Category Archives: vision

Social glue, or: What’s the ‘IMAP’ equivalent for social media?

The launch of Google Buzz has prompted me to raise some things that have been lurking in the back of my mind for some time. These thoughts began when the discussion about the ‘walled garden’ nature of facebook et al. emerged a couple of years ago and lead to the initiation of tentative steps towards interconnection and (that horribly overused word) ‘openness’ in the guise of ‘friend connect‘ and ‘facebook connect‘. Twitter was already sort of ahead of the game with their API, as the glut of applications for ‘tweeting’ attests.

Lots of talk on the interweb’s various locations for commentary centred on the social web, real-time web etc. being based in discrete platforms. This remains somewhat true today. We can certainly connect these services together and form extraordinary information gathering tools in the form of what Howard Rheingold usefully describes as ‘personal information dashboards’, using services such as netvibes and pipes in concert with the various APIs for the platforms we all use. However, this all takes quite a bit of effort at the moment [but! for a good tutorial, please check out Howard’s super videos: #1, #2, #3].

However, for the majority of internet users to usefully stick all of these various platforms and applications together there needs to be a much lower threshold of effort to achieve the desired results. Jyri Engstrom, co-founder of Jaiku and one of the big brains apparently behind ‘Buzz’, articulates the argument well here:

Most of the conversation over the last 24h has been centered around predicting if “Buzz will kill” this or that service. This debate starts from the assumption that Buzz and the rest of the social web are mutually exclusive. It’s arguably fair to assume so, considering all the social networks we’ve got so far are silos. To no longer assume everyone has to be using the same branded system to talk to each other is disruptive to the tech biz discourse, which is obsessed with turning everything into a war over which company is “the one”. So much so that the alternative is almost unthinkable. If the new standards succeed, in 2015 we’ll look back and shake our heads like we shake our heads today at the early days of proprietary phone networks and email systems. The thought that you couldn’t call, text or email people just because they happen to be on another phone operator or email client is laughable. Doubly so for the social Web. The reason many of the current commentators miss this point is that they are, in the immortal words of Walt Whitman, “demented with the mania of owning things.” (borrowing that quote from Doc Searls)

What are these ‘new standards’ then? Well, if we’re to take our cue from Google they consist of the development of the various existing data formats for syndication: extensions of Atom and RSS, such as activity streams and mediaRSS. There may well be families and hierarchies of such data formats and I’m sure hundreds, if not thousands, of developers are already working on creating these things. But I’m still left with this question: what if I don’t want my stuff (information, pictures, etc.) always held on servers owned by Google, facebook etc? What if I’m happy for such ‘stuff’ to be transient? Which of course such companies don’t want because your ‘stuff’ is incredibly valuable and they want to mine it for all its worth. Nevertheless, my half-formed thoughts are: what’s the equivalent to IMAP for social media?

To my mind, the missing ‘glue’ for the social networking ecosystem is the missing service architecture to allow all of us to host our own streams and tie together the various bits of our rapidly growing, perhaps increasingly ‘public’, ‘digital identity’. Social media could easily be distributed, just as blogs and ‘web 1.0’ are. What’s to stop a community creating something like wordpress or drupal for activity/social streams? If the standards suggested by Google really are that versatile then all that is necessary is to create a system that imports/exports using them. Search would be renewed in its importance, but companies/services like twitter could remain successful by facilitating that search functionality and helping users subscribe to one another’s feeds/streams.

A couple of years ago I thought about it in terms of a ‘meta-platform’ or ‘platform for platforms’, but we’ve kind of seen these, in the form of friendfeed and their ilk. Now I think, well, it could all still happen over port 80 with web traffic – it just needs an architecture to allow people to stick things up on their own servers and interconnect. If we take what Jyri says (above) seriously, it seems to me the logical step is to really set the social web ‘free’ and build the elements required to allow people to host their own activity streams. Maybe this is already happening. To build on Jyri’s theme of looking to a future and to paraphrase Alan Kay: “the best way to predict the future is to [build] it”. Go to it!!

Reflecting on Mark Weiser’s legacy ten years on

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.

-Mark Weiser, 1991 “The Computer for the 21st Century” Scientific American

The goal is to achieve the most effective kind of technology, that which is essentially invisible to the user… I call this future world “Ubiquitous Computing” (Ubicomp).

-Mark Weiser, 1993 “Some Computer Science issues in Ubiquitous Computing” Communications of the ACM

2009 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of a man that many believe earned the title ‘visionary’, his name was Mark Weiser. As a Principal Scientist and subsequently Chief Technology Officer at Xerox PARC, Weiser is best known as the ‘godfather’ of ubiquitous computing. In the years since his demise many of the ideas that Weiser championed have come to greater prominence. As Yvonne Rogers points out this influence has been felt across industry, government and commercial research, from the EU’s ‘disappearing computer’ initiative to MIT’s ‘Oxygen’, HP’s ‘CoolTown’ and Phillips ‘Vision of the Future’. All of these projects aspired to Weiser’s tenet of the everyday environment and the objects within being embeded with computational capacities such that they might bend to our (human) will. Within the research community, as Bell and Dourish remark, ‘of the 108 papers comprising the Ubicomp conference proceedings between 2001 and 2004, fully 47% of the papers are oriented towards a proximate (and inevitable) technological future’ and ‘almost one quarter of all the papers published in the Ubicomp conference between 2001 and 2005 cite Weiser’s foundational articles’.

Continue reading Reflecting on Mark Weiser’s legacy ten years on

Neologism ~ “spectaculation”

Science Buzz! Flickr photo by Unhindered by Talent

I’m no fan of coining neologisms, but(!) I think I have a need for a word that pithily and succinctly allows me to cast mild derision at certain forms of speculation. It seems to be possible to carve out a career by publicising one’s work by stretching beyond the conventional limits of the remit of a particular project and making grand claims about ‘progress’. This is often identifiable by the monotonous use of phrases such as “in the future you/we will…”. Sometimes this is excusable, people get excitedly exuberant about their research and ideas (sometimes it’s done for you!), but other times it is clearly a deliberate tactic. Thus, I think we can describe what they’re up to as ‘spectaculation’. For it is not idle speculation but taking a speculative claim and widening its application, making it sound more important and thus more news-worthy i.e. spectacular. So we arrive at spectaculation, and of course somebody else (probably lots of people actually) has thought of this already (in a slightly different sense): credit where it’s due.

Image credit: Flickr user ‘Unhindered by Talent’.

Ubiquitous Computing video circa. 1991

“Coined by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s (PARC) Computer Science Laboratory (CSL), [Ubiquitous Computing] describes a vision of the future. Just as electric motors have disappeared into the background of everyday life, PARC scientists envision a future where mobile computational devices will be similarly transparent. Potentially numbering the 100s per person these devices are nothing like those you use today. They are mobile. They know their location, and they communicate with their environment.”

I have no idea if I’m allowed to put this up but it seems a desperate shame that this video isn’t held in one complete file, easily accessible to the public and to researchers, given the historical significance of the work conducted on ubicomp at PARC by Mark Weiser et al. during hte late 80s early 90s. Please see the original files here: and read more about Mark Weiser by sticking his name in Google.

Please note that I had to edit out 2 minutes of the more technical stuff to get the video down to under 10mins.

‘A Vision’ – Simon Armitage

The future was a beautiful place, once.
Remember the full-blown balsa-wood town
on public display in the Civic Hall.
The ring-bound sketches, artists’ impressions,
blueprints of smoked glass and tubular steel,
board-game suburbs, modes of transportation
like fairground rides or executive toys.
Cities like dreams, cantilevered by light.
And people like us at the bottle-bank
next to the cycle-path, or dog-walking
over tended strips of fuzzy-felt grass,
or motoring home in electric cars,
model drivers. Or after the late show –
strolling the boulevard. They were the plans,
all underwritten in the neat left-hand
of architects – a true, legible script.
I pulled that future out of the north wind
at the landfill site, stamped with today’s date,
riding the air with other such futures,
all unlived in and now fully extinct.

From Simon Armitage’s collection Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid.

Thamesmead South, London – a vision and an actuality

GLC Architects vision of Thamesmead South

Picture credit: Flickr user Iqbal Aalam

Thamesmead. Bexley. London

Pciture credit: Flickr user joseph beuys hat

Motorola’s “2000 A.D”

In 1990 Motorola produced a video depicting a Ubicomp type vision that was a little more conservative than some other ‘vision videos’ being produced around the same time but has many of the usual constituent elements. What is striking is that the use of mobile phones must have been ‘futuristic’ then but one can’t help considering it banal now…

I am indebted to Paleo-future for these videos, it seems to be a gold mine of an archive!!

Oblong Industries’ “g-speak” and “diegetic prototypes”

One of the examples of ubicomp like technology that was referred to the most in my interviews in California last year was the diegetic prototype [see slide 29] gestural interface in the film Minority Report. This was predominantly the brainchild of a chap called John Underkoffler who was the “scientific advisor” on the film, and has since been an advisor on several other films including Iron Man. According to a paper by David Kirby, currently in-press, Underkoffler’s work at the Media Lab was noticed by the production designer and prop master for Minority Report and was brought in as primary science consultant. For Kirby, Underkoffler’s interface is a prime example of a diegetic prototype, a prototype realised in fictional narrative and image to persuade audiences of a technological need, as Kirby suggests of the gestural interface in the film:

These technologies not only appear normal while on screen but they also fit seemlessly into the entire diegetic world. In these cases audiences will accept as true that characters still use these technologies even when they are off-screen… To achieve the sense of an extraordinary techonlogy appearing as ordinary within the diegetic space Underkoffler established the gestural interface as a “self-consistent technological entity” that adhered not only to the rules of hte diegetic world but also to its own internal logic and the constraints of real-world computer technologies.

And, indeed, that diegetic prototype has become a “real-world computer technology”, as demonstrated below.

Oblong Industries’ “g-speak”

g-speak overview 1828121108 from john underkoffler on Vimeo.

NTT Docomo’s ‘vision of the future’ (2010)

NTT Docomo have created a few vision videos (but this one is easily accessible via YouTube), many seemed to target the end of this decade. The video below uses yet another schmultzy storyline full of pathos in which to situate (and thus ‘humanise’) apparently futuristic everyday technologies. NTT Docomo depict a rather unsettlingly monolithic future of technology, in which everyone and everything is connected together and monitored. A prime example of the apparently easy trade-off between privacy and seamless integration of systems without any consideration of political repercussions…

Future vision of disaster – ubicomp to the rescue?!

Liz Goodman pointed out this peculiar ubicomp style vision of the apparently everyday being disrupted by disaster. I would echo Liz’s criticism that it (rather poorly) depicts a pretty awful future. Another (recent) ‘past computing future’ video to add to the list though.

The Ambient Life from Buro Knapzak on Vimeo

The at-best amoral (and probably, at worst, deeply unpleasant) use of a disaster that bears striking resemblance to various recent tragic events is astounding. I would hazard, to animate is not only cheaper but it retains the almost clinical cleanliness of (usually) anodyne ‘future vision’ videos. The narrative is facile to the point of being slightly offensive: the producers use this disaster imagery just to set up quite boring and glib analysis of communications infrastructure. That aside, the graphical aesthetic is, I suppose, interesting. As Liz says:

Do, however, watch it for the moment when an epileptic jogger recovers from an almost-seizure (monitored in real-time by the sort of highly paid doctor who wouldn’t be caught dead doing real-time monitoring in the US) just before a plane (!) rams into a skyscraper and the scenario turns to disaster in a busy city. Crowds running wildly, people checking their mobile phones (?) as debris rains down on them.

The above video, entitled “The Ambient Life“, was apparently made for the Freeband Communication research initiative, which is a Dutch national programme of research in and around ‘ambient intelligence’ (a largely European synonym for Ubicomp).