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.

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Virtual Goods: Opportunities, Challenges and Acquisitions

My favorite virtual show Metanomics will discuss tomorrow, on Monday October 18, the hot topic of ‘virtual goods’:

Now, the virtual goods industry has moved well beyond Silicon Valley and has the interest of Wall Street. From Facebook to Zynga to Second Life, the virtual goods industry has seen rapid growth over the past few years. They have redefined games where subscription-based models have been replaced by free-to-play games that sell virtual goods to a thin sliver of their player base: what are often called the ‘whales’.

Michael (Mick) Bobroff is no stranger to emerging markets. In the early 1990s, Mick was deeply involved in another new frontier which opened up in unpredictable ways: Russia. Now, a Partner at Ernst & Young, Bobroff is examining the challenges and opportunities of the virtual goods market.

The embrace of social gaming platforms and virtual goods will, he believes, lead to continued opportunities for venture capitalists and we’ll soon see large firms making acquisitions in the virtual goods arena.

Metanomics host Robert Bloomfield hosts Michael Bobroff at our new day (Monday) October 18th at 12 p.m. PT.

You can join in through our main stage in Second Life, or watch a live video stream of the event on this page.

More about the show and the speaker on Metanomics.net.

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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.

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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).

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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!

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Stay hungry, stay foolish

I am thinking back to the students I met at a journalism seminar. What does one basically want to tell graduate students that goes beyond techniques and some insights in where journalism and media might be going? Something more about values and attitudes?

I found this famous Stanford University video on the EconoShock blog of the Belgian economist Geert Noels. The video features Steve Jobs, connecting the dots of his life. The video should be ‘required watching’ for all our graduates – and for all our dropouts. The final words, ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’, echo the final words of the Whole Earth Catalog:

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Gaming in the cloud is great news for immersive journalism

I love playing Pocket Legends from Spacetime Studios on my iPad (my avatar is the courageous but clumsy Wilbear). The game has all the characteristics of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft: quests, group action, contests between players and player groups etc. It’s pretty good graphically speaking, but don’t expect the actual World of Warcraft graphical wizardry.


But then again, this game may get some competition very soon, maybe from World of Warcraft itself and from even more high-end games. Dusan Writer mentions the Gaikai cloud service which may do just that: enabling players to immerse themselves in pc- and console games right in their browsers. Which also means enabling the game companies to reach potential customers without awkward downloads or distributing physical stuff: one click on almost any device as long as there’s a decent broadband connection.  Yay for cloud computing!


Now, this is a real revolution for the gaming industry. Giving players and potential players direct and effortless access to the games also helps the game developers and designers to instantly analyze how people react to the games. Of course, it’s bad news for those living from the physical distribution of games – even though it may take some time before that distribution will be extinct (we’ve the same conversations about print news media of course).

Talking about news media: this development would eliminate yet another hurdle for using immersive journalism techniques. Now we had examples of immersive journalism in Second Life such as this project about the Guantanamo detention center:

Another immersive project by Nonny de la Peña, Cap&Trade:

Other possibilities for journalism include talk shows with a virtual audience, inviting people who would be difficult to get (or rather expensive) in the physical world (Metanomics is a nice example, they’ll have Noam Chomsky on October 12). Or you could simply convene a meeting with community members for an open-ended discussion, more immersive than when using a traditional text chat (have a look at the We Are the Network meetings in Second Life, but there are many other examples).

The problem: not many members of my newspaper community for instance are ready to download the Second Life client, and those willing to do so could run into problems because their computers are relatively low-end or because they are behind some corporate firewall. All those problems could be solved if projects such as Gaikai really succeed in bringing Second Life, OpenSim, Blue Mars (working with another company, Otoy) on any device, anytime and anywhere (always assuming there is decent broadband!). There is also OnLive – which is already up and running in the contiguous US – but which seems to need a limited download (which can be too much asked for office environments).

Once virtual environments are accessible in one click the mainstream audience could unlock easily the possibilities for immersive journalism and immersive storytelling. It will give journalists and storytellers new possibilities to interact with their communities and will make methodologies used in software development even more relevant so as to keep up with news stories and the requirements of the community. This in turn could inspire citizen-journalists or non-professional storytellers to go deeper and create content themselves, knowing that there is a big and relevant community out there to explore their work.

Message to journalism institutes: this makes ‘serious gaming’ and virtual environments even more relevant for your student-journalists. Help them to explore content, network and business opportunities of this development!

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A practical guide by Howard Rheingold for curating information into knowledge

Just found this new screencast by Howard Rheingold about finding, refining, organizing and curating information. It’s really about the basics of the social media ecosystem, while augmented reality and immersive environments can be considered the high-end part of it.

New for me (I’ll have to add it in my Prezi-presentation) were DEVONthink (for organizing information beyond Diigo and Delicious) and Scrivener (for writing, combining and manipulating your documents into new texts, it’s a Mac-tool).

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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…

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Rosedale about applying the principles of LoveMachine Inc in media companies

Philip Rosedale at the SLCC 2010, picture by Elisabeth Leysen

A few weeks ago I started exploring  liquidnews, an open project for collaborative media.  It reminded me of projects in Second Life, where developers at Linden Lab use the Scrum methodology for their viewer project (Snowstorm), publishing the documentation and getting comments from the community for the project.

The Second Life community also has a tradition of community conventions (SLCC), which are organized by residents of the virtual world, independently from Linden Lab (even though Linden Lab is a major sponsor and has key people deliver keynotes). Those gatherings are very inspiring and also give the residents the opportunity to question Linden Lab policies.

I asked the founder and CEO of Linden Lab, Philip Rosedale, for an interview. This was before Linden Lab made an announcement which shocked the education and non-profit community in Second Life: basically the end of the discount pricing for those organizations. So I’ll have to disappoint those involved: the interview was strictly about the application of Agile, Scrum and more radical versions of these philosophies in media projects. I discovered that ‘radical version’ of an open company while studying LoveMachine Inc, another company Philip started.

Even though MixedRealities is not a “Second Life blog”, I do have my virtual office there and up to this day Second Life is a major source of inspiration for my social media practice at my newspaper. So I attended today a gathering of non-profit and education people at Rockcliffe University, an online non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of education and science in 3d virtual environments. About 70 avatars discussed the new pricing policies. There will be a meeting with a representative of Linden Lab, organizations start looking for closer collaboration and/or study possibilities to move away from Second Life and establish themselves on for instance OpenSim grids.

There are lots of complaints about the communication by Linden Lab. Educators and non-profits are among the most interesting content creators in Second Life, but they don’t know what the strategy of Linden Lab is. Yes, the new thinking of “fast, easy and fun” has been discussed at the community convention, but educators were taken by surprise when it was announced there that the Teen Grid (Second Life for teens) would be stopped. They were also shocked when Linden Lab announced lay-offs and a reorganization, but then again, Linden Lab is a private company.

The whole situation is once again very interesting for all those who have a broader interest in social media. The content of Second Life is produced by the users/residents, using the platform and tools provided by Linden Lab. Does this mean that the residents should be treated as citizens rather than as customers of a private company? Is Linden Lab just a company, or also a kind of government? Should the residents have a right to be represented in the board of directors?

These are fascinating questions, and many others could be added (like about the relationship of Second Life with the open source universe of OpenSim). But, as I said, the interview was not about Linden Lab or Second Life as such, but about the organization of media start-ups.

Philip Rosedale told me that at Linden Lab he is not applying the same principles as at the LoveMachine. I also should mention that the LoveMachine is not a virtual world, it is a company building a crowdsourced review and bonus system (among other projects). It is a start-up and as such can experiment more than a more established company. Even though the interview is not about the transformation at Linden Lab, it was interesting to learn about Rosedale’s vision on a new model for start-ups, allowing them to survive and outsmart established companies.

Read the interview and the context on my blog at PBS MediaShift: Linden Lab’s Rosedale Considers ‘Scrum’ Method in Newsrooms.

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