Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How Does Society React When Technology Approaches Magic?

[Graduate student Matt Stempeck shares his notes from today's talk by frog design's Chief Creative Officer Mark Rolston.]

The audio fidelity on the #MediaLabTalk livestream wasn't great at first, so I attempted to liveblog. Unfortunately I had to head to class as the second speaker, Jared Ficklin, came on, but we'll be posting video shortly.

Mark Rolston, Chief Creative Officer of frog design, has been with frog for years and has seen the company grow to include strategy.

He believes that companies want to innovate, but that the need to scale and manage complicated supply chains impedes their ability to do so. Some companies are failing to simply build the most innovative product but even more so, to integrate with rest of the product ecosystem to design the entire customer experience.

Frog's experience in the 1980s associating an emotional, ephemeral experience with drinking Coke, which is essentially brown sugar water, has proven useful decades later in designing meaningful software interactions and making virtual experiences richer. (The slide showed a Classic Coca Cola bottle, not New Coke ;-)).

Science fiction has been great at predicting what's to come (by taking plenty of shots, complete with plenty of misses), but it's often been about better aligning ourselves with computers.

A slide shows how the cellphone has replaced So. Many. Functions.

Products like a crown, a scepter, a totem still have deep meaning beyond their physical use, haven't made the jump to digital experience yet.

Our experience with computing has gone something like this:

  • First wave: Users are operators, like operators of heavy equipment, without a real connection to the data
  • Second wave: Slide shows an iPhone. More personal relationship, we carry it with us; we're babysitters
  • Third wave: Slide shows humorously early wearable technology from the Media Lab. The third wave's going to look more like Hal, and consume your entire environment, an invisible layer when you're doing something else like cooking, bathing.

A slide shows the many parts (microphone, screen, processor) that go into a computer, and Mark suggests that computing has become and will continue becoming decoupled. Even the smallest, sleekest computer today will be surpassed by the decoupling of the concept of computing. Computers will not be composed, fixed assemblies of parts, but a set of possibilities between objects that are talking to one another. Computing will always be with you, and won't be something you carry, but rather a diffuse infrastructure.

The entire world is the platform. Mark makes the point that the city is the new computer. It's a contained but still open space of sensors and people and inputs, of network sensors and interfaces.

The challenge, and less obvious part, is now to move from the private computing experience we're used to into a shared experience. Even with digital sharing, consumer electronics have been designed for the individual. A diffuse computing environment inherently includes many people and common experiences.

Frog design took over every screen in Times Square for GE's World Health Day in 2007 with nothing but a PowerMac Pro in a closet and a VGA cable (at the technical level, at least). It was a nice early example of computing at scale, with thousands of people computing simultaneously.

Mark segues into the fact that we've always had a private life and a public life, and there's been relatively little bleed between the two. Sure, we wrote private letters that became public, but they were a relatively low-fidelity medium. But now the two lives are being tangled. Mark quotes Alfred Korzybski, saying, "The map is not the territory." The public image of us has not been an accurate representation of who we really are. But now our maps are becoming their own territory as our private lives go online in high fidelity.

We'll change as much as computing does, Mark says, with an emerging second brain, second life. We have augmented selves. [We can sign up to get knock knock jokes via text and everyone will think we're really funny].

Mark shows a product created years ago, which listens to your conversations and conducts intelligent web queries to augment your knowledge when someone asks you, for example, about the football game last night. They found that this technology itself drove the conversation in a new direction and dominated the original topic–the map overtook the territory. [I'd consider this a failure of the goals of an augmented technology–technology should blend in with our existing social interactions, not completely disrupt them].

Another form of knowledge augmentation is "decision support." Intel sponsored a display to help people pick out outfits at a department store. Again, the question of a shared, embedded computing experience rather than an individual, personal, outfit-selection tool brought up new questions.

One of the most exciting dynamics possible with augmented information is that it grants us new superpowers for social advantage. Ubiquitous computing can help us know more intellectually or socially or give us more basic social warmth. This brings up the question of what it means to know something. There's a difference between someone truly knowing your birthday vs. your Facebook friends "knowing" your birthday. The impending social ramifications can't be overstated.

Mark brings up the example of the film Up in the Air, where everyone in the airline industry, including computer systems, knows George Clooney with a level of false, commercial intimacy, and the movie makes a clear comment on this false life and the opportunity cost of Clooney's character missing out on real connection.

Mark confronted these questions of digitally enabled, real-time knowledge head on at a conference, where the organizers had given everyone a SpotMe tool. It lets you see everyone's name, title, background, and where in the room they are. You can literally go find people as if you have social sonar. The tool basically makes each of us a node in a network, and exposes all of the social information that's normally revealed via conversations and introductions. There are clearly strong benefits and drawbacks to such a tool.

Each of us has a variation of the human brain, and networking them normalizes our differences, to the point that only the loudest obnoxious voices online cause a spike (with implications for our politics).

Handing over agency to a machine requires a level of trust. Mark shows a great video clip of TED attendees taking one of Google's self-driving cars for a spin for the first time. Almost everyone has a freakout moment as the car speeds around and steers itself. It makes us uncomfortable and we question handing over agency to computers/robots.

Frog found this out firsthand when they designed medical devices and pill reminders. Mark says that statistics show that doctors regularly give incorrect advice but are pretty well protected in doing so by the legal system. But a much, much more accurate digital device suffers a much worse fate when it occasionally dispenses the wrong advice. Suing a computer is apparently much easier than suing a doctor. If we allow the Siris of the world to take the next step in intelligence, from dictating existing information to actually making original recommendations, we're going to have to deal with the social and legal ramifications.

Mark thinks one of the terms were going to need to use in a better way is 'magic,' when computing objects escape their mechanical origins and pick up more of the ephemeral. The word 'magic' has historically been owned by charlatans and zealots, but we're going to have to build a new vocabulary of the high mind to take into account our new affordances.

[And, according to event attendee Dan Novy, "The Object-Based Media Group regularly uses the term "Magic" to describe what our goals and design philosophies are."]

Matt Stempeck is a first-year graduate student at the Media Lab / Center for Civic Media.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Media, Freedom, and the Web: Civic Media at the Mozilla Festival

The Mozilla Festival on Media, Freedom, and the Web (Nov 4-6, hashtag #mozfest) was three days in London of "less yack, more hack" focused on journalism and media technologies. The attendees brought together a great convergence of organizations that care about journalism, media, social good, education, open platforms, and web technologies. The weekend held a rich schedule of design challenges, learning labs, and fireside chats, offering everyone opportunities to meet, plan, make, and reflect on media and the web.

The overall conference theme centered on protecting and nourishing a read/write web. During the final event, speakers emphasized the importance of supporting technology and cultures that people around the world can use to make content, tools, and games, rather than simply consume them. There was a general sense that beautiful but confined “walled gardens” and closed technologies diminish the open web–and, by extension, innovation. To preserve the open spirit and capabilities that flourish on the Internet, we must protect the ability to do things like view source code, remix content, and more generally learn how to make.

During the festival, the Mozilla and Knight Foundations announced the 2011/12 Knight Mozilla News Technology Fellows, including the Media Lab's very own Dan Schultz. The Knight Mozilla fellowships form an exciting open innovation initiative: fellows will be embedded software developers at Al Jazeera, the BBC, The Boston Globe, the Guardian, and Zeit Online. As they make technologies for their own news outlets, the fellows will also collaborate with each other to develop open-source technologies to advance the future of news.

Matt Stempeck and I went to the festival to collect ideas for an exciting new project at the Center for Civic Media: technology to track your media diet. Led by our director Ethan Zuckerman, this project will track the content that media organizations and bloggers publish over time, as well as allow consumers to set goals for their own media consumption (Ethan spoke about this at the Lab's fall 2011 meeting). At the Mozilla Festival, we asked journalists, film-makers, and developers to draw their media diet, and held a design discussion about nutritional labels for the news. I love the smiley face on Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman's media diet. Mark also taught me a new word to use when praising others: lovebombs.

Lovebombs (noun, plural)

Example: "Major lovebombs to Michelle Thorne, Mozilla and Knight for a great conference!"

Matt Stempeck and some new friends

Mozilla Foundation Executive Director Mark Surman's media diet

My favorite part of the Festival was the Hive London Popup for Teens, a series of sessions bringing together youth education organizations from across America and Europe. Instead of just talking with each other, we learned from each other by teaching young people in the same open space. I brought along Aago, a Center for Civic Media project for youth media production. I also had a lovely time introducing young people to Scratch. Before joining the Media Lab this year, I helped found a creative writing center in London, so it was fun to work with London teenagers once more!

Overall I had a wonderful time at the Mozilla Festival. We met some great civic organizations, hacking and yacking with a fascinating range of people. The Knight Foundation funds the Center for Civic Media, and I really enjoyed meeting people within the Knight-Mozilla circle.

The UK was my home for 5 years until I left London in July to join the Media Lab. I admit I felt wistful as I walked the streets I love so well. But surrounded by my new Media Lab colleagues, in the company of the exciting innovators at the Mozilla Festival, I am excited and inspired about what we can do together for media, freedom, and the web.

Here’s more:

Civic Media
"Civic Media Goes to London, Part One"
"Putting Voldemort into the Guardian: Remixing the News with Hackasaurus"
"Designing a Nutritional Label for the News at the Mozilla Festival"
"Discussion with Bilal Randeree on Liveblogging at Al Jazeera"

Nieman Lab
"Ethan Zuckerman Wants You To Eat Your News Vegetables"
"How Social Guilt can Change Our Media Habits or Just Make Us Lie About Them"
"Lessons from the Mozilla Festival: How the Knight and Mozilla Foundations are Thinking about Open Source"

Mozilla Knight News Tech Fellow Laurian Gridinoc: "Visualising my News Diet"

Knight Foundation
Knight News Challenge 2012 Preview
Highlights from the Mozilla Festival

Nathan Matias: "Technology Tent, Occupy London"

Open Knowledge Foundation: "Hacks and Hackers Gather to Write the First Data Journalism Handbook"

J. Nathan Matias is a first-year graduate student researching media consumption, creative learning, and community co-design at the Center for Civic Media.

Matt Stempeck is a first-year graduate student researching political identity and how people change their minds, at the Center for Civic Media.

Dan Schultz is a second-year graduate student in the Information Ecology group and the Center for Civic Media, researching tools to help people consume information more carefully.