The Augmentationist Weekly | Building, Spaces, Learning

logoThe latest edition of the weekly Augmentationist. You can read it here and subscribe at the right-hand side of this site. In the collection of interesting links some great insights about spaces and sharing spaces, learning and Massive Open Online Courses, and about “building” and “coding”.

Friday, August 30, 2013

What this newsletter is about

A group of co-learners, inspired by Howard Rheingold, studies how information technology can augment human intellect. Our discussions are dispersed through various social media and closed online venues. In this newsletter I try to give an overview of the discussions in our network. I also include brief comments on related stuff elsewhere.

The historical proposal for the WWW, in 1989

Who says newsletters are about new news? Keeping an eye on Howard Rheingold’s bookmarks I found this gem: the proposal (HTMLized) by Tim Berners-Lee for the World Wide Web. As he explains: “an attempt to persuade CERN management that a global hypertext system was in CERN’s interests. Note that the only name I had for it at this time was “Mesh” — I decided on “World Wide Web” when writing the code in 1990.”

What Second Life Got Right

Mitch Wagner is an adorable journalist and blogger who also happens to be an expert in Second Life. While he believes that Second Life today is as retro as manual typewriters and vinyl records, he explains in internet evolution that what the people of Linden Lab (the company behind that user-generated virtual world)  got right is the sense of presence in a shared space and time. It’s absolutely true that at least in that regard Second Life offers a magical experience. As for videochat (Google Hangouts most notably): this comes very close, but as Wagner says, many people are reluctant to appear ‘on camera’. Read also a comment on the article by virtual worlds specialist Wagner James Au on New World Notes.   Or have a look at this article about the 3D dreams of Skype. 

Digital Humanities is about building things

Professor Stephen Ramsay about Digital Humanities: “But if you are not making anything, you are not — in my less-than-three-minute opinion — a digital humanist.” Knowing how to code is a big positive (but then again you can be part of a building team without coding skills). But what is “building”? Mind you, he said that in 2011 during a three-minute presentation. But he elaborated on the theme later on and explained: “All the technai of Digital Humanities — data mining, xml encoding, text analysis, gis, Web design, visualization, programming, tool design, database design, etc — involve building; only a few of them require programming, per se.”

So he’s casting a wider net: yes, learning how to code changes your view on the world – but we can say the same about learning how to speak Arabic or Mandarin Chinese and about all major learning projects. So it might be a very good idea to focus on  the shift from “reading” to “making” as changing your world view.

Hat tip to Bruce Sterling for mentioning the Digital Humanities talk on Beyond the Beyond.

Collaborative Exploration

Via our Peeragogy in Action community on G+ I learned about Collaborative Explorations: Creative Thinking for All — Fall 2013, offered in collaboration with the Creative and Critical Thinking Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. ‘Although massively online open courses (MOOCs) promise wide access to knowledge and new learning communities, there is still a need for more intimate, connective and deep inquiries. Collaborative Explorations or “moderate-sized open online collaborative learning” are a response to these learning desires.’ More on G+ (a recording of a first Hangout).

How MOOCs Will Evolve In The Physical World

Some interesting thoughts in Forbes by former theater producer Giovanni Rodriguez about spaces and Massive Open Online Courses, online and offline. ““Massive Online Offline Communities” seems more like it.  And unlike the online communities of the past, these communities are learning communities, driven by the new lifelong modality of transformative experience. Expect a land grab for branding and positioning.  The disruption in education is just beginning, and the players are just becoming visible.”

Twitterbook

Twitter and Facebook: what’s the difference? Facebook introduced hashtags, Twitter makes it easier tofollow conversations by introducing threads and organizing those in a chronological order. Om Malik analyzes the motivations and what it means on GigaOM. And yes, it’s a big deal, not only for a Twitter IPO, but more general. Malik:  “What is going on? Well, how about the standardization of all social platforms around the concept of objects and comments, especially on mobile.”

Cloud Party needs a party and some fun games

There is a new kid in the town of the virtual environments: Cloud Party. I visited the place regularly since Wagner James Au posted about it a few weeks ago on New World Notes. He explains:

Cloud Party is a new 3D virtual world on Facebook now in open Beta that’s described as “a world built by people like you”. It just apparently went online, so I’ve only explored a few minutes, but as you can see above, it’s got the look and feel of Second Life circa 2003. That’s no surprise, because Second Life co-founder Cory Ondrejka (who’s now with Facebook), and Cryptic Studio’s ex-CTO Bruce Rogers, who founded a startup called Walletin with Cory before also joining Facebook with Ondrejka, are investors and advisors to Cloud Party.

There’s a wiki with tutorials for residents and builders. People are building pretty awesome stuff:

a view on a cloud party world

The world of Lilli Thompson at Cloud Party

I enter the new environment on a daily basis as it fascinates me. I can do this in our newsroom, the firewall does not prevent me from entering Cloud Party, it is effortless as it’s just using an url. There seem to be always some people at the Beginner Zone, where avid builders experiment continuously. It’s exciting to watch, as it looks like the beginning of a kind of new Second Life. I visited the forums, one of them is called “What lessons from other virtual worlds do you want Cloud Party Inc. to know about?”

I did have some lessons in mind, but I refrained from posting them there as they are not really very constructive. However, I did react on a post by Wagner James Au on the New World Notes, about SL artists like Aristide Depres creating interactive experiences in Cloud Party. This was my reaction:

It’s fascinating and yes, the fact that it could eventually interest some Facebook-users is great, as is the fact that no downloads are needed.

However, I guess I’m still a bit traumatized by the Blue Mars experience, the Lively-failure and the Metaplace shut-down.

As it happens, many of the users of Blue Mars and Metaplace were already part of the unfortunately smallish group of people who are interested in open-ended, user-generated virtual environments.

Often they belonged to the even smaller group of ‘builders’ in those environments.

However, at the end someone asks tough questions about ROI and things like that, and projects which only gain traction among some hundreds of participants are not very likely to be interesting business-wise.

So, visiting Cloud Party and counting there about twenty to thirty people, I have my doubts, even though the project is still very young. Of course, I do hope I’m wrong and that the project will succeed.

So my first reaction was rather hesitant, but I’ve to confess I’m going more often to Cloud Party these days than to other virtual worlds such as Second Life. I had some interesting in-world discussions (which continued via Facebook), helping me to reflect about my stance regarding virtual worlds.
I’m still fascinated by this stuff, but no longer convinced it’s the cutting edge of the web or the internet, and not convinced at all it’ll gain much traction – which explains why my blogging about virtual worlds has slowed down considerably.

What really interests me is how virtual stuff can find its way to the physical world (via 3D printing or augmented reality-style mobile apps for instance). These days it’s all about local, mobile and social. While these open-ended environments are very social (but not necessarily involving the people you do know already in the physical world), as yet they are neither local nor mobile.

There is somehow a link between Cloud Party and the physical world because participants are linked through Facebook and their ‘real identities’, but what lacks is a reason for non-building and non-scripting people (let’s say the overwhelming majority of mankind and the people on Facebook) to give it a try. I guess that the people launching these worlds are software wizards, and they tend to sympathize with other coding and building enthusiasts, which is all right of course – as long as they don’t forget most people don’t consider building or coding as party-time. I remember statistics about Second Life, showing that a majority of residents are socializers rather than builders, and Cloud Party urgently needs something to attract those socializers – by organizing events maybe (no, I did not mean a workshop about Blender, Maya or 3Ds Max), or by promoting some simple but cleverly designed game. Maybe, at the very least, they should introduce some more gamification elements to incite people to learn how to build and script.

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.

The future of money

Facebook Credits becoming more important than the dollar? Not any time soon – but there are some thought-provoking elements in this discussion about the future of money (by Ross Dawson and Gerd Leonhard). Recently Ben Bernanke got the question whether gold is money. The answer was ‘no’. But maybe we’ll have to ask him whether Facebook Credits, Bitcoins or Linden dollars are money.

Gerd Leonhard reacted on Google+ that what he said about the dollar vs. Facebook Credits was meant more as a provocation than as serious prediction.

Previously we posted about similar ideas being presented by Sean Park: ‘The Sixth Paradigm

In the comments on my Google+ entry there’s also a discussion about what Linden Lab says regarding the Linden dollar (the famous ‘You acknowledge that Linden dollars are not real currency or any type of financial instrument and are not redeemable for any sum of money from Linden Lab at any time.’).

HTML5 becomes a crucial tool for publishers

html5 logo In the previous post I mentioned HTML5 – it could be an important element of a solution running Second Life and OpenSim viewers on the web. It would be combined with WebGL (Web-based Graphics Library) which extends the capability of the JavaScript programming language to allow it to generate interactive 3D graphics within any compatible web browser (see Wikipedia).

There’s yet another context in which HTML5 is rather crucial: that of the creation of apps for mobile devices.

I posted about this on PBS MediaShift – our newspaper wants to follow the example of the Financial Times, launching a web-based application for smartphones and tablet computers written in HTML5 — allowing it to bypass Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Market, as well as other distributors. If you’re interested, you can find my post and a video interview on MediaShift.

Read also MG Siegler at TechCrunch about Project Spartan: Facebook’s Hush-Hush Plan To Take On Apple On Their Own Turf: iOS.

Talking about virtual worlds outside virtual worlds: The WELL

In our first blog about other venues where people discuss virtual worlds, we talked about Quora. While Quora is very new, The WELL is almost ancient:

The WELL is a cherished and acclaimed destination for conversation and discussion. It is widely known as the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born — where Howard Rheingold first coined the term “virtual community.” Since long before the public Internet was unleashed, it has quietly captivated some accomplished and imaginative people. Over the last two and a half decades, it’s been described as “the world’s most influential online community” in a Wired Magazine cover story, and ” the Park Place of email addresses” by John Perry Barlow. It’s won Dvorak and Webby Awards, inspired songs and novels, and almost invisibly influences modern culture.

In 2010, this social site celebrates its 25th birthday online. A wide variety of topics are being discussed in ‘conferences’. The ‘Virtual Communities’ conference has among its topics ‘Second Life: The World-Building MMOG’, but I don’t think there is a topic ‘blue mars’ or ‘opensim’ (search did not yield results).

The conversations are very instructive and friendly. Just like for the Quora discussions people are supposed to use their real names. There are moderators, ‘conference hosts’. However, there are also major differences between the two services.

Those differences boil down to this: The Well wants to be a walled garden. As they explain themselves: “Membership is not for everyone, partly because we are non-anonymous here.” One cannot vote a question or an answer up or down. There are no ‘follow’ buttons next to the names of the participants. In fact, you own your own words, meaning that you are responsible for them but also that others cannot simply copy paste them outside The WELL. Before quoting or even mentioning that another person is a member, one should ask that other person whether she agrees.

Another major aspect of the “walled garden”: membership is not free.

There are about 3.000 members now, and to be honest, I don’t think the community, owned by Salon.com, can boast tremendous growth figures.

In fact, The WELL is rather fascinating. Because of its history but also because of this non-viral approach of a members only gathering. Whether it will be able to survive, faced with competition such as Quora, is another matter. Quora uses real identities, but provides connections with Twitter and Facebook, is free, and for now manages to maintain good quality using a voting system. The WELL however is a bunch of micro-communities (around the conferences) where more intimate relationships can develop.

Sterling and Lebkowsky

conference page the well
To be fair, The WELL is not completely a walled garden. Non-members can for instance join the ‘Inkwell: Authors and Artists’ conference. Author Bruce Sterling and internet&cyberculture expert Jon Lebkowsky discuss this week State of the World 2011.

The organizers even run a wild experiment: a Facebook event page for feedback (great discussion there) and the ever cunning Lebkwoski announced on that page a Twitter hashtag (#sotw2011)!

Existential questions about virtual worlds

It has been interesting to be away from virtual worlds stuff for a few weeks. I had some catching up to do, but at first sight it seems not much has changed.

There is another famous Linden Lab employee leaving the company, Jack Linden. Other virtual worlds are presenting themselves as alternatives for Second Life, such as OpenSim. Blue Mars continues to promote is’s nice graphics and Twinity it’s mirror worlds.

But looking at all this from a distance, it seems the momentum of those projects and companies is lost, at least for now. Outside the feverishly working communities of those virtual places, nobody seems to care. What’s hot right now is Zynga, Facebook, Twitter, the iPad and the epic struggle between Android and Apple, and of course there is Microsoft’s Kinect. People wonder constantly whether Second Life is still around, and as far as Blue Mars, OpenSim or Twinity is concerned, well even most accomplished geeks won’t know what you’re talking about unless they happen to be members of those tiny niche-communities.

I was not surprised at all reading Botgirl’s post about Pew research which points in the same direction:

According to the latest Pew Generations Report, virtual worlds have less participants than any other online niche surveyed and are experiencing no growth. It’s pretty pathetic. Virtual worlds were not just trounced by social networks and multimedia viewing, but even by religious information sites and online auctions. After seven years in the public eye, it’s clear that neither incremental technology improvements nor new ad campaigns are going to dramatically increase the virtual world market in the foreseeable future.

I couldn’t agree more with Botgirl’s solution:

After reading the report, I’m more convinced than ever that browser-based access to virtual worlds in conjunction with social network integration is the most credible light at the end of the tunnel. The way to move virtual worlds from their current isolated backwater into the integrated mainstream is by making them as seamlessly accessible and usable as every other category in the Pew Report. This will also require mobile-compatible clients, since mobile internet use will surpass computer-based use within the next few years.

Wagner James Au at the New World Notes has been suggesting this Facebook Connect option for quite some time now, but in his post discussing Botgirl’s article he says he’s “starting to think there’s an even better way to make 3D virtual worlds more mass market: Integration with Kinect and Xbox Live.”

So I went to watch the latest Metanomics video for inspiration in times of crisis in virtual worlds. As usual there were distinguished guests such as Larry Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of the New Media Consortium, Brian Kaihoi of the Mayo Clinic and Terry Beaubois, Professor of the College of Architecture and Director of the Creative Research Lab (CRLab) at Montana State University, being interviewed by Robert Bloomfield, Professor of Accounting at the Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management.

All these people invested lots of time and money in Second Life projects, at one point they really believed this was an important part of the future (I do not exclude some of them still do believe that). Now they are still very active, but they admit times are different now. The financial crisis made institutions look hard to save costs, but there is more than that. The Gartner Cycle of Hype was mentioned and I confess, being a slightly cynical journalist, to me that sounds like “yes, we completely lost traction, but hey, fancy consultants tell us that it’s nothing to worry about: after the Disillusionment will come the Slope of Enlightenment and we’ll get to the Plateau of Productivity.” Yeah, right. Maybe. Or maybe not.

So is this some convoluted way of saying that I lost all hope virtual worlds will have a bright future after all? Well, it’s convoluted because it’s a complicated matter. As the folks at the Metanomics show said, there is the technology (and the business), but there’s also the community. It remains true that the Second Life community is awesome: highly creative, inspiring people, not just using new technologies but actually living technology.

It’s also true that there’s a lot to be learned in “social technology”, such as using text backchat during live shows, ways to produce chat shows, to integrate live events with video, chat, social streams etc. I actually apply stuff I learned in Second Life in the context of my newsroom, facilitating a virtual community, organizing chat sessions etc. But I don’t use Second Life, because of just too many practical hurdles and a cost/benefit which I cannot justify.

As some of the panel guests said, Second Life and similar environments are a “third place” where you “go” to actually meet other people. But then again, a CoverItLive chat box is also such a third place where people meet each other. I do know the arguments explaining why virtual environments are more intense: the representation by a virtual body means that people actually apply real world principles while meeting each other (maintaining a certain “physical” distance, for instance), implying that what goes on is somewhere in between “just chat” and “actually meeting”. But maybe people just want to attend an online chat event without any hassle, and they’ll use forums to connect with others…

All of which means, for my practice, that I’d love to have a lite version of Second Life or a similar world, very scalable, browser based, and yes, also allowing for using mobile devices. Also, in some way we’ll see further down the road Augmented Reality applications combining the physical and virtual worlds, and maybe the Kinect can facilitate a revolution as far as interfaces are concerned – all of which means that Second Life as we know it will have been a useful stepping stone on the road to somewhere very different.

Mary Meeker sees ‘unusually high level of global innovation’

Mary Meeker (Morgan Stanley) talks in her recent state of the internet about disruptive innovation: new or incumbent players disrupting whole industries by offering cheap or free products and services (Google, Amazon… ) or by creating new markets (Apple, Facebook, Zynga… ).

One of the remarkable aspects of the recent evolution is how innovative also the more incumbent internet companies are. You’ll find concrete information about specific companies in the presentation – and note how of the 15 biggest public companies 9 are US based, 3 are Chinese companies, 2 Japanese (okay, one of those two being Yahoo Japan), 1 South Korean and… zero European.

Meeker also highlights the unusually high level of global innovation, for instance Facebook and Tencent (the largest social network in China) learning from each other’s playbooks.

Facebook has the focus on real-world friends, pictures and events, Tencent on virtual identities and customizable avatars – but both are incorporating each other’s strong points.