In the pursuit of meaning

(warning: philosophical nerdiness)
It is funny how one can keep encountering strange, weird words such as ‘ontology’ – which means something like ‘the study of what there is’ – but the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that this is just a first approximation. Anyway, I stumbled long ago on this word while studying philosophy. Ontology is part of metaphysics, which is another weird word.

This is how Wikipedia tries to bring it all together:

Ontology (from onto-, from the Greek ὤν, ὄντος “being; that which is”, present participle of the verb εἰμί, eimi “be”, and -λογία, -logia: “science, study, theory”) is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

Only many years later I realized ‘ontology’ is also used in information science. Ontologies in that context are structural frameworks for organizing information and are used in artificial intelligence, the Semantic Web, systems engineering, software engineering, biomedical informatics, library science, enterprise bookmarking, and information architecture as a form of knowledge representation about the world or some part of it. The creation of domain ontologies is also fundamental to the definition and use of an enterprise architecture framework. (Wikipedia)

Now I encountered the word ‘ontology’ in the About section of a company site of two co-learners of mine at the Howard Rheingold courses and projects.

Their company is called Ontologique – The Ontology Boutique. This is how their About section starts:

Ontologique is the collaborative brainchild of Joe Raimondo and his co-venturer in the wilds of the semantically aware web, Doug Breitbart. Our firm is dedicated to pursuit of an array of shared passions and convictions about technology in service to enhancement of meaning, understanding, knowledge and improvement of human productivity and the human condition, rather than the other way around.

In this context they do stuff for large companies but also for new or early phase or turnaround ventures that find themselves at the convergence of Web3.0, social media, gaming and game theory.

One might be inclined to consider all this consultant mumble jumble but I’m convinced that, in this case, it is not. Joe and Doug are intensely involved in this pursuit of meaning and clarification of meaning. More of us should be – this was one of the big messages of LeWeb 2012 where people such as cyber anthropologist Amber Case talked about converting big data, real time streams and mobile technology into stuff which actually is meaningful. Going back to my philosophical roots, I’d say that enhancing meaning helps us attaining eudaimonia – the Aristotelian notion which means not so much happiness but rather’human flourishing’.

These last few days I’ve been experimenting with Siri, Google Now and a number of similar services and apps. I’m more and more convinced that the next phase of the mobile revolution will be about meaning. How do we design smartphones, tablets and whatever other wearable devices in such a way that they can function as elegant organisms, rather than as a bunch of disconnected, shallow and addictive applications. How can we organize these services in such a way that they convey something meaningful? That’s the challenge for the designers, dreamers and techno-philosophers of this day and age.

MetaMeets! Virtuality Meets Reality

Tomorrow I’ll participate in the MetaMeets gathering in ‘s-Hertogenbosch,The Netherlands. What we’l do and talk about:

MetaMeets is a seminar/meeting about virtual worlds, augmented reality and 3D internet, this year’s topic will be The Art of Creation : Virtuality meets Reality.

Virtual worlds and 3D internet have been developing continuously. Mobile and browser based worlds have been created. Mesh format uploads have provided huge progress in content creation through open source programs like Blender and Google Sketchup.
Machinima creation has grown and improved with special interfaces and innovations in visual possibilities, making films shot in virtual worlds a professional tool for presentation to a mainstream audience.

MetaMeets has chosen this year to shine a light on this versatile digital canvas by taking its participants interactively into the Art of Creation. The programme will begin with a few lectures on the current state of virtual worlds and their new developments. Subsequently, we will have workshops exploring methods of accomplishing each of the key steps in 3D creation. The workshops will range from creating a virtual world on your own server, creating 3D content, creating (motion) pictures of it, and even printing 3D objects as real world 3D models.

We also will have an interactive roundtable discussion based on the movie The Singularity is Near that is released this summer for download and availible on dvd.

This is a mindmap I prepared. My subject is about the virtual which escapes into the real. Or how maybe Second Life is catering for a niche group of people, but the ethos of virtual worlds is spreading fast in what we once called the ‘real world’.

Create your own mind maps at MindMeister

Pilot Your Own Robotic Sub And Explore The Ocean With AcquatiCo | Singularity Hub

Another great story from Singularity Hub. If this Kickstarter project is successful, it will enable us to explore the oceans by just using our laptop or tablet. 

Which in a way reminds me of those cute iPad-robots enabling people to move around , see, hear and communicate from  whatever distance. So yes indeed, let’s do this in the oceans as well! 

“Eduardo Labarca wants to bring the ocean you. Not through the kind of striking, high-definition imagery that Planet Earth brought, but through an immersive experience where you actually get to navigate the corals, chase the fish, explore the shipwreck yourself. Which is why Labarca created AcquatiCo, a web-based ocean exploration platform. A Kickstarter campaign has been launched for the startup. If successful, it will be the first step in the company’s goal of giving people unprecedented access to the ocean’s treasures using just their computers, tablets or smartphones. I got a chance to talk with the Singularity University graduate and ask him about AcquatiCo, and his vision to “democratize the ocean.” ”

via Diigo

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.

The site Abundance.
The twitterfeed and the hashtag #Abundance.
The sites of the authors and
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:

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

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.

‘This is my cybernetic organism: the Internet’

I just finished reading William Gibson’s Distrust that Particular Flavor. Gibson is the man who gave us the notion of ‘cyberspace’ in his 1982 story “Burning Chrome” and popularized by his 1984 novel Neuromancer.
Here is his formulation of “cyberspace” in Neuromancer:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in het human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

To be precise, it’s not necessarily Gibson who says this. It’s a voice-over in the device the protagonist is using, calling it “kid’s show”.

For those who never read any of  Gibson’s books, do not fear, he explains some of his key ideas in the last chapter, such as the ‘cybernetic organism’:

There’s my cybernetic organism: the Internet. If you accept that “physical” isn’t only the things we can touch, it’s the largest man-made object on the planet, or will be, soon: It’s outstripping the telephone system, or ingesting it, as I speak. And we who participate in it are physically part of it. The Borg we are becoming.’

The interface evolves toward transparency, so he explains. The one you have to devote the least conscious effort to, survives.
So the sci-fi cyborg with brain inserts and bolts in the neck already looks slightly quaint. It’s a kind of steampunk version of what actually develops. Even Vannevar Bush, the author of the 1945 article As We May Think in The Atlantic Monthly, did not see this coming: that we would create libraries in common by linking up what Bush called “memex” and what we called later on “personal computer”.
The real cyborg is a global organism and it’s so invasive that the bolts in the neck look medieval.

The real-deal cyborg will be deeper and more subtle and exist increasingly at the particle level, in a humanity where unaugmented reality will eventually be a hypothetical construct, something we can only try, with great difficulty, to imagine – as we might try, today, to imagine a world without electronic media.

Which reminds me of the other book I’ve been reading, Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation by Beth Coleman, in which she explains her notion of “pervasive computing”:

(…) I use the term pervasive media to describe a global culture that engages a spectrum of networked technologies. I am speaking of technical affordances of platforms such as virtual worlds, voice-over-Internet protocol, mobile rich-media and texting, and microblogging formats such as Twitter.

She goes on mentioning YouTube, Facebook and blogs. Her assessment is that networked media, as a whole, simulates presence.

If a medium has a message, as McLuhan famously pronounced, then the message of the increasingly real-time, visual and locative media we engage is: “I am here”‘

She is not saying that a lived, bodily experience is the same as our experience of being filtered through an avatar (who are not just virtual world phenomena, but “our networked proxies”). Coleman is arguing for recognition of porous spheres of engagement that meet across a continuum of the actual.
And here is what Gibson says when he discusses the meaning of “the physical”:

The physical union of human and machine, long dreaded and long anticipated, has been an accomplished fact for decades, though we tend not to see it. We tend not to see it because we are it, and because we still employ Newtonian paradigms that tell us that “physical” has only to do with what we can see, or touch. Which of course is not the case. The electrons streaming into a child’s eye from the screen of the wooden television (RL: he refers to television sets of the fifties) are as physical as anything else. As physical as the neurons subsequently moving along that child’s optic nerves. As physical as the structures and chemicals those neurons will encounter in the human brain. We are implicit, here, all of us, in a vast physical construct of artificially linked nervous systems. Invisible. We cannot touch it.

Watch Gibson reading from his new book:

Now let’s switch to co-presence in yet another sci-fi masterpiece,  Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge.. One of the most fascinating appearances in this book is the Rabbit, a person (or an AI entity) taking part in a conversation in Barcelona in the form of a rabbit. Others can see him – as a rabbit – and he (she?) can look around. Also featuring in this quote is effortless instant messaging:

The rabbit sipped its tea. Its gaze slid in a very un-rabbity way to take in the noisy crowds that swept past the tables, to
scan the costumes and body-plans of tourists and locals. “Ah, is it that Barcelona is a place for the beautiful and the
bizarre, one of the few great cities of the twentieth century whose charm survives in the modern world? (…) ” He stared at Braun and at Keiko Mitsuri. Mitsuri was frankly masked. She looked a bit like Marcel Duchamp’s
nude, built from a shifting complex of crystal planes. The rabbit shrugged, “But then again, maybe you two are
thousands of kilometers away.”
Keiko laughed. “Oh, don’t be so indecisive,” she said, speaking with a completely synthetic accent and syntax. “I’m quite
happy to be in Parc Güell right now, feeling reality with my very own real hands.”
Mitsuri –> Braun, Vaz: In fact, I’m in my office, admiring the moonlight on Tokyo bay.
The rabbit continued, ignorant of the silent messaging byplay: “Whatever. In any case, the real reasons for meeting
here: Barcelona has very direct connections to wherever you’re really from, and modern security to disguise what we
say. Best of all, it has laws banning popular and police snooping … unless of course you are the EU Intelligence Board.”
Mitsuri –> Braun, Vaz: Well, that’s one third of a correct guess.
Braun –> Mitsuri, Vaz: Mr. Rabbit himself is calling from some distance. An EU real-time estimate hung in the
air above the little creature’s head: 75 percent probability that the mind behind the rabbit image was in North America.

Now connect this with a non-fiction setting, the GigaOM Roadmap conference. Om Malik reports on GigaOm:

Mathew Ingram. The thread I was most interested in that came out of RoadMap was what Jack Dorsey called “the arc where technology meets humanness.” The Twitter and Square founder talked about using technology to help us connect more with what makes us human, Tony Fadell of Nest talked about making devices that respond more intuitively, and Mark Rolston from frog design was really passionate about getting the computer out of the way, to the point where we barely even realize there is a computer at all. Put together, all those make for a very powerful message that I wish more technology companies would pay attention to.

In Natural Born Cyborgs professor Andy Clark the author says:

Understanding what is distinctive about human reason thus involves understanding the complementary contributions of both biology and (broadly speaking) technology, as well as the dense, reciprocal patterns of causal and co-evolutionary influence that run between them. We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature’s very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind.

So the computer becoming human-like is not something external, which happens “out there” and involves just one of the many tools we humans use. It actually is another evolution of our extended mind, our becoming increasingly cyborg-like.

Of course, we generally don’t like being assimilated by the Borg. But then again, this is not what seems to be happening. The connectedness of our extended minds does not lead to an organism which obeys one set of rules and follows one single common belief system. As one of the participants at a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) said on Twitter, MOOCs are communities with smaller communities within. We do connect beyond geographical limitations of course, and it seems we respond to affinities. Beth Coleman in Hello Avatar:

The Pew Internet study tells us that affinity groups are thriving, but the connections are configured along new lines that often defy the demarcation of territory or blood. We find the dissolution of traditional frames of community and society, even as we relocate ourselves across networks of affiliation. The critical aspect to grasp is the value of networked engagement in moving toward a better understanding of society in the twenty-first century.

Fandom culture is a very interesting topic to study in order to understand this “networked engagement”. I’m reading Fandom Unbound now (see my previous post) and Lawrence Eng, in his contribution about Anime and Manga Fandom as Networked Culture, explains about radical fandom (“otaku” in Japanese):

Contrary to the stereotypical image of the otaku as socially isolated, anime fan communities are highly social and networked, relying on a combination of online and offline connections.

Just consider the possibility of amplifying the concept of “otaku” to the curation practices we talks so much about these days, and one can easily understand these studies are relevant for web culture as a whole, while web culture studies are not just about “the web”, but about where humanity is going.

Also read Pagan Kennedy in The New York Times: William Gibson’s Future is Now, and one of my earlier posts about this subject: What Aristotle teaches us about our being cyborgs

Social discovery services turn the world into a virtual environment

There is something strange going on with virtual worlds. MixedRealities used to focus heavily on worlds such as Second Life, but these days less so as I no longer think that Second Life is “the future of the internet”. It’s an interesting niche product, but not about to go mainstream, not now and I suspect it never will in its current form.

But on the other hands, the physical reality now gets augmented by all kinds of social and mobile layers. For now augmented reality as such did not go mainstream either, but that could change if ever the “Google Goggles” would indeed be launched by year-end and if it proves popular. But in a less spectacular, but more pervasive way, virtual worlds elements are finding their way to mass adoption.

First, what do I mean by “virtual world elements”? Well, everything related to “social discovery”: you look around on a virtual world map, and typically you see those dots representing other participants. You click on a dot or hover on it, and you get access to their profile, you get means to chat with them etc. In Second Life at least I’ve the impression that the text chat function is extremely popular: lots of avatars standing around, not moving, seemingly away from keyboard (AFK) but in reality happily text chatting away.

Now look at the mobile & social internet. On SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, social discovery services the new big thing. Apps such as Glancee, Highlight, Sonar, Banjo and others allow you to see who is around, and (some more than others) try to filter those present in function of their relevance to you: number of contacts you both share on the social networks, interests you share via Facebook… Basically they use the information which is out there about you (via social networks, via the localization data of your smartphone) in order to match you with “relevant people” close to you (hence a new version emerges of the filter bubble danger, I guess).

The world, looked at through your smartphone, becomes a map where your contacts are localized in more or less real time. A touch and you get more information about those people: what was it again you have in common? And of course the possibility to chat with them is another touch away. Well, this is something virtual worlds people are used to.

The social discovery services go beyond the individual level. Shadow Cities allows you to play a World of Warcraft kind of game based on your location, and to unite in a guild. Wallit! builds virtual walls which can be seen by everyone but where you need to be in the neighborhood in order to leave a message on the wall – maybe it could be used for neighborhood projects. Localmind organizes the participants as “local experts” who can respond to questions.

For more information about the action going on in the “personal discovery field” in Austin, read Robert Scoble. Remember: the 2007 edition of SXSW brought us Twitter, in 2009 Foursquare (and Gowalla) was the talk of the town and in 2011 “group texting” was the big theme – so chances are we’re witnessing now another big move in the social&mobile evolution.

No doubt not all of those personal discovery thingies and other location-based services will survive, but the trend is clear: an overwhelming supply of apps allowing you to “discover people” locally, to exchange information and collaborate locally. Add this to wearable devices, to face recognition and our physical world blends with the digital realm in such a way that we can, indeed, consider it a “mixed reality”. Which will very soon be a concept for non-digital natives, as the new generations will just consider these services as part of their one and only reality, just like we no longer think that phones and televisions are some kind of special dimension.

But we, who lived through the first adventurous steps of bulletin boards, chat systems, forums and virtual environments, see the evolution and cannot help being amazed, and also a bit worried. But more about that later.