The future is better than we think.

One of the big inspirations for the MixedRealities blog is the book Race against the machine, written by the MIT-researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. These last few days I’ve read another book about globalization and exponentially growing technologies, Abundance, The Future Is Better Than You Think, by the engineer and entrepreneur Peter H. Diamandis and journalist/entrepreneur Steven Kotler.

I wrote a column (in Dutch) about the book and the reaction of our newspaper community during a chat session, but here I’ll give more a ‘MixedRealities-take’.

Our brains are hard wired to be in constant alert, changes around us can always be catastrophic. This is useful when your life is constantly threatened by predators, but in a contemporary society it makes us far too pessimistic. It makes us look foremost at the dangers and the negative news while we downplay positieve news.

Cover of the book AbundanceIn the meantime we evolved from beings with a very local horizon and a linear technological evolution to people living in a world defined by global collaboration and an exponential evolution of key technologies. Diamandis gives a very positive, even exhilirating view on developments in sectors such as biotech and bio-informatics, nanotechnology, computer networks, robotics and sensors, pharma and education.

Small and highly innovative teams accomplish breakthroughs, eventually stimulated by prize competitions and with a considerable push in the back by techno-philantropists. But there’s also the ‘bottom of the pyramide’, the one billion poor who are doing better because of technologies such as mobile communication and microfinance-institutions. Those people represent not only a new market, but their needs lead to innovations which are applicable elsewhere (like the manufacturing of ultra-cheap cars or the use of distributed energy production).

Education, international collaboration, telepresence, knowledge networks and the organization of small teams of innovators are subjects about which MixedRealities wants to post on a regular basis. The blog starts about five years ago with a firm focus on virtual worlds, and I’ll continue writing about those environments but in the broader context I mentioned above.

Even though Abundance is exhilirating optimistic, the authors do recognize the challenges ahead. 3D printing can help small teams to engage in the production of goods on a worldwide level, challenging multinational companies. But it can also be used by other small teams to collaborate in the production of weapons of mass destruction. The same applies for biotech labs, which become ever more affordable, but also this DIY-revolution can be used for destructive purposes. Or nanotechnology, which could lead to massive destruction of matter – the grey goo scenario.

The solution for all this is not less technology, but more. The restrictions on stem cell research in the US did not end that research, it simply moved abroad. It appears to be impossible to stop the technological evolution – even world wars, revolutions and financial meltdowns don’t stop technology.

It’s easy to consider Abundance as a typical example of a naive American optimism. But in reality, it’s the only hope we have: advancing as rapidly as we can in the development of knowledge, science and technology, and enhancing worldwide collaboration. There are many, many very concrete examples of all this in Abundance.

Resources:
The site Abundance.
The twitterfeed and the hashtag #Abundance.
The sites of the authors www.diamandis.com and www.stevenkotler.com.
Diamandis is also co-founder and chairman of the Singularity University and chairman of the X Prize Foundation.
Here you can watch a TED-presentation by Diamandis:

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Navigating the massive open online courses by Mechanical MOOC

Another week, another Coursera-course (via the University of Toronto): Learn to Program: The Fundamentals by Jennifer Campbell and Paul Gries:

Behind every mouse click and touch-screen tap, there is a computer program that makes things happen. This course introduces the fundamental building blocks of programming and teaches you how to write fun and useful programs using the Python language.

Which is a good thing, because my experiences with Code Year were not exactly stellar. The html and css part really went very well, but the scripting part, stuff such as jQuery and Python, was rather frustrating.
On October 15 another platform, edX (Harvard and MIT) starts CS50x: Introduction to Computer Science (Harvardx). While Coursera offers a 7 week-course, the Computer Sciences course runs till April 15, 2013. It goes far beyond an introduction to one particular language:

CS50x is Harvard College’s introduction to the intellectual enterprises of computer science and the art of programming for computer science majors and non-majors alike. An entry-level course taught by Harvard Senior Lecturer David J. Malan, CS50x teaches students how to think algorithmically and solve problems efficiently. Topics include abstraction, algorithms, encapsulation, data structures, databases, memory management, security, software development, virtualization, and websites. Languages include C, PHP, and JavaScript plus SQL, CSS, and HTML. Problem sets explore the real-world domains of cryptography, finance, forensics, gaming, and beyond. As of Fall 2011, the on-campus version of CS50 (Computer Science 50) was Harvard College’s second-largest course.

On that very same platform, MITx offers their version of an Introduction to Computer Science and Programming, starting October 1.

But then again, there is the Mechanical Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), hence the Mechanical MOOC. The Mechanical MOOC is a new model for online learning, one that works by combining existing web resources rather than creating a whole new learning environment.This is the mail I got from them (course starts on October 15):

Good people of the Mechanical MOOC,

Welcome to an experiment in online learning. MOOC knows you’re mighty excited to begin learning Python. We’ll be up and operational shortly. Read on to find out what happens next.

When Do We Start?
The course begins October 15th. Mechanical MOOC kindly asks you to start your engines.

What Should I Do?
Get to know the participating sites. The Mechanical MOOC is a new model for online learning, one that works by combining existing web resources rather than creating a whole new learning environment. This gives you the best of what’s out there, but it means you need to take a few minutes to learn how each site works.

How Do I Do That?
Over the next couple of days, we’ll send you e-mails with a brief description of each site and links to key features so you can begin to get to know these resources. You can begin to set up your accounts and profiles as you explore.

We’ll send more specifics on how the course will work soon.

Get MOOCing!

— The Mechanical MOOC

Tweet #mmooc
The Mechanical MOOC’s A Gentle Introduction to Python is a collaboration between Peer 2 Peer University, MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenStudy and Codecademy. For this course, Peer 2 Peer University has developed an email scheduler that coordinates student activity across the participating sites to facilitate collaborative learning. This email was generated by the scheduler. For more information, please visit http://mechanicalmooc.org.

So it will be interesting to find out whether the Mechanical MOOC helps to filter and aggregate open course content, or whether it will just increase the avalanche of course materials. While in 2008 Stephen Downes and George Siemens had their first MOOC, these days there is a steadily increasing supply of MOOCs (of very different styles, from the free and wild Downes/Siemens model to very structured, formal class-like models.

But then again, how easy will it be to combine the existing course material? ‘Open’ does not necessarily mean videos, texts and presentations can just be plugged in somewhere else. Stanford University now offers Class2Go, yet another MOOC-platform, but… :

It’s open. The platform is open source so that anyone who wants to can collaborate with us. We would love to have others use the platform, or to work together with similar efforts in other places.
It’s portable. We believe strongly that valuable course content shouldn’t be tied to any one platform. Documents are already portable; the videos are outside our system (on YouTube) and the assets themselves can be repurposed as faculty see fit. And our exercises and problem sets, instead of being trapped in a proprietary database, are in the Khan Academy format, so they can be used elsewhere.
It’s interoperable. We don’t want to build or maintain more than we have to. We’re standing on the shoulders of developments from Khan Academy, Piazza, YouTube, MySQL, Python Django, Amazon AWS, Opscode, and Github.

Which must rejoice the guys at Mechanical MOOC, I presume. Oh yes, if you want to follow up on the MOOC courses, here is the class-central list for Coursera, edX, Stanford, Udacity and MIT. Stephen Downes also curates a list, which includes of course also Connectivist-style MOOCs (the free and wild variety), peer2peer styled courses etc. I’ll wait for some more curated lists to come before I’ll launch a curated list of curated lists 🙂

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Mobile telepresence via an iPad on wheels

So how can we transcend as seamlessly as possible the restrictions of distances and geography? Affordable telepresence can be achieved using virtual environments, or by an increasing array of cheap or free videoconferencing tools, but there are emerging new possibilities which are very exciting. I’m looking into the possibilities of (relatively cheap) drones, and I discovered today the Drone Journalism Lab:

Links, thoughts and research into using drones, UAVs or remotely piloted vehicles for journalism at the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

But the second thing I discovered was almost unsettling. It’s like a drone on wheels. It’s telepresence, a bit like Mr Rabbit in Rainbows End (Vernor Vinge), demonstrating telepresence of a (possible) A.I. in a dramatic way:

The rabbit hopped onto the unoccupied wicker chair and thence to the middle of the table, between the teacups and the condiments. It tipped its top hat first at Alfred Vaz and then at Günberk Braun and Keiko Mitsuri. “Have I got a deal for you!” it said. Altogether, it was an unremarkable example of its type.

Alfred reached out and swiped his hand through the image, just to emphasize his own substance. “We’re the ones with the deal.”

(…)

From the other side of table, Günberk Braun gave the creature a long stare. Braun was as ephemeral as the rabbit, but he projected a dour earnestness that was quite consistent with his real personality. Alfred thought he detected a certain surprised disappointment in the younger man’s expression. In fact, after a moment, Günberk sent him a silent message.

Anyway, we’re not quite there yet. But this is very cool, as it allows you to be at two places simultaneously in a relatively natural and mobile way. Eventually two places very far apart. Double by Double Robotics:

Peter Murray on Singularity Hub has more about this.

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Can Ethnography Save Enterprise Social Networking? | Ethnography Matters

” For example, companies try to incentivize employees to fill out social profiles, or blog, or join communities, but often employees don’t understand why, or what’s in it for them to change their behavior to collaborate in such a public way. The result – slow adoption of the ESN. Can better design practices solve the problem? How can ethnographers help fill the context and cultural gap?”

Interesting (see also my previous post about ethnography and virtual worlds). It’s common sense to put the human in the center of stuff such as entreprise social networks (ESN). I’m wondering how to combine ethnographic insights in this regard with gamification. 
via Diigo http://ethnographymatters.net/2012/09/20/can-ethnography-save-enterprise-social-networking/

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Users of the WELL take over their online community

-Salon Media Group (SLNM.PK) and The Well Group, 
Inc. today jointly announced that The WELL is now under the ownership of The Well Group, 
Inc., a private investment group composed of long-time WELL members.
The Well Group, Inc. consists entirely of long-time WELL users with an average tenure  exceeding 20 years.

The purchase marks the first major online business taken private by users of  the business itself. 
via Diigo http://www.well.com/p-release/pr_20120920.pdf

Update:Just wondering, and totally speculative. Just like the WELL, Second Life is almost entirely user generated. Suppose, just suppose, that the new strategy does not work out, that growth remains flat while the new projects work out really well. Suppose Linden Lab would consider selling Second Life – would (a group of) residents be able to buy the place? Or would everybody just flock to alternatives such as OpenSim?

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How relevant is an avatar?

What does it mean to be an avatar? Or should we say to ‘have’ an avatar? And what is an avatar: the thumbnail on a Twitter of Facebook account? The 3D characters in World of Warcraft or in Second Life? The textual description of a character in a text-only roleplaying environment?

In a comment on ‘The Metaverse is dead, long live shared creative spaces’, Caliburn Susanto says:

There are those of us (definitely a minority) who acclimate quickly to enjoying the 3-D online environment AS an avatar (as opposed to USING an avatar). Some people — the “niche market” everyone speaks of — have a Gestalt moment early on when the avatar stops being “it” (a cursor with arms and legs) and becomes “me.” From that point forward the humanity comes through and immersion becomes possible. The person’s character and emotions flow through his or her individualized puppet and the environment stops being a game (for lack of a better term) and becomes a place, a world. For most people (and I’ve tried with friends and acquaintances with very little success!) such immersion is foreign and even unpleasant.

I have the feeling that representation of self in digital environments is important – but how to learn more about it? One way to study this could be ethnography, so I bought Ethnography and Virtual Worlds, by Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce and T.L. Taylor.

Bookcover Ethnography and virtual worlds

The publishers at Princeton University Press say this is a concise, comprehensive, and practical guide for students, teachers, designers, and scholars interested in using ethnographic methods to study online virtual worlds, including both game and nongame environments.

The focus of the handbook is on ‘virtual worlds’, meaning:
– places that have a sense of worldliness
– multi-user (shared environments, synchronous communication and interaction)
– persistent (they continue to exist also when players log off)
– allowing players to embody themselves (usually as avatars)

Which means that for instance Facebook is not a virtual world, because of the lack of worldliness and embodiment (even though in Facebook or linked to Facebook there are virtual worlds). So a possible tension is that the results of research in for instance Second Life are only relevant to that particular environment (or maybe even relevant to specific communities in that world). So will such research learn us something about for instance online collaborative learning on forums and blogs, rather than in a virtual world as defined above?

Chapter One, Why this Handbook, concludes by saying:

Many of the many contributions of virtual world ethnography is to broaden this conversation by showing how forms of technologically mediated sociality shape and are shaped by the contemporary context.

Which sounds nice, but the question remains: will data about how people use avatars in World of Warcraft learn us something beyond World of Warcraft? If I find out, I’ll post it here – and don’t hesitate sharing your experiences in this regard!

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UK to ease rules for tech share listings | Reuters

“Britain plans to make it easier for technology firms to list their shares in London, the government said on Thursday, in an attempt to stem the flow of high-growth companies heading across the Atlantic in search of capital.”

Interesting. Countries in a competition to keep their tech wizards at home. But how important are stock markets for innovation? And nation-states?  
via Diigo http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/09/20/uk-ipo-tech-idUKBRE88J0AP20120920

While I’m writing this, we’re covering a 1.96 billion euro ($2.56 billion) bid by US-based cable operator Liberty Global for the shares in Belgian peer Telenet it did not already own. There is quite some discussion here in Belgium about the transfer of important corporate decision centers to other countries such as the US. Globalization and nation-states, it remains an interesting combination.

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The metaverse is dead. Long live shared creative spaces!

Linden Lab, the company behind the virtual world Second Life, is about to launch two non-Second Life products: Creatorverse and Patterns. Creatorverse is an iPad-app:

Patterns will be a ‘new 3D creative environment’. Virtual World-watcher Wagner James Au says on New World Notes that Linden Lab no longer has as mission to make an online world ‘that advances the human condition’ but rather specializes in ‘shared creative spaces’ – not in facilitating the emergence of the metaverse. For those who forgot about the metaverse – which seems these days a bit like an antiquated idea – Wikipedia defines it as thus:

The Metaverse is our collective online shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet. The word metaverse is a portmanteau of the prefix “meta” (meaning “beyond”) and “universe” and is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.

Second Life is stagnating, at least not growing like Californian tech companies are supposed to growth (that being said, it seems to be profitable). I’ve been fascinated by that virtual world since about 2007, as it allows to transcend geographical and maybe even cultural distances. It enables people to meet, avatar-wise, in shared and persistent spaces. It has a creative and liberal culture – the world is almost entirely created by its ‘residents’. For a while I thought that maybe the future internet would look like a sophisticated Second Life, and that 2D-objects such as websites would simply be a part of that metaverse.

In the meantime I realized that it’s a niche culture. At first it was believed that Second Life, as a user-generated, free culture for (mainly) adults did not go mainstream because of management and marketing errors. There were other attempts to create a open-ended, user-generated worlds, such as Lively (Google), Metaplace.com (Raph Koster), Blue Mars, which failed. Other worlds are still very much alive such as OpenSim (like Second Life, but open source), the very new Cloud Party (browser-based) and Jibe (an embeddable virtual environment, visit Reactiongrid’s new site). I like projects such as OpenSim and Jibe, but those are even more niche than Second Life (and often the users/residents are former Second Life people).

Moya museum in the virtual world Cloud Party

Patrick Moya museum in the virtual world Cloud Party

Some think that virtual environments will gain traction once they are browser-based (no hefty downloads) and are made easier to use. I’m sceptical: while I feel comfortable in a virtual environment and as an avatar, for many others it’s an uncanny experience, especially in a professional context. I have the feeling that it is about the representation of oneself and others, about identities, not about technical hurdles.

It seems to be different for online games which of course did go mainstream, also for adult audiences – but then again, these are games, not open ended user generated worlds. Minecraft is very popular, but it’s more a game (while there are game environments inside Second Life, the world itself is not a game). As it is explained on the Minecraft site:

I strongly believe that all good stories have a conflict, and that all good games tell a good story regardless of if it’s pre-written or emergent. Free building mode is fine and dandy, but for many people it will ultimately become boring once you’ve got it figured out. It’s like playing a first person shooter in god mode, or giving yourself infinite funds in a strategy game.. a lack of challenge kills the fun.

Still, I do like this notion of virtual shared creative spaces. It is exactly what we’ll need in many different contexts, as globalization increases dramatically and the technological possibilities multiply exponentially. But there is competition. Just suppose you want to link up with other people, elsewhere in the world, for a project or even a joint venture. You don’t have the budget for a high-end videoconferencing system. I guess that Google+ Hangout – with its videoconferencing features, screensharing, chat-possibilities, apps, network, possibility to save the conference and with links with the other Google goodies would do a very nice job. It even is free.
My guess is that you’ll mainly use the Google-stuff. A virtual environment? Maybe to create 3D-objects together, if that would be your line of business or educational project. Or as a fun experiment. Or for a simulation.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of these possibilities. Especially not because I’m a firm believer in the importance of developments such as 3D printing. Creating 3D objects together, or at least experiencing 3D prototypes in a virtual environment might very well be very interesting. But I would not call it ‘the metaverse’.

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