Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Web 3.0: Social Software in the 3rd World

What is Web 3.0? After the social software revolution ushered in by web 2.0’s architectures of participation, we’re all eager to think ahead to the next mind bending advance. But while many of the new web manifestos talk about the next step for web technology, the target market for those technologies is equally important. I believe the third generation web will be about finding ways to make social software relevant to those who have benefitted little from it to date: web 3.0 is social software in the 3rd world.

But here’s the thing: the next social software revolution has already begun — spurred by the massive uptake of mobile phones in developing nations. 68% of mobile phone subscribers anywhere are in the developing world. In Africa, mobile subscribers have jumped from 10 million to 200 million in the last four years. The growth is stunning. And it’s accelerating.

Why the explosive growth? One reason is sheer need. Africa has 12% of the world’s population but only 2% of the global landline network. Building wired infrastructure is far more expensive than wireless alternatives. But that’s just the beginning. The recent IBM Global Innovation Outlook put it this way:

African use of mobile phones has been far more innovative than in Europe, largely because meeting the specific needs of Africa requires innovation.

And the cellphone is empowering because it provides what Jan Chipchase calls a “fixed identity point,” that is, for people displaced by war, floods, drought, or faltering economies, having a way to always be in touch is essential for both maintaining community and for doing business.

Economists say this will be huge. As a recent New York Times article put it, mobile communications enables the “just in time” business. In the 1930’s, Toyota radically revamped how its supply chain worked. No longer did it stock parts, instead encouraging assembly plants to order from the factory only when parts were needed. The company became decentralized, incremental. Waste was reduced, efficiency increased, defects were corrected more quickly — and profits rose. Economists believe that the cellphone can enable this same kind of radical shift in developing nations, largely because they don’t have the technological baggage we do.

Some examples:

  • When Indian fishermen got cellphones, they started calling around to prospective buyers before reaching shore. The ability to negotiate at a distance increased profits by 8% and reduced consumer costs by 4%.
  • SMS is used in Kenya to allow anonymous questions about culturally taboo subjects like AIDS, breast cancer, STDs and more. Answers come back quickly from health professionals at no charge.
  • A live-in housekeeper in China who was essentially an indentured servant got a cellphone and suddenly a whole new set of customers were able to reach her and book her services, allowing her to grow her business.

Of course difficult questions remain. How do you design for people who are illiterate, making $4 a day, and with no access to electricity? Design for the Other 90% provides important answers, repeatedly demonstrating that these challenges can be overcome when folks get creative — and at a profit, too. Paul Polak puts it this way:

Thinking of poor people as customers, instead of recipients of charity, radically changes the design process.

But here’s the central point: little attention has been paid to the role social software can play. And that seems strange since these little connected devices are in so many pockets. It’s a huge opportunity, especially since many of the approaches used in the west can’t be applied, at least not directly. For instance:

In Cameroon, bankers complain of loan delinquency rates as high as 50 percent. But tontine payments are taken so seriously that borrowers faced with delinquency have been known to commit suicide. (nyt)

How, then, do you design to support informal economies in places where the formal economy isn’t as important? What features can help communities that are widely dispersed by war maintain their bonds? What role can social software play in helping steward social change and stability? These are the big questions. And that’s why there’s no better place to test the true promise of social software than in the developing world. Confronting these challenges requires a radical rethink of what social software means. Web 3.0: social software in the 3rd world.

Jan Chipchase holds design studios in poor communities, asking participants to design their perfect phone — with all sorts of revealing results: a landmine detector, GPS to help orient prayers towards Mecca, the ability to monitor cheating boyfriends and husbands. But perhaps the most telling was just two words: “peace button.”

While the idea of a button that instantly invokes peace might seem ridiculous, the power of mobile phones to affect social change is quite evident: be it energizing protests or spreading divisiveness.

If the third world is already doing amazing things with basic mobile functionality (texting, voice), imagine what they will do when the real dreamers of social software apply themselves in this new venue. I don’t know what that future would look like but, with so much of Earth’s population still unaccounted for in current designs, it’s an opportunity that will be increasingly difficult to ignore.

images via ibm and nyt

Virtual World Futures: Five Trends from VW08

Think you know virtual worlds? So did I. Then I went to Virtual Worlds 2008 and had my eyes opened — both good and bad. It’s a relatively small conference (say 1000 people) that features some of the best and brightest in the space. And the diversity of that space struck me: from proprietary platforms to “curated experience” to open clients to world staffing and more. And nearly all of it focused on entertainment, not business (though back room chatter says the organizers engineered it that way). Here’s a rundown of the major trends I saw:

1. “There’s Nothing to Do”
In the list of top complaints about virtual worlds, that has to be at the head of the class. And folks at VW08 were painfully aware. (Not that there weren’t a good number of examples of that old “if you build it, they will come” cluelessness.) Compelling content draws people, the community retains them. And that’s why events are central to the future of virtual worlds. Make way for service companies who know how to do them right. Take Electric Sheep’s CSI: Second Life.

2. Measured in Minutes
Websites are high penetration, quick engagement; virtual worlds are low penetration, long engagement. In the CSI experience, for example, they saw multiple hundreds of thousands of people spending an average of 36 minutes exploring the space. The idea is to package experience, not information. One speaker put it this way: “With virtual worlds it’s no longer about content, it’s about context.” Or, the ad folk put it: “Traditional online advertising is measured in 12-14 seconds. Virtual world engagements are measured in minutes.”

3. Emergence Matters
There was plenty discussion about the unique power of virtual worlds to enable the speech, gesture, sketch interaction paradigm. I don’t particularly buy it. What I do buy, though, is the water cooler effect. Perfect quote: “I’m not going to bump into you on a half million dollar telepresence session.” Emergence is a more significant value of virtual worlds than most people think. Capitalizing on it is the challenge.

4. Come Together
40% of virtual world users also use social networks, and there’s also a good deal of overlap between virtual worlds users and gamers. The prevailing thinking at VW08 was that all three would start to look pretty similar. We’re already seeing this with the social end user content creation features in games (Halo 3, Little Big Planet) and the emerging social networking features in virtual worlds. Our kids won’t know the difference between a virtual world, a social networking site, or a game. All three will be everywhere, just to different degrees.

5. The Age Divide
If you’re over 30 you’re in Second Life, if you’re under 30 you’re anywhere but. A packed room was asked who used Second Life and every hand went up. So went the conference demographics. Will Linden be able to convert folks who’ve grown up with Habbo as they age? They should worry.

Bonus! Quotes
Some great quotes overheard:

  • Avatars: “Avatars are the ring tone for the younger generation — it expresses what you like to everyone around you and, at the same time, makes you feel good.”
  • Standards: “Right now we’re in the CompuServe/AOL days. Walled gardens everywhere. Standards are coming but there’s no business case, which is causing grief. They will come.”
  • Measurement: “Google made the click through metric mainstream. But in the early days of the web, we tried to measure eyeballs, which ended up not working out at all. Virtual worlds are different again. It’s all about time spent.”

Time spent. It’s the holy grail in our ever accelerating sound bite society both, online and off. We don’t pause, we perpetually multitask (to our detriment). I recently spoke with photographer Raul Gutierrez, who was troubled by just this problem. As improbable as it might sound, then, perhaps some future virtual world might provide his solution.

image via dean terry

That Looks Awesome! Why 3D Immersion Ain’t

There’s been a lot of talk about the value of immersion in 3D virtual worlds of late. Overheard at VW08: “It’s just like the real world, but you’re able to share it with far flung friends and family. You can see them standing there and all the things you do in the real world happen naturally — presence, gesture, place — they all transfer. That is the power of virtual worlds: to be immersed.” Many of us want to believe; especially considering all the sex appeal currently associated with online worlds. But take this example:

Players in World of Warcraft are in the heat of an epic battle. And they’re losing. Just as the last great warriors are about to fall, a sword powerful enough to vanquish the evil one is discovered. But at the pivotal moment when the sword is being handed over to the valiant party leader, the action comes to a screeching halt — and a sheepish farm boy asks: “Uh… How do you hand something from one player to another?” Response: “Bring up your inventory screen Control-I…”

Hello man behind the curtain! This is a classic scene from South Park, but the reason it’s so funny is that it rings true. Immersion in online worlds is beautiful, but it ain’t perfect. Just because a 3D world looks reasonably close to the real one doesn’t mean it’s perfectly straightforward to interact with. Often the contrary.

People are central to virtual worlds, but it’s instructive that we have so many different ways of representing ourselves. Which is the most immersive representation? Which lends itself most readily to deep social interaction? Avatars in Sony Home might look realistic but that level of detail makes them more complex to customize (plus they’re precariously close to the uncanny valley). Representing people as dots makes them super easy to customize but limits expressiveness. Nintendo’s Miis offer a clever middle ground — where the design of emotive avatars is easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master.

So, avatars are central to immersion, right? I mean, we’re visual creatures, after all. But so many questions remain: Is it easier to socialize in WoW or IRC? Is it easier to stay in touch using Twitter or Second Life? Folks come down hardcore on all sides. Why? Because it depends. One might be better for presence, the other better for focusing on the thread of conversation. One might be better for being in the moment, another for tracking communication over time. Some folks might find a pure text interface engaging in its simple immediacy; others find a graphical world engrossing for its visual detail. All these things can be immersive.

Text adventure innovator Infocom traded on just this issue — making it known that leaving something to the imagination can be more powerful than laying it all out there. And while Infocom ultimately broke its promise to never make a game with graphics (it’s most masterful games remain the text ones), the point still stands. Immersion is contextual: it’s different for everyone. It’s all about getting into that flow state where the medium disappears and the world consumes you. Which is more immersive: spending years in an empathic online forum for breast cancer survivors or playing Call of Duty 4? Just as I can be equally immersed in a book as in a movie, so I can be equally immersed in a text-based world as in a 2D graphical one as a fully 3D surround sound shutter glasses lights out rumble enabled experience. Want an example? Witness the endlessly addictive ascii art of NetHack.

Immersion isn’t about taking over your screen, it’s about taking over your mind. And it never happens the same way twice.

Impossible Music Manipulation

Imagine reaching inside your favorite song and transforming it. Not just replacing one track with another (exchanging, say, Eddie Van Halen’s solo for your clearly superior version), but altering it at an atomic level. Misplace a finger on a chord or two in an otherwise once in a lifetime take? Grab the notes and move them after the fact. Hell, reorient the whole thing and build an entirely new refrain in a different key with a completely repurposed drum part. Then build a wholly new song.

Once thought impossible, Direct Note Access lets you edit individual notes within flat audio tracks. All of a sudden, any audio source becomes an endless palette. Mindblowing.

Back when Guitar Hero creators Harmonix were a tiny shop struggling to pay the bills, they made a genre-defining game called Frequency. And getting the music for it was tough. That’s because, in order to tell the instruments from one another in their licensed tracks, they had to secure master recordings from the original artists. No small feat, especially on a razor thin budget. That just changed.

But there’s so much more. Imagine the kinds of new music games that could be built, making use of music the original developers never heard or even imagined — building from software that finally understands sound as intimately as the player does. Beyond that, being able to restructure music at a note level opens up tons of fascinating new avenues for electronic and traditional musicians alike. I can’t wait to see where this takes the samplers of tomorrow.

Find more Direct Note Access at

thanks to jesse kriss

9rules Talking Heads Strike Comedy Gold


I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the Superstream but, after last night, I’m a believer. What is the Superstream exactly? It’s 3 video feeds (one for each of the 9rules owners: Mike, Scrivs, Tyme) and a chat room for the rest of us. Were the triad like a lot of other dot com crews, the thing would be like watching paint dry (how can we drive shareholder value today?). Fortunately, they ain’t.

The conversation ranged from serious relationship talk to a broad variety of SxSW misbehavior to the mysterious opening and shutting of the door behind Mike and, oh yeah, exactly what orifice do the gold flakes in Goldschläger exit from, anyway? But mostly it had the ring of a group of friends blowing off steam after a long week. A bunch of seriously funny friends. Mike had the hysterical faces (and break dancing) on lock, Paul did filter free monologues (and twitters), and Tyme injected just enough sanity into the mix to make it all hold together. With the rest of us in the peanut gallery egging them on, it produced comedy gold. How do I know? Well, I tuned in at 11pm thinking I’d be done by midnight. Next time I looked up it was 2am. And my sides hurt.

If personality is king, the triad has it in spades. More of that, please.

Dates and times are hard to come by and announcements can happen minutes before the actual event but, if last night is any guide, keeping an eye out is worth it — even if you do pay for it the next day. Did I mention we all did shots?


Update: More on last night’s events in 9rules Notes.

FFFFOUND! Feeds Art Addiction

FFFFOUND! should be classified as controlled substance — the rush or sheer uncut eye candy it delivers can’t be safe. I mean, sure, there are plenty of social image bookmarking sites, but none has nearly the addictive quality of Yugo Nakamura’s invite-only baby. Since I found it back in September, I’ve been there. Hourly. Four reasons:

  • Quality – ffffound is a steady stream of supremely eye popping stuff (political, goofy, sublime). It rewards time spent like few others.
  • Simplicity – the fabulously unencumbered browsing interface allows images pop and suck you in. Voting is a simple click, contributing an image is two. (Copyright may decide the latter is too easy, but let’s hope safe harbor helps.)
  • Language independence – there are no tags, no comments, no categories, no text profiles, not even timestamps. Anyone who uses ffffound has only one communication channel: images. That forces the question: what do these images tell me about the person who bookmarked them? Only later do you realize you’ve been sharing images for weeks with folks you don’t even share a language with. Testimony to the communicative power of art.
  • Emergence – clusters of related images happen with surprising frequency (my recent love affair with whales for example). That’s fascinating considering there’s really no site feature that affords this (no tagging, no linking). Images ebb and flow naturally, inviting users to see patterns, call them out, and contribute to them. (I’d love to see the developers capitalize on this with a lightweight “related to” function.)

But all ain’t well in the land of visual inspiration. With any community content site, you’re going to get pollution and I’ve noticed an ever-so-slight drop in quality over the past month. Can the laser focus on beautiful images be maintained through the addition of so many new users, each with their own notion of what beauty means?

And speaking of the meaning of beauty, there are certainly many types of beauty in the human form. But when you look at the bodies that make it to the top of ffffound, they are often of the half naked female variety. Of course, there are many ways to interpret that result (largely heterosexual male user base, image availability, pop culture programming, etc.) but not everyone’s pleased with it. To form, the debate is happening in ffffound, in images: point / counterpoint. Personally, I like my communities open and uncensored but it would be nice to see more diversity in gender, ethnicity, and body type. Let’s hope a broadening user base brings balance, not dilution.

Ultimately, ffffound is a case study in design restraint. It strips away many of the expected web 2.0 trappings (tags, discussions, rounded corner coitus) and emerges with a streamlined community that’s pretty hard to ignore (or so says my crack addicted optic nerve). The challenge, then, is to grow it without losing the beautiful simplicity and content that make it so special.

Visit me on FFFFOUND! and check out creator Yugo Nakamura. I’ve got a few invites. Drop a comment if you’d like one.

Update: Invites gone!

High Tech Differences Worldwide

The meaning of high tech changes depending on where you are in the world. This week, we were fascinated by cases of technology working (and not) all over.

Cross Cultural No – hysterical breakneck trip around the world shows us the definition of “beatdown” in many tongues

Top Sustainable Tech – Africa is home to all kinds of intriguing new sustainable technologies; many born out of necessity. Also, see new work applying web 2.0 ideas in Africa

Iraq Unwired – not too much high tech going on without power and Iraq’s power grid is increasingly at the mercy of armed militias

Imagined Image – completely wicked Israeli image resizing technique chops out or adds new bits in just the right places (hires here)

Photo With Flash – stateside gurus develop a clever new approach to flash photography

Gummy Bear Genocide

What does it mean when genocide becomes a punch line? Lately, we’ve had a bunch of opportunities to find out. Example 1: Monday’s Attack of the Show starts off funny enough, as an unsuspecting gummy bear is dumped into potassium chloride and an impressive chemical reaction follows. Jokes all around. “We can hear your screams.” And, honestly, the gurgling in the video doesn’t sound too far from it. Giggles.

Then it gets interesting. Host Kevin Pereira goes on about powering cars with the chemical reaction: “Screw the Prius, why can’t I run my car on that?” [more banter] “Running your car on gummy bears would be just like, well, genocide.” Uhm. Still funny, or did we just get a little sick?

Want more? Have a look at the review of Lost Planet in February’s Wired:

In the opening scenes of the gorgeous sci-fi actioner, a green-eyed alien or some such has killed your father and you’re ticked off about it. Vent your wrath by going genocidal on an army of insectoids straight out of Starship Troopers.

Then there’s the Zombie Genocider achievement in Dead Rising. Edge picked up on that, calling Dead Rising its “favorite zombie genocider.” And so on.

I know it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. Hell, maybe it’s a coping strategy. Still, I can’t seem to find the word genocide amusing in any context. And I find it particularly sickening considering there’s a genocide going on this instant. Not to mention all those in recent memory: Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo.

Let’s be clear: these are largely good folks. (Any channel that shows Ninja Warrior can’t be all bad, for instance.) Being a tech person myself, I typically find the folks in my field more thoughtful than most. Still, when I hear talk like this, it really makes me wonder if we are quite as in touch with the difficult things that are happening in the world as we should be.

And, to some degree, we should be thankful for that. Most of us don’t have contact with genocide beyond the headlines. But imagine how those who aren’t so lucky might feel on hearing it used as a punchline. Every once in a while, we need a reminder.

So, that’s how I spent my Fourth of July. Giving thanks that we are to live in a country where large scale horror doesn’t visit us daily. And remembering that we need to do more to change things for those who don’t share our fortune.

image grabbed from wikipedia

Rejecting the Free Pass

There’s an elephant in the room. We know global warming is snowballing towards us, but once we’ve changed our lightbulbs and adjusted our thermostats and bought our high milage cars, we’ve done our part, right? Not quite. In Adbusters 72, Kalle Lasn puts it this way:

[Thomas Friedman says we need] a president “who is tough enough to level with the American people about the profound economic, geopolitical and climate threats posed by our addiction to oil — and to offer a real plan to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.” He then went on to say: “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are — including car culture.”

That pretty well sums up the way most of us in the affluent West feel about global warming: we’re ready to make small sacrifices, change our light bulbs, our cars and even our leaders, but our culture — the American way of life — is not negotiable. That’s too bad, because our consumer culture is the primary cause of our ecological crisis.

But it’s not just environmental issues — it’s social issues, too. Take Product Red. Buy a Red-branded iPod and some of the purchase price goes to fight AIDS in Africa. When you buy it, though, you’re saying: I’m only willing to give a $10 donation if I can invest $190 in a gadget for myself. 5% for them, 95% for me. Why not give the whole $200 to a cause and listen to the radio? Our consumer mindset won’t let us.

The fear, of course, is that once we’ve bought the Red iPod, the Red Razr, the hybrid car, that we feel we’ve done enough, won our free pass, and leave the rest of the work to someone else. But is that what really happens? Could these products be a first step rather than the only step — the activism gateway drug? Focus group findings reported in this Sunday’s Times suggests they just might:

We didn’t find that people felt that their consumption gave them a pass, so to speak. They knew what they were doing wasn’t going to deal with the problems, and these little consumer things won’t add up. But they do it as a practice of mindfulness. They didn’t see it as antithetical to political action. Folks who were engaged in these green practices were actually becoming more committed to more transformative political action on global warming.

But the question I’ve heard over and over is: What else can I do? Consumption is so central to our culture, it seems the only way to engage these big problems is at the cash register. How do we move beyond that mindset? How can we ask people to make much bigger sacrifices for the good of the environment, for the good of people we’ve never met. How do we embrace fundamental change on a large scale?

As usual, the answer is that activists each have to figure out how we can best contribute and work hard. For my part, I think technology can play a role. The gap between causes and effects is often too wide for human brains to comprehend. Can technology help us close that mental gap? Can technology help people make the hard choices? Can the “architecture of participation” hive mind so heralded by the web 2.0 crowd be harnessed to this end in a deep and wide way? I think so. And, with everyone touting the new web and the ways it brings people and resources together in new and empowering ways, I can’t think of a better time to put it to this test. It’s the most important test of our generation.

We last wrote about using technology to encourage activism in Karma 2.0.

image grabbed from medicins sans frontier’s fantastic human ball

Click Click Boom: Web 2.0 Wrecks Your House

Architecture of participation. It’s one of the money phrases of Web 2.0 — the idea that online spaces should be designed in a deep way to accept contributions from anyone. And the web is at its most interesting when those contributions enter the real world, bringing people together in new and positive ways (a la DonorsChoose, HeyLetsGo, Meetup, etc.).

But what happens when the web brings people together in new and, well, destructive ways? Witness the Craigslist ad that put anything and everything in a Tacoma, WA house up for grabs. Only problem was they didn’t own it. The house was stripped to the studs and the lawyers are still trying to figure out what to do. Suddenly we’ve got architecture of annihilation.

Of course, this kind of thing isn’t particularly common on Craigslist and we can take some comfort from the fact that it wasn’t a random act of malice (turns out the ad was placed as the latest chapter of a family feud). Still, it speaks volumes on the penetration of these technologies into our lives, psyches, and confidence. Fear the not-so-smart mobs.

It reminds me of the Detroit Demolition Disneyland project, where a band of artists painted dangerous, dilapidated houses “Tiggeriffic Orange” and achieved the unexpected (or was it?) outcome of silently convincing the city to knock them down. The beauty of it all being that city hall all but refused to do anything about the houses until they were made so prominent that even people outside the underserved neighborhoods where they stood could no longer ignore them.

Both the Tacoma mob and DDD are examples of remote controlled demolition, with one party throwing signals in the air and unknown others doing the dirty work. I find the comparison fascinating because it makes clear that this phenomena isn’t isolated to the web. After all, had the Tacoma house been in Detroit and painted orange by a team of miscreants, it might well have been knocked down, too. But, then, painting a house is a bit more involved than entering an online ad, isn’t it? It seems the web at its most beautiful when physical and online spaces intersect. And also at its ugliest.

image grabbed from detroitfunk

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