Race against the machine meets radical transparency

In the book Race against the machine, written by the MIT-researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, one of the examples of the exponential technological development is the self-driving Google car. Google claims to have safely completed over 200,000 miles of computer-led driving, even though there is some discussion about this.

Of course there is scepticism about the self-driving car (read also the post on TPM Idealab). Who is ultimately responsible if anything goes wrong? There must be some human to blame, no?

In Race Against the Machine  the vision is optimistic. It is told how in 2004 the first DARPA Grand Challenge (in an unpopulated desert) ended miserably. In 2010 Google could announce that it had modified Toyota Priuses into fully autonomous cars. In only a few years time something seemingly impossible became possible.

So maybe that in a not too distant future we’ll consider automated truck driving normal while we will deem the practice of humans driving dangerous trucks as foolishly dangerous. But then again, isn’t driving a car or a truck a most passionate act, and can we even imagine to make computer driving the default option?

Information technology could change other things as well on our roads, even without self-driving cars. When the Internet of Things turns objects into endless streams of communication, it would be very odd to continue with weird interventions such as random speed limit controls – and even weirder, the announcement and localization of those controls by the authorities themselves.  What we can expect are cars which constantly send out streams of information, triggering alerts when speed limits and other regulations are being violated. Those alerts could be easily communicated and the offending drivers would pay the consequences or would at least have to justify their driving behavior.

But do we actually want this to happen? Of course we can locate almost each and every one of us by way of smartphone signals, but monitoring this information and sending it to authorities seems unacceptable – except for very specific situations. Once again there is this notion of freedom and something “typically human” which seems to be challenged. Even though one could argue that hundreds of thousands of tragic traffic accidents could be avoided by combinations of computer driven cars and real-time monitoring, one can be sure that there will be stiff resistance by those claiming that fundamental privacy rights and other freedoms are being sacrificed in a kind of Big Brother system.

The wider discussion is about “radical transparency“, which not only demands that corporations and authorities are transparent, but that transparence would be the “normal” situation for every citizen. It seems to be the underlying philosophy of Facebook for instance. The idea is that such transparency would make the diversity of lifestyles obvious and as such increase tolerance. Media expert danah boyd discusses this for instance on her blog apophenia, discussing these quotes from Facebook-founder Zuckerberg:

“We always thought people would share more if we didn’t let them do whatever they wanted, because it gave them some order.” – Zuckerberg, 2004
“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” – Zuckerberg, 2009

 

She explains her position also in this recent video:

Webstock ’12: danah boyd – Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?! from Webstock on Vimeo.

What is fascinating is that these discussions are not about some distant future. All these things, the ubiquitous social networks, the internet of things, self-driving cars, the demand for radical transparency, the viral spreading of fear are realities – sometimes in very early phases, but realities nevertheless.

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.