I just listened to Tim Wu’s podcast on Slate where he talks to Neal Stephenson (you should subscribe by the way, its great) and a common theme surfaced - that relative to the first half of the 20th century our generation has made little progress, or perhaps even regressed.
I am a huge fan of Stephenson, but for the same reasons I take issue with Peter Thiel when he says ‘We were promised flying cars, instead we got 140 characters’ it kind of upsets me when people talk about the present, and completely fail to acknowledge how revolutionary the communications technology we have is (aka the Internet).
Stephenson notes that if you took a person from 1900 to 1950 they would have a very hard time explaining the new world they saw when they returned to their own time, but by comparison a person from 1950 visiting the millennial world might not feel like much had changed, they might even feel like things had regressed.
So if the progress we have made is not obviously visible, what is it? Why is it transformative? How is it positive? What has failed?
Firstly though, a note about rates of change - smart phones & tablets have the most rapid adoption rates of all things in 21st century technology
In just thirty years computers have gone from being unwieldily tools of industry, to consumer products, to consumer products that are all networked, to consumer products that are networked and always in your pocket, to consumer products that are all networked and in your pocket, and now theres also another one over there on the couch. The time between each step got shorter.
Next up we have wearable computing - which I don’t think is going to kick off with Google Glass - but I can bet you the time it takes Google Glass to become ‘Ray Ban Glass’ is going to be shorter than what it took for Apples Newton to become the iPhone.
These inventions don’t really change the appearance of the physical world (how will people interpret that question once AR comes into play?) - but they do radically change our ‘selves’ and the way we organise our society.
We have a massive transformation of culture underway, and it is more about the virtual than it is about the physical.
Its in our heads, and its in ‘the cloud’ (A rebranding of the now retro term ‘cyberspace’) as opposed to being something someone would notice walking down the street.
We are not entirely aware what it means yet, but we spend more time in this body-less space than we ever have before.
Hanging out in virtual worlds isn’t new, its the same experience someone might have had in the 17th century reading a novel.
Whats new is the fact that we can define ourselves in that space and interact with others in real time. There’s less regard for pesky old school things like geography, or the fact that its hard to have more than one simultaneous conversation IRL.
Pardon me if I am starting to sound like a late 90’s class on digital culture, and plus that, no-one needs to lecture Neal Stephenson about all this..
If William Gibson was the writer who coined the term ‘cyberspace’ to describe how we might navigate in the virtual, then Neal Stephenson was the guy who imagined we might take on identities there and have a social life, aka ‘The Metaverse’.
So thats why its kinda odd to hear him go on a podcast and say we are not making progress, and not really mention how the crazy shit he wrote about is coming true - even the militarised drones and electric skateboards..
To me it all seems pretty radical.
Perhaps Neal Stephenson agrees, but is he starting to think that its not so great, and hence, not counted as progress?
Whether or not our ‘selves’ are changing for the better in this new digital postspazmatronic world is another long discussion in itself. As far as my 2c goes - its a great time to be born a nerd.
So whats the real problem?
What we are living through right now is the failure (and post failure corruption) of market driven capitalism, not the failure of technological innovation.
The Internet will form the ideological model for the next generation.
And yes that does mean America will have its first cat president.
So why has [the Adria Richards debacle] become such an ungodly fight? We seem to have approached a point where any actual sensible discussion of questions raised by this situation is borderline impossible. The positions are polarising to such an extent that—rather than just accepting what the vast majority of us must surely know to be true—everyone’s being pushed, or pushing themselves, to the edges. The arguments now appear to be that either Adria fucked up and for this reason she deserved to get rape threats, or that since she got rape threats she cannot possibly have fucked up.
These are both ridiculous positions! These are insane positions! These are totally irrational positions! In our attempts to find meaning in this event we’ve got people trying to find a neat narrative that wraps everything up elegantly and cleanly. But such an attempt is doomed to fail here. No one comes out of this cheerfully. There is clumsy human self-importance on the one side and a great swathe of unpleasant, unwashed, dickish, abusive and disgusting morons on the other.
I kinda wanted to write something about the whole [Adria Richards debacle], but as the above paragraph neatly encapsulates the whole situation is now such a train wreck it seems hard to imagine how any good could come out it.
The things I wanted to explore about the situation were - what was it about Adria Richard’s actions that so enraged certain elements of hacker culture ?
(And no I don’t mean the fact that she is a woman and black, there is no defence for the people who attacked her on those levels)
SXSW - Its all about the ideas right?
I think we all agree that the days where an app could ‘break out’ at SXSW are over..
Even three years ago it was just Foursquare solidifying its status as cool (vs Gowalla), two years ago GroupMe was the dubious contender (its still a great utility, just not a radical concept..), last year we had ambient location forced on us, and this year I think we all still felt so dirty about that (apparently Highlight has pivoted to become a popsicle vendor) that no-one even tried to make a claim - seriously, did anyone try to write that blog post?
I feel sorry for anyone trying to cut through the noise at this point - esp given that todays true breakout metric is having your ‘find friends’ feature turned off by Facebook / Twitter.
So with this said.. what was new this year?
Numerous panels on space flight, the line completely around the convention centre for Elon Musk’s keynote, and drones on display at Viceland show that we might be following Thiel’s lead and pointing our technological vision back towards the physical world (and away from the consumer internet products we are all busy using).
But Google Glass was also hot on the minds of most, even though it’s panel was in such a small room it was full *before they even let anyone in*.
On the thread of glass; one of the most exciting new ideas I caught wind of was from a panel someone told me about, but that I didn’t attend - for a seemingly innocuous app that reads your pulse using a smartphone’s camera & flash.
Crude right now, but the idea of using biometric sensors as another form of input is the tip of something huge.
Just say if Glass succeeds (more on that further down) then we are going to have a device where we are constantly immersed in information.
We are going to need, as Denis Crowley might say, ‘Better Filters’.
By tracking pulse you can probably get a fair idea about whether someone is stressed or relaxed, active or passive.
A gimmicky example of an implementation would be to feed that data into iTunes so shuffle / playlists can respond to your mood.
But as far as filtering information goes - its going to be really handy if your device knows that now isn’t the right time to flood you with push notifications (because you seem stressed).
Take this a bit further down the track to when your sensor can also read things like blood sugar level - I bet advertisers would love to know when a person is hungry or dehydrated..
And yes, the ‘Quantified Self’ types are gonna get pretty excited.
All this is still a way from reality - but I can see the tip of a future growth area here.
Will Glass succeed though?
One panel showed a pertinent slide comparing Glass to a Bluetooth phone headset. Ouch..
Both offer a more convenient way to use the functionality of your phone. But bluetooth headsets never went anywhere because they look retarded and almost everyone seems to agree that anyone wearing one is a jackass (who ironically almost never receives phone calls).
In its current form Glass may well have the same fate (even though its waaay cooler than a BT headset) - only the people who want to make a statement that they embrace ‘future communications’ will wear them.
I don’t think people are going to adopt google glass en masse when they are released this year - even if they do manage to make them look less Star Trek.
A comparison to Apple’s Newton might be in order - everyone could see that it would be very cool to have a digital notepad with them at all times, and that you could be connected and check emails etc.. But it was still early days.. both for the technology and the networks that support it.
There were around 14 years between the Newton and the iPhone.
I think those cycles are getting shorter.. but for immersive AR to be a reality I think there are still some barriers to be broken:
- Mobile internet needs to get a lot better. 3g/4g still doesn’t really work in Manhattan, and same goes in many other densely populated areas that are the likely places to house early adopters. Not being able to connect your phone is annoying, but imagine how annoying that would be if your connection was a persistent part of your reality?
- The hardware needs to shrink to the point at which it is almost completely unobtrusive. The display / mounted camera should be able to clip to / be built into standard eyewear. Maybe the bulk of the device should live in your pocket (or in the cloud if the networks were very fast and reliable), or maybe it just needs to go nanotech.
- We need to get really good at motion tracking in 3d, either by image detection or by new depth sensing camera technology (perhaps just infrared?)
While I used to think that contact lenses were the ultimate form of AR I am starting to come round to the idea of it being based in glasses - its very easy with glasses to signal that you are not ‘wired in’. You can simply wear the glasses up on your head like you would with sunglasses.
No matter how future struck we become I don’t think people are ever going to want to live without some level of direct, unbroken, personal communication.
You cant have a good conversation with someone while you are both staring at your phones, and I think for AR to go mainstream there needs to be a way for people to signal to each other that they are actually paying attention between stints in the collective consensual hallucination that life becomes.
The other thing people are excited about (So long as they are carrying tacos as opposed to guns and surveillance cameras) is drones.
It seems like we might already be hitting a point where anyone with Seamless.com bookmarked and an Amazon Prime account can feasibly buy most of what they need online and have it delivered.
The guys from Fueled set up our accommodation in Austin almost totally via online shopping - a stash of air mattresses, general supplies, and 45c (net price) cans of soda were waiting on the doorstep when they arrived.
As this becomes a cultural norm are drones the ultimate answer for small scale deliveries?
Its not gonna be that hard to add a way for drones to drop things at most urban dwellings, and it seems feasible that sending drones on delivery errands could be both manageable and economically viable.
The hardware is already pretty close to being a commodity (when its the same price as a bike?), the remaining barriers are mostly legislative, social, and operational.
Operationally we probably need some sort of centralised (or intra drone) protocol so if there are a lot of them up there they don’t crash into each other.
Maybe we also need some infrastructure? Drone charging stations on the rooftops? Or do peoples drone letterboxes have charging stations also?
Socially we need to establish what is acceptable if drones are to inhabit our skies en masse (ideally no guns or surveillance cameras, realistically probably just no guns..).
And legislatively god knows what, but I assume there are going to need to be some laws (since the world is still run by people who like laws), which may also tie into the first idea of airspace control.
That could take a while, but my feeling is that the social and operational barriers could fall quicker than you think, especially if the drone traffic lanes are high enough to be out of general perception.
It looks to be going the other way for now, but I think ultimately lawmakers want drones too (for spying & shooting.. assholes..) and will see desire for delivery and toy drones as a good way to inch this towards public acceptance.
The drones on display at Viceland navigate via GPS to within 2 feet of accuracy. They automatically compensate flightpaths for wind (although this obviously drains batteries faster) and can be set to recover in all sorts of ways if they loose signal / are driven badly.
Whats that tapping on my window? Oh, its a drone with some pizza. Better go.