our lives such as Wikipedia and Google. There are still physical books, but in danger of extinction. Laptops are still being used – by those who are resistant to change. I think it’s possible to use this book as a starting point for a meditation on the radicalization of instant messaging, online networks and gaming and online cognitive tools, discussing the challenges and opportunities of these developments.

Halting State by Charles Stross is a thriller set in the software houses that write multiplayer games. Once again it’s about security issues but also about finance as the software house is a public company. If you don’t have first-hand experience with Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) or Alternate Reality Games (ARG), chances are that this book will make you want to try it out.

Super Sad True Love Story by Shteyngart, Gary. What I like particularly in this book is the fact that the state of the economy plays an important role here. Things look bleak with China (and even Europe) in a very strong position while the US suffers a terrible crisis with massive social implications. Streaming media are a big hit – but do not necessarily contribute to the quality of public debate. Wearable devices double as tools for the security services. Physical books are still around, but they are considered weird.

For the Win by Cory Doctorow also deals extensively massively multiplayer online role-playing games. It’s about globalization, economics, virtual goods and labor. Independent news media production (in China!) is another important element here.

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald is set in 2027 Istanbul. Once again trade, security, economics, globalization and (nano)technology are prominent elements in the story. There are not only paparazzi in the future, but also investigative journalists using stealthy, secretive surveillers – as does the state.

Online social networks, effortless and pervasive instant messaging, the menace of mass destruction or of Big Brother, the transformation of reality in a mixture of the physical world (manipulated on nano level), virtual reality, gaming and augmented reality, the globalization and its geo-political and social consequences are themes in which you can immerse yourself by reading those books.

My project: organizing some meetings about these books, discussing what they tell us about different possible futures. My personal interest would be the future of the media, but others would be more than welcome to look at these and other books from other angles.

We would meet (of course) in a virtual world, most probably in the virtual town of Chilbo in Second Life. If you have suggestions for other books (or games, or videos… ) about the near-future, please let me know.

Tools which help us to live in the information streams

We’re living in streams or flows of information: think status updates, tweets, texting, rss-feeds… It’s an era of niche markets, of networks rather than destinations and what we need are tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content. That is what Danah Boyd eloquently explains on Educause Review. Danah is a social scientist at Microsoft Research and a research associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

I liked her Educause article Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media because of the ‘streams’ and ‘flow’ metaphors which in my opinion are very appropriate to describe today’s social media experience.

She deals with the issues of democratization, stimulation, homophily and power in a lucid way, not only talking about how awesome social media are but explaining the awkward and even threatening issues as well.

I’m especially interested in how we can create tools to provide context and meaning. Danah says:

We need technological innovations. For example, we need tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content regardless of where they are and what they are doing, and we need tools that allow people to slice and dice content so as to not reach information overload. This is not simply about aggregating or curating content to create personalized destination sites. Frankly, I don’t think this will work. Instead, the tools that consumers need are those that allow them to get in flow, that allow them to live inside information structures wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. They need tools that allow them to easily grab what they want and to stay peripherally aware without feeling overwhelmed.

This is rather abstract, which is good, because one needs a bit of higher level reasoning to see the structural issues at stake. However, I wonder what kind of tools Danah would suggest here. Google’s Living Stories are somehow a way to provide flexible context to breaking news, but I guess we should innovate more in order to help contextualizing things wherever people are or whatever they are doing.

The other major topic is that of the business models new media will use. Danah offers some high-level ideas, but leaves it to us  to propose concrete solutions:

Figuring out how to monetize sociality is a problem, and it’s not one that’s new to the Internet. Think about how we monetize sociality in physical spaces. The most common model involves second-order consumption of calories. Venues provide a space for social interaction to occur, and we are expected to consume to pay rent. Restaurants, bars, cafes—they all survive on this model. But we have yet to find the digital equivalent of alcohol.

I think virtual environments and augmented reality are interesting cases in this context. Virtual worlds are somehow islands in the information streams, inciting people to pay attention for a longer time, to immerse themselves. But at the same time those worlds are internally characterized by streams: for instance by the flows of group text chats and individual chats.

Augmented reality can put layers of context on the physical reality – layers which can consist out of more or less static information such as Wikipedia entries or out of streams like nearby tweets. Of course, augmented reality, virtual worlds and the physical reality can be combined in all sorts of interesting ways.

Or can they? As Danah remarks, the social media tools often are clunky. It takes learning curves to master them, and a geeky attitude. It’s not that very enjoyable to stare though your smartphone camera in order to see often clumsy little texts or virtual objects. Often the tools are the creations of computer scientists and engineers who’ve forgotten how ignorant, clumsy and resistant to change most people are, and it seems they’re not interested in providing tools which are fast, fun and easy to use. The Living Stories are a nice example: it’s a fascinating Google project, which was stopped and is now as an open source project available for others to develop – but it’s not beautiful, it does not seduce the common social media consumer (same story applies for Google Wave – made by software engineers for software engineers). Compare this to Apple (and let the engineers and true geeks howl): it’s slick, it’s beautiful, and all of a sudden the ubiquitous internet goes mainstream.

I’m convinced augmented reality and virtual environments will be important in helping us live in the streams – but we’ll need tools and objects which make us feel happy and which seduce us: fast, fun, easy and beautiful tools.

Those unstable populations of virtual environments and cities…

It is said that in a few decades time 80 percent of world population will live in cities. Those cities will depend on a superstructure of networked technology in order to provide food, water, energy and communication. The Impakt Festival 2010 Matrix City in Utrecht, the Netherlands, will discuss

(…) both the growing dependency of urban societies on their technological superstructures as well as the phenomena of massive online virtual environments with their unstable population and continuous reformulation of their own raison d’etre. This connects to the physicality of real-urbanism that loses its own purpose and function without networked technology, and to virtual environments that are losing their purpose without the physicality of human presence.

Interesting thought, “virtual environments with their unstable population and continuous reformulation of their own raison d’etre.” The organizers continue:

Virtual flight depicts the slow movement from the autonomous exclusive realm of virtual worlds, toward something that is more connected to real world physicality. During the last 5 years, we witness a stagnation in the development of virtual worlds. World of Warcraft with its “hack and slash” concept still dominates online worlds, while Second Life remains lost in defining the purpose for its own existence. This stagnation shows how technological, virtual platforms are dependent on a meaningful raison d’etre for individual participation, and that the massive euphoria around virtual online worlds from the mid 2000s ended in ontological dead-end, mostly because it didn’t take into account the complexities of social laws. More and more examples point currently to fusions between virtual environments and “real” social events, where the virtual framework is mirroring offline realities.

The conference about Superstructural Dependencies takes place on Friday October 15.

I won’t be able to attend but the ideas expressed in the announcement are fascinating. Augmented reality, location-based networks and games, alternate reality games (very interesting Wikipedia entry!) are ways to mix virtual and physical realities. All those genres can be ‘for entertainment only’, and/or have commercial, educational and transformative purposes.

(hat tip to Bruce Sterling who mentions this event on Beyond the Beyond and comments on it).

Telling the Living Story of The Metaverse in Turmoil

I’m trying to use Google Living Stories for a project about the Metaverse in Turmoil. The project is important to me because Living Stories could help bloggers and journalists to combine breaking news and context in a very user-friendly way – that is at least what Google promises.

Google made the project open source and in April a plugin for WordPress was introduced. Google as a company stopped developing the tool, so it seems. Here is more about the project (which of course was also a nice PR gesture to the newspaper industry):

Now, what are my intentions? I’m pretty sure we’ll see all kinds of interesting developments in the Metaverse during the next year. Augmented reality, mobile computing, ubiquitous internet access and virtual worlds will combine themselves in new and often surprising ways. We’ll watch closely what that will mean for Second Life, Linden Lab, new and old media.

Living Stories can help to bring all this together on one page, providing categories, a time-line, summaries etc. I just started developing the page The Metaverse in Turmoil, so you can expect that the page will gradually grow. If you’re interested in participating in the development of this Living Story, let me know!

Invading the MoMA NY using AR

This seems a very nice project: artists organize an exhibition in the New York  MoMA, and a few days before the opening the museum is “not involved yet.” How is this possible? The answer seems simple but there is quite an intellectual puzzle behind it: augmented reality.

Here is the invitation:

Opening October 9th, 4PM

Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek cordially invite you to their temporary exhibition in the MoMA NY, featuring augmented reality art in its proper context: a contemporary art museum.

At the same time, the ‘art invasion’ annex exhibition showcases the radical new possibilies and implications Augmented Reality is bringing to the cultural and creative field.

(PS The MoMA is not involved yet)

The artists are kind enough to explain:

Augmented Reality (AR) is the phenomenon adding virtual elements into our physical reality. These addition are viewable by pointing your contemporary smartphone to the world around you. The phone knows where you are (because of GPS) and with this data it connects to the internet to get the relevant images, visuals, 3D shapes and it puts them into your view.

‘AR’ technology allows anyone to (re-)shape anything, anywhere!

An example: the MoMA building NY will host a ‘virtual’ augmented reality show on the 9th of October 2010 But, they don’t know about it yet. The infiltration is part of the Conflux Psychogeoraphy festival.

Visitors are required to use iPhone or Android phones running the Layar Augmented Reality browser. Looking through their cameras visitors will be able to see the AR artwork. So, is this an invasion of the museum? Could the museum have any reasons to forbid this taking place, as demonstrated by a fictitious sign “no augmented reality beyond this point, please?”

Fictitious sign-post at the MoMA, no augmented reality beyond this point

Maybe you just shrug because this project seems innocent enough. But what if the AR exhibition would involve very disturbing pictures and documents? Would we still be so sure there would be no questions about a manifestation which after all is public – only the public can only see through smartphones, making the others virtually blind.

It also makes us wonder about the topic of exclusion. AR capable smartphones are not cheap (or they come with expensive data plans) – making the exhibition only accessible for the well-off, those visitors who don’t have the required tools are left wondering what the others see and discuss.

Which is okay, because it makes us wonder about the more general situation of societies with increasing inequality and what this implies in terms of access to ubiquitous knowledge and connections…

In the face of adversity, collaborate even more (and even smarter)

It was quite an evening, during which I tried to do some multitasking and so doing got some weird connections between ideas I’m working on.

  • I was attending the Metanomics show in Second Life, where professor Robert Bloomfield provided an overview of how economies are not dissimilar to game mechanics, and gave his take on what this means to the future of research (more about this in a later post).
  • While attending the show, I noticed there was dismay among members of the educational community. Not because of what Bloomfield was saying, but because of an announcement on the official Second Life blog, which seems to indicate that prices for many non-profits and educational projects will go up (currently such projects get discounts). Also have a look at the comments on the official blog post.
  • The New York Times via ReadWriteWeb quotes research by KZero, saying that the number of virtual world users breaks 1 billion, roughly half under age 15. In fact, it’s about registrations, not necessarily about active users, but still it’s an impressive number. The second largest group is 15 to 25 year olds, which increased by 15 million to hit 288 million accounts.
  • I was also reading Gamasutra (the art & business of making games) where Matt Christian posted an introduction to Agile and Scrum development. Scrum is an iterative, incremental methodology for project management often seen in agile software development, as explains Wikipedia. Christian explains how “Scrum creates a bottleneck (in a good way!) between management and the development team in order to keep the development team focused on the current piece of work.”
  • Finally, Robert Hernandez at the Online Journalism Review has a post about how to use geolocation paired up with augmented reality in journalism. He is working on media projects using tools such as Whrrl and stickybits.

So on the one hand there is this challenge of new generations of people familiar with games and virtual environments, there is this whole revolution of ubiquitous mobile computing power which gives us stuff like geo-locational services combined with social networks and games and augmented reality, on the other hand there is an educational system struggling for decent financing at a time of financial crisis.

Gaming and especially massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) are very interesting for research but also for studying how virtual communities work. Those ‘virtual’ communities tend to become very real, as companies outsource and collaborate with each other over the whole planet, meaning that people have to communicate and get on speaking terms disregarding geographical and cultural distances. Either people entering the workforce will be familiar with these environments, or they will suffer the consequences as they have to face the consequences of globalization without being able to use new media and virtual communities in a way which benefits them personally.

There are many educators and non-profit people (and also for profit people by the way) trying to spread the word, to convince older people to take these things seriously, to guide the young in their experiences of gaming, virtual worlds and augmented reality. There are many obstacles, as the new forces are disruptive and people often react in shock and denial. There is also a lack of proven business models for the most innovative projects (yay for augmented reality, but then again, even in the West only a minority has sophisticated smartphones and decent mobile broadband connections).

So traditionally educators, non-profits and people wanting to experiment ask for discounts and free rides. Sometimes companies will accept this because the hope it will ultimately be beneficial to the company, sometimes they won’t accept it because finally they are private companies and have shareholders who want a decent return on investment and don’t want to wait too long for that to happen.

All of which means that even more clever project management and collaboration is needed. Maybe more things can be done in Second Life, if we collaborate even more. Or maybe the technological challenges of open source projects such as OpenSim can be dealt with because the challenges can be tackled easily in collaboration with others.

Social media such as wikis, forums, virtual meeting places, blogs etc combined with open source, open transparent development projects and clever methodologies such as Scrum empower small nimble groups to innovate faster than established companies. Most importantly, in trying to do so and in self-educating ourselves through the achievements and inevitable failures, we’ll be better prepared to live in a globalized economy.