Sunday, October 30, 2005

CIA futures report misses discontinuity

The National Intelligence Council, a division of the US CIA, conducts studies of future trends, the latest of which is called Mapping the Global Future and was published in December 2004.

The report is a comprehensive effort by several hundred futurists offering four possible states of the world in 2020, mainly using the Scenario Planning methodology developed by the Global Business Network (GBN).

The point of scenario planning is to account for discontinuities that linear extrapolations of forecasting from the present cannot capture as demonstrated by GBN’s famous charts showing oil output 1980-1990 Figure 1. Estimated and Figure 2. Actual.

Mapping the Global Future is useful, in more than the Shirky-esque sense of not having similar alternatives, but is probably not broad enough to encompass the true future. Despite the National Intelligence Council’s use of scenario planning, many of the key issues articulated for 2020 are the same as those of today (the linear extrapolation fallacy of forecasting).

The study’s focus is broad with an emphasis on politics and military power. Consideration of the role of technology is particularly inadequate and uniformed given the accelerating pace of innovation and adoption and the heavily discontinuous aspects of technology. Security threats are discussed but not that the biggest ones in 2020 may be technological security risks. The scenarios are supposed to sound unlikely but possible; the scenarios presented in the study sound too shortsighted and obvious.

Some specifics from the study that do not quite resonate are that first, the study suggests that Iran and North Korea will be the key countries at odds with the US/West in 2020. The key problem-makers states of fifteen years ago are not the key problem-maker states of today and this would be more likely true than false in 2020 too. Also, in 2020, it should be considered that non-nationstate communities might be the more likely key trouble-makers.

Second, the study suggests that ethical issues such as Muslim/Western values cleavage and an important medical issue of today, HIV/AIDS, will still be at the forefront in 2020. This again seems superficial and may or may not be so, but should have more extensive supporting analysis. Ethnic friction and AIDS do not even seem to be a linear extrapolation of today but just status quo.

Third, the study's prognosticated marginal improvement in the condition of women in 2020 ignores the discontinuous sociological shifts cultures have experienced regarding economic wealth, fertility decisions and non-traditional family structure as education and work force access increases; even if women may be competing unfavorably for jobs in youth bulge cultures, they will be utilized in senior bulge cultures.

One of the study's most interesting projections, though under-highlighted and under-expanded, is that connectivity (e.g.; the connectiveness of the Internet, technology and the global economy) strains nationstates in 2020. Strains is probably a light word for how connectivity will have acted on the nationstate by 2020, depending on amongst other factors, how directly commercial interests pay for and administer their policing and security. The bifurcation between the globalized tech savvy creative class and everyone else bears more consideration on future politics, the issue being that not all power bases in the “everyone else” category can or will be integrated into the world economy.

Detailed Scenarios from the Mapping the Global Future study:

The study envisions four possible states of the future world, mainly concerning static political domination (again no consideration for quasi-discontinuities like dynamic cyber-communities with rotating issues influence as a function of voting support and expertise): Davos World (China and India non-Westerners dominate the leadership and participation in the world economy), Pax Americana (US still in hegemonic world political, economic and technological control), A New Caliphate (radical Muslim religious identity politics with anti-Western ethics dominate the world) and the Cycle of Fear (Orwellian world of fear and security, presence of bio/other terrorism, nuclear proliferation dominate the world).

A graphic of the scenarios was not included in the report but would probably look like this, the four scenarios gathered around the themes of low/high Western norms and values and low/high economic growth.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Next gen information cloud

The personal information cloud is a new and interesting way of looking at information, different than looking at a list of key words as a meta or abstract of a data set and different than scanning the data itself (e.g.; series of blog posts, articles, other written word formats, etc.). The information cloud is the picture that tells a thousand words. It doesn't matter how large the data set is, the important coverage areas can be seen at a glance (assuming appropriate user tagging) by the size and presence of key words.

One example of the information cloud, though not maximally visually expressive is on the right of the screen here. It is pretty clear that "Flash" content is one of the most prevalent areas in Bob's material.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the information cloud are the next steps:

1. Machine Tagging
When can machine tagging or application auto-tagging begin more robustly? Blogs and other websites should have a clickable information cloud button at the top so the entirety of their content can be assessed at a glance with the information cloud auto-summarizing tool. Machine tagging under another name probably already occurs in the indexing algorithms of Google and others. A precursor to machine tagging does exist now in the sense of suggested tags if the webpage/information has already been tagged in that service, as with

2. Conceptual Tagging
Key word tagging is just the beginning. The next level is conceptual tagging. The meta meta of key words. It would be a field day for librarians and information managers. Conceptual tagging may involve subjective judgment. One person might tag a passage of text as socialist or empiricist or whatever to the disagreement of others. A wiki-type group editing tool could settle differences.

3. Group Tagsets as an Educational Tool
There can be different tag sets for different groups or eras. Applying today's key word and conceptual tagset to historical eras would be different than what that era would have applied, for example, today's views would quickly assess sexism and racism in previous eras which would not have been called out then. It would be an interesting educational tool to try on the tags (regular key word and conceptual) of different groups, for example, trying on the GOP or Democrat tagset views or Muslim and Israeli tagset views would be an interesting way to understand the worldviews of these groups to a greater extent and compare and contrast their perceptions.

4. Functional Tagging
Another variation of conceptual tagging is functional tagging, for example tagging "scissors" not as "scissors" but by their function, "cut." There can be many different classification systems for different applications.

5. Interacting with your Physical Personal Information Cloud
The personal information cloud is an idea that right now only applies to our online identity in certain limited segments, like our social bookmarking activity. Imagine a cloud of words surrounding your physical body, bouncing like avatar conversation, growing or shrinking as you emphasize different thoughts and ideas. One cloud might accompany you to work for example, and other clouds to other settings. What about being able to access a mobile information cloud that surrounds you, wireless data motes at the ready.

6. Visible Personal Information Clouds as a Communications Tool
What about being able to selectively permission your information cloud to be visible to others. Seeing someone's full life information cloud is being able to see a proxy for their value system, the ability to know what is important to them. This would allow for deeper more meaningful communication than our current primitive verbal streams and body language perceptions. Seeing that someone sorts on information and ideas, for example, would suggest that an effective communications approach would not involve telling stories about people but rather citing data, and the converse would also be true.

Friday, October 28, 2005

DOD PR in the Tech Community

The previous post discussed military plan author and DOD Office of Force Transformation representative Thomas Barnett and his dream of a US-administrered global police force. He has not been the only one working the tech conference circuit, Greg Glaros of the US Navy spoke at Supernova (touting a new carbon-fiber hull vessel with electronic keel which reabsorbs its own wake among other things) and JC Herz of DARPA and the National Research Council spoke at O'Reilly Media's Where 2.0 conference earlier in 2005.

With all the technology involved with military equipment, it is logical that representatives of the US military would be speaking at tech conferences as a norm, but the frequency seems to have stepped up in proportion to the declining support for the war in Iraq. Also, the talk material and tone is positioned as public relations, marketing and propaganda; there is more content about building support for the military's strategic plans rather than discussing the technical details. It seems to be a misguided attempt on the part of the government and a programming oversight on the part of tech conference organizers.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Thomas Barnett's imperial global police force

Thomas Barnett discussed his new book, Blueprint for Action, at the October 26 Second Life Future Salon and, taken with the venue, blogged extensively about the event. Blueprint for Action is the implementation and expansion of ideas Barnett initially proposed in an earlier book, The Pentagon's New Map. Or, the rationale for the US to lead a global police force in its last gasp for power in the new, new world.

Barnett can be chiefly complimented for coalescing a few key ideas from the geopolitical conceptual milieu of the present and last several years. He can also be applauded for his long-term vision, critical thinking about how could and should the international political economy evolve over the next several decades, and his concrete action plan.

Barnett's construct of the world is that there are Core and Gap countries. The Core is the traditional West plus the new Core, China and India. Gap countries are the two billion people disconnected from the Internet and the global economy, the lesser developed economies with bankrupt political leadership. His astute analysis highlights the shift in the dynamics of war and peace; that step one is a rapid, high-tech military strike followed by step two, a much longer and costly nation-building phase. Different teams, skills and knowledge are required for the two phases. He rightly points out that the global merchant class (e.g.; MNCs) should be willing to pay for the global warrior class (e.g.; military, nation-builders) that defends them.

One of the main challenges to Barnett's plan is the US political, economic and cultural imperialism inherent in the plan, unpalatable to both Core and Gap countries, especially at a time when the US has low credibility and initiative support on the international stage. Barnett's response to imperialism charges is to focus on the connectivity (e.g.; connecting Gap countries to the Core), not social Darwinism but there are many more nuances in international affairs decisions than pure commercial gains, security concerns and military strategy.

The main audiences for Barnett's work are US and international military organizations, government agencies and other government representatives. His WashingtonSpeak does not go over well with the liberal tech crowd and they are unlikely to get heavily involved with his initiatives. Techies have long had disdain for the political process and many are planning for a very different kind of tomorrow with singularities and uploading as opposed to the antiquated power jousting of old world nationstates; technology trumps politics or at minimum politics lags technology.

Certainly the linear future, logical possibilities flowing from the current world, needs to be planned for and shaped and Barnett is a visionary with a concrete plan, if a bit imperial and control-oriented, he just should not be surprised if leftist tech audiences do not rise up in support.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Future of gender

Futuristically, in the memescape and world of ectogenesis, gender theoretically has less meaning. In the memosphere, only good memes matter, not their source. In digital metaverse worlds, avatar gender is irrelevant for actualization and collaboration activities (though highly relevant for some other activities), congruity between avatar gender and operator gender would be relevant to some operators and irrelevant to others. In many ways in the present physical world, gender should be irrelevant but results in incorrect bias as Malcolm Gladwell points out in "Blink."

Our current understanding of gender and gender development is still rudimentary but being elucidated with some recent medical research.

Gender is even more divisive than race and ethnicity. It is generally only socially acceptable to be male or female. Medical research documents that 1-2% of the population displays some sort of intersexing, a logical and expected phenomenon of biological variation and natural selection. Intersexing is an incongruency in the six levels of how gender is expressed in a person.

Science writer Deborah Rudacille in "The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights" articulates the six levels of human gender expression and their possible values: Chromosomal (XX, XY, XXY, XYY, etc.), Gonadal (testicles, ovaries or a mix or testicular/ovarian tissue), endocrine (dominance of androgen or estrogen), Morphological (body shape, body fat distribution and facial hair), Genital (penis, vagina, varied stages of formation of both or neither) and Gender Identity - how someone is sexed in the brain, perceives his/her gender.

Formerly, the practice was for the parents to select a gender category with attendant medical treatment for intersexed children early in life. The practice of letting the child grow up and decide to be male/female/other with attendant medical treatment is now realized to be more humane. Intersexed or transgendered persons are trying to have GID (Gender Identity Disorder), as it is now termed, removed from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and reclassified from a psychological disorder to a physiological condition. Homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1974.

Interestingly, the emerging gender research has also found that genes may sex the brain in the first few weeks of embryonic development as opposed to at the 2 month mark when the default female fetus is bathed in androgens if the baby is to be male.

As people start to believe that gender is heavily based in physiology, and gender becomes increasingly less important and unseen in our physical and digital world activities, gender will have less relevance in that sphere of great human import - idea formation.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Early for digital world business opportunities

There are three different levels of business opportunities in digital worlds:

1. In-world economies
Digital world residents are providing products and services to each other. It might seem that there is a lot of opportunity given the substantial economic activity but the range of possibilities is limited. The magnitude of economic activity can be seen in the daily conversions from Linden Dollars or Simoleans to US dollars and the trading volume on eBay and digital currency exchanges.

However the scope of this activity is limited to a set of in-world products and services such as real estate, escort/sexual services and product sales (clothing, hairdos, home furnishings, other objects). The market size will grow as more people subscribe to digital worlds. The market scope will grow if functionality is added to the worlds, also if new user groups come online.

2. Physical world businesses marketing to digital world customers
Physical world companies are starting to go online to market themselves and their services to digital customers. A recent example is Wells Fargo marketing financial services to Gen Y through its entertainment portal Stagecoach Island in Second Life. The digital world customer market is still small, in October 2005, Second Life had 60,000 total worldwide subscribers and presumably fewer who are active on a regular basis.

The cost for physical world companies to establish a digital world presence is minimal in the scope of their overall marketing budget and the brand cachet of being online would likely drive physical world sales. There is also a bit of the land grab idea, companies sensing a great potential future payback for being an early mover in establishing a digital world presence.

Customer avatars could interact with store avatars for pre-shopping and/or discounted sales and companies could assess mini-launches of new products in a low cost way in digital environments.

It is actually surprising that Gen Y commercial brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch, MTV, car companies, etc. do not have digital world presences yet. Part of this can be explained by the still poor visual rendering quality for direct product viewing and buying decisions, but the abstract aspects and customer research in the sales process can occur online now. Another corporate consideration would be the cost and effort required to keep online content fresh.

As every company now has a website, maybe they too will have a digital world presence in the next several years where customers can come to find out about the company and interact with virtual sales staff or other corporate information representatives, for example for a job interview screening or business development partnership meeting. With a corporate presence, companies could have internal meetings in-world as well, an interesting alternative to video conferencing and conference calls.

Further, digital worlds could be an interesting exploration for physical world companies in service delivery. In the financial services example, would clients be more willing/comfortable to discuss the intimate details of their financial situations through their avatars than in person? Would an investment advisor be able to pick up unspoken clues from an avatar meeting? Avatar meetings preserve intimacy and depersonalize interaction in a positive way, maybe making advice more objective.

3. Physical world businesses bring physical world customers in-world
Given the current technical, economic and behavioral inaccessibility of digital worlds (see "Hurdles to faster metaverse deployment") to mainstream consumers, it is too early and too limited for physical world entities to bring their physical world audience online for their products and services. One obvious future application is learning, there are tremendous benefits of using a digital environment as a learning destination, including the ability to collaborate in a non-interruptive multi-channel way. Distance learning platforms such as those designed by market leader eCollege may merge with digital environments.

In-world economies are limited in their current mode but expandable as additional functionality and user groups area added. It is early for physical world brands to move online, but those with the Gen Y focus or aspiration should be establishing presence in the digital world. These are the halcyon digital days where Coke, Lexus and Cingular are not yet plastered around the digital environment, but online merchants have plastered their own advertising around.

It is sad though expected that the current digital worlds have such a heavy component of commercialization. As other entities provide online worlds, perhaps different worlds will become known for different attributes; e.g.; CollabWorld, LearningWorld, PhysicsWorlds to test different laws of physics, etc. It is entirely possible that Second Life and Sims Online will not be around in the next several years, having been superseded by the next metaverse platform(s).

Monday, October 24, 2005

Meme dualism

As with genes, the key role of memes, from the meme's eye view, is to replicate.

With the blogosphere, RSS aggregators/readers and Web 2.0 tools like, technorati and flickr, memes are replicating faster than ever and being sent to thousands of individuals upon each post. However, replicating and sending does not ensure reading. RSS readers, technorati and actively draw information to individuals based on subscriptions and key words requests, but with information overload, it is possible that many posts are never read and that many memes are never spread.

A meme is not spreading successfully unless it is read, by a being with cognizance, currently human, and passed on, possibly with variation and expansion. Memeticists might argue that per Darwinian evolution, the best memes are able to compete successfully for human attention and the ones that go unnoticed and deleted in RSS readers, etc. are not the fittest. Also that the proliferation and replication of many memes is better than less proliferation since there is a greater chance for fit memes to survive and thrive. This assumes the quality filtering the human must do is not detrimental to his/her absorption of fit memes.

Memes are still quite dependent on their symbiosis with the human substrate.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Mind the widening technogap

The fast pace of technology development and proliferation simultaneously creates gaps and provides tools for closing them. China and India will presumably industrialize more quickly and efficiently than Europe and the US did. Other quintessential examples are MIT's Open Course Ware project making free courses available online for anyone who wishes to follow them and the leapfrogging of technology generations such as going straight to cellular phone networks rather than copper wire networks in developing world telephony.

The technogap is changing - previously the digital divide meant developed vs. developing world. Now with broadband access, the Internet and globalized trade and culture, the new digital divide is global technophiles vs. technophobes. The technosavvy creative class has transcended nation states, but their brethren are still entrapped by local challenges.

The technophiles are rocketing to success. Now is a blank slate time like the US in the formative 1800s, those with initiative are seeing and acting on opportunities for advancement, while others are being left far behind and will not even know where they are when they awake because so many aspects of the world will have changed so much. Re-inspiring initiative is the most pressing cause du jour, not providing access to technology.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Privacy is actually increasing

From the usual varied speakers on the first day of the Pop!Tech conference, one macro theme related to privacy emerged, the inevitable decrease of privacy as a result of technological advances.

Even though privacy may be decreasing in some ways, it is increasing in others. It would also seem that politics has diminished more privacy recently than technological advances, however the future may be different.

Even though cams may observe one's every move in the physical world, there is considerably more freedom and anonymity in digital worlds, initially with message boards, email lists, chat rooms and now with 3-D environments like Second Life. While adults might be reticent to don a full-size raccoon suit and frolic in their physical neighborhood or specialized bar, they apparently have no trouble joining twenty of their plushy friends to do so online.

Privacy is a perception. The concept of privacy varies tremendously across cultures, for example Americans quickly disgorging personal details of their lives to chagrined Europeans and the full extended Middle Eastern family getting involved in decisions pertaining to one family member to the surprise of Westerners.

Another flavor of cultural differences in privacy stems from a society's focus on the individual or the group. The West's emphasis on individualism probably emphasizes privacy too, whereas Asian cultures with more emphasis on groups may have a broader perception of privacy.

Personal space norms have also influenced our notion of privacy. In the US, with the last several generations, the amount of space available to each person in each new generation has been expanding. Today's teenager cannot image not having his/her own room whereas one family may have had one room a few generations ago. Interestingly, this trend is already reversing as the densities of cities are increasing. Also interestingly, mental space has been increasing more quickly than physical space is now decreasing. With the Internet, entertainment options and free time available, there is a lot more space for one's mind to go.

Physical world privacy is being diminished and this trend will continue especially with the advent of continual video recognition technology, for example, having the search results and profile of a person walking toward you on the street instantly appear in your heads-up display. One hopes the benefits outweigh the detriments, and simultaneously recognizes the technology's inevitability. In addition, in important thought and behavioral ways, privacy, freedom and anonymity are increasing and will probably exponentiate, particularly with immersive simulations and other digital experiences.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Future of Telecoms

It could finally be time to divest landline telecoms (e.g.; Verizon, SBC, BellSouth) as a core portfolio holding. Their prices have plummeted (down 26%, 14% and 11% respectively) vs. the S&P 500 (down 2%) so far this year. The price declines have made telecoms' 5% dividends look attractive, but dividends cannot make up for the capital depreciation and the long-term fundamentals of the businesses are in jeopardy.

The behemoths re-agglomerated (in stages, the cellular stage being nearly complete now) after being separated in the 1982 antitrust split-up of AT&T. The problem is the shift in future business dynamics in the form of viable substitute services. Cellular revenues and profits have been driving telecom companies for the last few years and propping up the landline business. DSL has not manifested profits.

Landline telecoms were always a portfolio staple because they owned the last mile and the residential customer. For the first time, it actually seems possible that traditional carriers (also called ILECs) can be displaced. Residential customers need voice and data. With cellular phones, Skype, open source PBX Asterisk and other Internet-based telephony services, local landline service can disappear; an unofficial estimate of US VoIP users in 2005 is 2 million. With wireless broadband, currently early stage but with increasingly likely widespread availability in a 5 year timeframe, DSL can be supplanted. Cable internet service currently has a one third market share.

Business customers need voice and data too and have traditionally been customers of large global carriers (IXCs) like AT&T and Sprint. However, AT&T and Spint have also gone the way of the dinosaur with their respective mergers with SBC and Nextel.

The FCC summer 2005 decision that cable internet and DSL are "information services" not "communications services" is backwards and protectionist (carriers are no longer required to interconnect independent service providers; e.g.; SBC could kick Earthlink DSL customers off their lines) but is ultimately probably of little relevance given the overall weak competitive position of traditional carriers and the small revenue and profit percentages DSL provides; telecoms have the more urgent challenge of the complete erosion of the landline voice business. Unless traditional carriers finally peek out of their litigation core competence and start providing wireless broadband (very hard for them to do because it cannibalizes traditional services), they may finally go bankrupt. Maybe rumored new entrants like Google or more likely other telecom carriers offer high-quality cost-effective wireless broadband networks and help the US regain competitive position on the international broadband stage.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Majority of boomers able to experience Power Years?

Long-time gerontology expert Ken Dychtwald in his new book, the Power Years, suggests that aging boomers are not entering retirement but rather beginning their power years. The boomers are powerful because they have more money, experience and wisdom than they have had at any other time in their lives. However, they seem to have fewer opportunities at their finger tips.

Dychtwald rightly suggests that with the increase in life span, 20-30 years of traditional retirement will not be interesting, stimulating or financially possible for most boomers. Instead, they will seek to reinvent themselves in another career or volunteer opportunity.

It may be quite challenging and unpalatable for boomers to step into another career. Attending a class at the local community college will not create real understanding and experience with new fields or familiarity with modern work force culture, values and mindsets. Boomers will start to appear more often in lower-paid service jobs for which they will have to out-compete immigrants and youth.

Even if a boomer completes the significant amount of effort required to be skilled in a field of the day, say, enterprise software programming or flash web design, and bests hiring ageism, starting at entry or low level may seem like an unrewarding match for the boomer's perceived life skills and experience.

It will need to be truly evolved boomers who can accept greatly reduced status, power and remuneration in their new work force roles. Unfortunately financial exigencies will drive behavior but the under-actualization is an unfortunate personal and societal side effect. It would be nice if corporations would adjust to adequately challenge, reward and utilize boomers who are short on recent technical skill sets and long on wisdom and life experience. However in reality, the boomers are not qualified for what the corporations need and it is hardly usual corporate behavior to accommodate under-qualified workers, it is usually the work force not the employer that does the adapting. Even though there will be an increasing shortage of workers, it will probably continue to be met by outsourcing and automated productivity gains.

The point is that there is an opportunity to help boomers (and really anyone) to actualize. Actualize in the sense of using one's unique skills and competences in a context larger than one's self involving creativity and making a real external contribution. It seems that actualization opportunities for boomers decrease upon their leaving the work force and though everyone has the responsibility to actualize (including figuring out how), current societal and institutional venues for boomers to contribute their real capabilities are not obviously present and there is a tremendous opportunity to create them.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Macro and micro science pursuits necessary

Sometimes it seems that advances in macro scientific fields such as astronomy, cosmology, astrophysics and astrobiology are less possible and more costly and time-consuming than advances in micro fields such as semiconductors, nanotech, quantum mechanics and even biotech. About the same number of log scale ratchets occur going up to the macro scale as down to the micro scale but somehow macro scale projects seem more objectionable. Recent failures in the US shuttle program and in rocket launches have also drawn attention to the high cost per project, the risk and that the reward may not be commensurate.

In fact, challenges exist in the pursuit of both macro and micro science and even if there is not a positive ROI on each project, the overall contribution to science and human knowledge of both kinds of projects is important. The competition for funding does not suggest that all funded projects are broadly worthwhile but at least acts as some sort of gating factor, this is even more true in the current era of scarcer funding. Science is turning to philanthropy and other non-grant capital sources more regularly than before.

Next phase tools and methodology breakthroughs are needed at both ends of the spectrum; for example, accelerator technology, with the purpose of creating and detecting some of the smallest particles, is close to the limit for future effectiveness at the $5b current price tag for new accelerators. A new and better means of creating, colliding and observing particles is necessary, perhaps by machine simulation. At the macro end, anything that would compress the time, cost and in-mission reusability of all manner of space missions, particularly telescopes, would be helpful.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Hurdles to faster metaverse deployment

After some extensive exploring around in social MMO (massively multiplayer online) Second Life, it is more clear than ever that metaverse worlds are in Mosaic (e.g.; in the phase of the Internet at the time of the Mosaic browser – the early days). Unfortunately, not Mosaic in the exciting sense of the big pop being around the corner but in the somewhat disheartening way of how early stage the Internet 2.0 metaverse worlds are.

The three main challenges to faster metaverse world deployment are 1) platform inaccessibility, 2) disappointing chatroom culture and 3) myopic video-gaming niche visioning of world creators.

1. Platform inaccessibility to the mainstream

The first hurdle is meeting the system requirements of having a high end processor and graphics card and broadband.

Second, beyond rudimentary walk around and avatar adaptation functionality, there is a steep technical learning curve and economic cost for participating in a meaningful way. Digital graphic design, object creation and programming/scripting skills are necessary to be creative. Like the multi-year wait for tools allowing non-html experts to develop web pages, one or more generations of technical and knowledge-building tools will be required to allow non-expert users to be creative in digital environments.

Third, one must actually spend real money in the world (even to access the environment as with the Sims Online and There; Second Life’s participation jumped when they made an environment login free) to buy and develop real estate and post it in the search engine and teleport people there. Money can also be used to purchase avatar clothing and objects but this robs the participant of creativity.

Platform inaccessibility restricts the community of participants to a small group of technical experts and excludes other individuals, groups and institutions.

2. Disappointing lowest common denominator and homogeneous online culture

Digital environment culture is disappointing in three main ways: behavior, appearance and activities.

First, in some sense, Second Life, the Sims Online and There are no more than their lowest common denominator, manners-free 3-D chatrooms.

The openness of the interactive medium is an important parameter but there is a social code of respect called for in specific venues, such as education classes. Interruptions can be in the form of distracting avatar behavior, irrelevant posts to the chatstream and offensive posts to the chatstream. This could be partially handled by giving the session leader optional control of the chat window and to screen comments so that questions related to the session are included but extraneousness is not included or posted to a secondary chat window.

Of course part of the whole point is to explore what naturally evolves in an online world, and censorship is no more applicable here than in the physical world but the degree of impoliteness is fairly high and suppressive in attracting a wider online audience.

Second, avatar appearance is surprisingly homogenous especially compared to the physical world where we have less control over many of our appearance attributes. Clothing and accoutrements are heterogeneous but shape, size, hair styles and age all display tremendous homogeneity. There are many further social science explorations possible regarding avatars and some early research on avatar construction is coming out, but here the point is citing the homogeneity.

Third, activities and venues are primarily related to commercial activities, sex and gambling. While not unexpected, the narrow slice of activities retards new users. The point is that the digital environment is a platform to develop and launch whatever activities one would like but new community members will start by joining not creating. Sex as a big focus area helps to explain the previously mentioned avatar homogeneity.

3. Myopic niche visioning and video-game culture of world creators

The third challenge to faster metaverse world development is the niche video-gaming mentality of the world creators. The companies running digital worlds, Linden Lab with Second Life, Electronic Arts with the Sims Online and Makena Technologies with There are myopic and under-visioned.

That the wide-ranging potential of their platforms is under-realized by the world developers is clear from the market positioning which narrowly targets video-gamers, skilled software graphics developers and software programmers. Clearly it is necessary to market to early adopters first, but these companies are moving too slow in addressing subsequent target market segments.

Perhaps the most important way the video-game mentality retards news users is in the attitude towards knowledge and skill development. Everything about the user experience has an attitude of anti-help. Instead of the obvious “Second Life for Dummies” move-to-the-mainstream helper, help is scarce and non-intuitive. As with video games, a user needs to use forums, fansites, blogs and talking to other players as a means of learning and getting help even on basic topics. The mentality is to figure it out as you go along, that the fun is in figuring it out. This approach can be followed by the users who prefer this approach; the mainstream takeoff would be speeded by more accessible help.

Video game mentality also means that the scale-down of system resources required (e.g.; open to a wider audience) will likely not be seen as an imperative.


At present, greater than rudimentary participation in the current digital worlds is generally inaccessible and meaningless to the mainstream. The expectation of metaverse platforms is greater than that of a video game or a chatroom; the expectation is that higher forms of human creativity, collaboration and communication can and are occurring in digital environments. Hopefully metaverse worlds will continue to evolve in this direction.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Podcasts facilitate meme transmission

Podcasts, basically non-music audio files, have gone mainstream. There are two main types of podcasts: an audio replay file of content that was delivered (e.g.; lecture, conference) or broadcast (e.g.; radio shows) elsewhere, and content that was created specifically for the podcast alone. It will be interesting to see how many of this second type of podcast will be re-broadcast over radio or other media, though perhaps not many.

A rough history is that podcasting began circa 2003 with IT Conversations and others making conference audio transcripts available. Then a continually growing number of commentators started making daily or weekly podcasts; these are basically individual talk radio shows. Traditional broadcast media then got involved, making radio shows available in audio files and creating specific podcast material like CNET's Podcast Central. As many traditional media companies have now incorporated blogging (though with underwhelming quality) as an imperative delivery format, they have also adopted podcasting; Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and nearly every other major publication now podcast. Now even some corporations have convinced themselves of a podcasting imperative as Forrester's Charlene Li cites Whirlpool's podcasting activity, though this is more likely part of the corporate marketing trend towards more subtle advertising.

As with nearly anything, there is quality dispersion with a small percent of material being relevant and interesting to any particular person, but further underlining the individualized media trend with potentially a different set of podcasts being relevant and interesting to each particular person.

Early podcast aggregators like Podcast411 and Yahoo Podcasts (launched Oct. 2005) are not particularly useful yet because both the specific content and quality of listed podcasts is unknown. Like other sites, Yahoo plans a user-based ranking to help identify popular podcasts but another level of tagging is required to stratify the body of podcasts in more meaningful ways. A more helpful tagging system would identify attributes such as the level of erudition, degree of memes vs. personal blather and depth and breadth of focus of podcasts. At least it is now possible to search audio pod streams per PodScope and Blinkx.

Podcasts have gone mainstream because 1) a large number of people have portable MP3 players devices on which to play podcasts, although some percent of podcasts are still consumed via computer stream, 2) it is relatively easy to subscribe to an ongoing stream of podcasts, 3) podcasts are cool, the tech savvy have to be involved in the phenomenon either or both as creators and listeners and most importantly, 4) podcasts are useful and informative, a fantastic meme transmission technique in this day of the actualization hungry creative class.

Waxing McLuhan-esque for a moment, do we now consume more media since there is more? Probably only to the extent that consumption tools make it easier to consumer more media; there are still the same number of hours in a day. With more radical adjustment of humans and life activity organization, meme consumption will likely increase in the future. Now, it is clear that MP3 players offer more efficient consumption than broadcast radio with the capability to forward through ads and slow portions. Yahoo is apparently offering a setting for speeding up the transmission speed (although largely useless given that only applies in the Internet Explorer browser). Since nearly all podcast material is under Creative Commons licenses, humans or hopefully some more automated mechanism can create MetaCasts, a higher level summary of the key points in a category of podcasts such as a conference, topic area or segment of time. The efficient meme compression in MetaCasts would allow more media to be consumed and other mixing techniques should also be explored.

Vive podcasting and bienvenue aux techniques for increasing the quality identification, compression and transmission of memes via podcasting. Hopefully a similar revolution in video content searchability, accessibility, mixability and creatibility will follow shortly.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Self-help's new name...intelligence amplification

The October Bay Area Future Salon, discussing the Age of Anxiety and the tone of the Intelligence Amplification day at the Accelerating Change 2005 conference are two indicators of the trend to invite into science what was more traditionally narrowly segmented as self-help.

One reason for this is that many approaches to AI require more than just brute computation. Layering emotion onto computation or other ideas are thought to be necessary for creating a true general intelligence. Scientists have therefore had to get more interested in how human emotion functions in order to attempt to reconstruct, catalyze or build AI. Another reason is that futurists, in a panic of possibly not living long enough to upload (that glorious but illusive future, always 20-30 years away) have reappropriated and reshaped self-help materials to help themselves live as long and healthily as possible in case of singularity delay.

There is an argument that self-help has become more science-like but it is not clear that there is actually more science (e.g.; properly conducted experiments with statistical results) in for example the poster child books of the area, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness than in self-help books. The main reason techie readers bit was that both authors are academics. The academic veneer suddenly meant it was acceptable to discuss concepts like happiness (e.g.; the number one human goal) with scientific peers.

With self-help being retitled intelligence amplification, spirituality has also started its slow road from taboo science topic to discussability. Traditional flavors of faith, atheism and new age are being upleved and Starbucksified as boomers explore and techies collaborate for collective consciousness. One example is Steve Case's Revolution, an organization which, though not overtually spiritual, has shades as it seeks to shift power to consumers, bringing more (after all, this is America) choice, control and convenience to [initially] resorts, living and health.

Whatever the reasons and excuses needed, the actions and probable mindset openings that result from incorporating self-help and spiritual ideas cannot help but be positive. There is certainly always opportunity to re-name and re-market concepts as a sign of the changing times.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Conference fatigue stifles ideation?

The slate of must-attend conferences this fall has been intense, from Accelerating Change to Web 2.0 to State of Play to the Second Life Convention to Pop!Tech to the Serious Gaming Summit. At least Pop!Tech will have free live streaming.

Not only is there an abundance of conferences, a lot of the same speakers and the same ideas are at all the conferences. The speakers have trouble keeping pace too, new or even refreshed ideas have been rare.

Certainly there are lots more people doing interesting speaker-worthy things but no one knows about it and they are not getting picked up on the conference grid, or of course maybe they are too busy doing interesting things to speak about doing interesting things.

Conferences are still a great place for synergies and new ideas but the pressure is on organizers to keep them fresh and widen the context and definition of interesting speakers. Also, maybe other formats besides the wrote formula of speaker lecture + Q&A could be explored like simulation, group workshops with meaningful outcomes, online collaborations, etc. BrainJams are a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Physical entities must move to digital worlds

Should physical world entities such as each individual, company, club, interest group, celebrity, band, etc. have a digital environment presence?

One fear is a garish re-creation of the physical world in the same or maybe a worse form in the digital environment. Hm, wait, isn't this most of what Second Life is currently? The metaverse must include mainstream non-techy culture in order to ramp. The Internet 1.0 evolved slowly from deep tech to technorati to tech savvy to mainstream. With Internet 2.0, the gap will shrink rapidly, some corporates like Wells Fargo already have a 'metaverse' presence in Second Life and authors have included an online reading and signing event on their book tours.

Although it would be interesting to see how digital environments would evolve on their own with growing groups of the tech savvy signing in, moving the mass market to the digital environment with haste will probably create a more interesting digital world more quickly. There will always be plenty of digital environment pockets for deep tech to ideate and instantiate. For example, Second Life could be the mainstream platform while deep tech moves to other metaverse worlds with radically different parameters.

As mentioned in the previous post, each physical world entity should be considering and creating its expanded-functionality digital environment presence. More interestingly, we should also be thinking about new digital world presences. For example, a book could have a digital environment presence, initially mediated by the author and readers. An idea could have a presence.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Expression in a digital environment

What is so great about a digital environment compared to the physical world?

There are currently two main kinds of experience to have in a digital environment such as Second Life, Project Entropia and Sims Online: avatar representation and interactive activities.

If the digital world is avatar-based as the current models seem to be, you create a visual representation of yourself or your presence in the form of a person, animal or object, which is a chance to explore and experiment with identity. You can be someone or something else. Shape, size, gender, age, color, texture and other attributes are all an exploration. Another property of digital identity is dynamism, you can change your avatar'’s appearance at any time.

Doing activities is the second main experience in digital worlds, including social chat, dancing, gambling, designing and building objects, discussion and learning.

The list of potential activities is much longer. There could be a digital world version of any physical world activity; best represented as an adaptation and abstraction with fun new elements, not just a re-creation of the physical world activity. The ability for any group to meet and interact in a richer synchronous way than with current Internet-based methods of chats, email lists and websites is just starting to be imagined.

Each physical world entity (e.g.; business, university, hobby group, book club) should be thinking about what its digital environment presence should be, where it should be (e.g.; in the existing digital worlds of Second Life, etc. or in its own digital world) and starting to get it created. For businesses and services, there are two audiences/customer sets, the existing customer set that can be brought into the digital environment and the customer set that is in the digital environment already.

Marketing to digital environment participants for business or other purposes is an interesting puzzle, a mix of traditional and new marketing techniques. Maybe Second Life and other environment custodians or external digital world watchers will make aggregated demographic user data available for an idea of the profile segments that are already part of the digital environment.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Metaverse in Mosaic

The metaverse, aka, the real Internet 2.0, is currently at the stage of the Internet at the time of the Mosaic browser circa 1996, e.g.; at the beginning when only techies understand what it is and are using it, before it explodes into mainstream. Right now, there are at minimum several metaverses in the early stages of development, launch and use; it is not clear which of these metaverses could be the big one. Maybe they will all be displaced in the Netscape tradition. There will probably be many metaverses, and we may even be able to have as many of our own metaverses as we like.

The metaverse is an immersive audio visual experience with much richer creation, collaboration, communication and exploration possibilities than in the current and still primarily linear text based Internet. Some of the current builders of metaverse worlds are Second Life, with a purported 60,000 subscribers to the their free world as of October 2005, There, Croquet, and coming soon, a 3-D browser from ManyOne. Second Life is becoming an important platform but is not the only platform. Croquet has some interesting capabilities for creating metaverse worlds with different physics and other attributes.

What will be needed for the widespread deployment and use of the metaverse? Not much, just an imagination, a broadband connection (maybe Google's rumored wireless broadband strategy will be helpful) and a good graphics card.

...and the metaverse may come from China...a very different kind of made in China...

Friday, October 07, 2005

Self is an outdated concept

With the advent of AI, self will be a redundant term. The self will be many, an "individual" will be a large entity with many parts. The current emphasis on collaboration is already shifting the role of the self.

Even now self is an egotistical relic that is increasingly unnecessary. Memes are what is important. Self is only important in that better memes come from some selves, and that some selves are more focused on memes than other topics. Right now there is still a role for ideas developed by selves, in the future maybe only ideas synthesized by groups are of chief import.

Importance of execution slips

The historical trend up until even a few years ago and amplified by the first Internet boom, was that for any great idea, it was likely that many people independently came up with it, one example: the Internet could be used to collect large groups of business buyers for volume discounts. Since ideas were known, 90% of the game was execution.

Now, ideas are proliferating at more levels and the idea is what is more important, the idea is the innovation, good ideas are the bottleneck. Execution has become easier and more streamlined and is still a sometimes difficult real world problem but the higher order value is on ideas. The value of ideas as standalones is increasingly seen now, the non-implementing idea progenitor is not penalized as in the past.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

That wonderful future, always 20-30 years out

There are the old guard futurist groups, the World Future Society, World Transhumanist Association, Foresight Insititute and others whose membership swelled decades ago with the former zenith of interest in science and technology and dreams of the US space program. In the last decade, the new guard futurist goups like the Acceleration Studies Foundation, the Singularity Institute, Extropy Institute, etc. have arrived. Instead of having devised a means of incorporating new tiers of ideas (the groups are mainly stratified by generation), which would seem like a first order futurist project, the old guard and new guard groups do not seem to understand each other and disagree about what is important and interesting.

However, at any time point, all the futurist groups carry the same message of a different future arriving in 20-30 years. Even erstwhile members start to remark that this never seems to happen in the decades they have been involved with the movement. Waning interest in the futures area is compounded by the "no new news" dynamic, the focus on long-time horizons and known problems rarely results in new and exciting news despite that everyone agrees that technological change is accelerating. As futurist Paul Saffo says, a clear view should not be mistaken for a short distance.

The acceleration camp of today might argue that this is precisely the point, futurists must stay ever-vigilant because otherwise big change will pop up truly unannounced but is there really a grand payback to studying the future other than being informed as a general interest. The usual time and effort focused on progress in the areas we selves we can perpetuate now is perhaps the most future-oriented endeavor in which we can engage.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Benefits of radical life extension

An Egyptologist remarked in shock after hearing about uploading for the first time at the 2003 Accelerating Change Conference that it is "unbelievable, humans have not changed in 8000 years; the cult of immortality still rules." This comment illustrates the conventional wisdom, that aspiring to radical life extension or immortality is hubristic, puerile and otherwise unwarranted.

However, aspiring to immortality is natural, appropriate and inevitable. At minimum, it would be hypocritical not to support human immortality given the myriad ways that humans influence nearly all other aspects of life and the environment.

Some assumptions are part of accepting the aspiration to immortality such as that the quality of health would be excellent (as compared with today's elongated periods of inferior health prior to death). Also there would need to be ways of refreshing mindsets, beliefs and values, preserving the beneficial aspects of the dying out and rebirth in the traditional life cycle. It has been a step of progress when the incoming generation supersedes the outgoing generation in thoughts, norms, ideas, culture, etc. As human consciousness expands beyond the current unit of the self, it will be great to incorporate many more individual and group ideas.

Resource consumption is also not a worry. First, before considering the impact of immortality on fertility, the current resources of the world and likely improvements in efficiency of resource consumption and (re)generation will be sufficient. The newly immortal will have more time to work on projects such as extra-terran colonization and asteroid mining. Second, assuming an initial continuation of the biological substrate, the fertility rate would probably further decline initially as people got used to immortality, and then since resource consumption is much more of an issue to an immortal, the fertility rate could increase again as people feel comfortabe with resource planning and want to have fun, experiment and create more brain power.

Filling those now truly endless days should also not be a concern. Humans are already learning to be responsible for generating their own happiness and fulfillment as mortals, so this would be extended and many more and different activities could be tackled with immortality.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Why are women not using their brains?

Despite neural research irrefutably substantiating the capability of the female brain and exhibiting the multi-leveled, macro and long term-viewed, multi-tasking, societal synthesis-orientation and other unique capabilities of female brains, this resource remains largely untapped.

A landmark circa 2003 New York Times article cited that 50% of college graduates and entry level professionals are women, but 10 years later only 1/3 of these women remain in the work force; the September 2005 'What do Yale Women Want' (Stabiner, Karen. "What Yale Women Want." Los Angeles Times. Friday, September 23, 2005) article cited only approximately one third of women wanting to work. This can only be construed as a gross misuse of talent, human capability and brain power.

It is a mystery why females do not demand a higher deployment of their brains and women's lack of actualization is a human productivity loss and psychological tragedy.

It is certainly true that work may not absorb women's brains in a fulfilling way, particularly in the limited majority of work force roles that are currently still available to women, but men may be equally unfulfilled at work. That work in general is not fulfilling and that both men and women are not using their full brain power is an embarrassing commentary on the state of affairs of society, which has been recently pointed up by Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind and others. Women are less willing to put up with something that does not work for them as men are, men do not think they have any option other than to work.

Men should be observed, are equally at fault, if they do not find the work force fulfilling, they too are responsible for devising an alternative; with the money and stature social hypnosis it is hard for men to notice that a better alternative may be warranted. In a post-economic imperative and ectogenesis-acceptable society, how much female and male brain actualization will be occurring?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Assumed competence in microcredit and beyond

The most important point in Banker to the Poor, the history of the world's largest microcredit organization, the Grameen Bank, is the idea of assuming competence in people in general and specifically in microcredit loan borrowers. All humans are resourceful and can make appropriately self-interested and creative decisions to improve their situations, both in the developing and developed world. Many people and institutions have the fallacy of thinking that step one in any anti-poverty program is providing training to the participants, which is completely incorrect and in particular assumes people do not know what to do. In fact, the opposite is true, people know exactly what to do, and the focus should be on removing the structural barriers they face such as inadequate access to credit and welfare disincentives.

Grameen Bank founder, economist and author Muhammed Yunus suggests that one reason international aid programs have not made a difference in world poverty levels is because they have had the wrong objective. The aid objective should be the eradication of poverty (which has quantitative measures), not the amorphous development goal which has largely played out in the form of building dams and bridges. Yunus argues that credit should be a basic human right.

The result is that the Grameen Bank has been quite successful, lending over $5 billion to more than 4 million borrowers (95% women) with a 99% repayment rate and serving as the best-practices example for microlending. There are many innovative aspects to the structure of the Grameen Bank and its loans including continuous feedback loops, repayment beginning in the week following the granting of the loan and mini-syndication groups. Probably the strongest reason for the high repayment comes from the 5-member borrower team structure in which each member takes out a loan per the recommendation of the group and the group essentially co-guarantees the loans of the others. Stronger than the power and threat of the bank is the social and cultural threat of letting down the business partners in the loan group.

Some critics claim that the high loan repayment can also be ascribed to the lack of welfare or any other support system to fall back upon in developing countries, but the Grameen system has been proven to work in locations such as Europe and the US where welfare systems exist.

The mindset of assuming competence extends beyond the microcredit arena and can pervade any and all personal and professional dealings and even how you think of yourself. Instead of handicapping incompetence, gauging levels of competence, talking down to people and assuming ignorance, why not act with the dignity of assuming competence.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

AI wakes up from Blogs

Blogs are the most human aspect of the Internet and of all human archived data and material. Blogs show personality, fallibility, value systems, perception and solving of general problems, adaptability and most closely what it is like to be human. It would be scary to see strong AI wake up from the OpEds or personal narratives represented in traditional journalism.

An interesting science fiction story would be an AI, a collaborative hive mind of course, waking up by reading every post in the blogosphere. It would evolve as bloggers keep adding posts and progressing in their own thinking and as additional bloggers come online. It begs the question of what impression AI (or any external observer) would have of human *intelligence* from the blogosphere. Interesting given the main current distribution areas of uber-techiness and random personal musings with a sprinkle of politics and business. What is the nature of collective human intelligence and how do we know if it is represented in the blogosphere or not?

Not only could blogs help an AI wake up, they could help with a real world problem - online dating. Though wildly popular, how effective are dating and linkedin-type social networking websites? One shortcoming is the gap between what people say they are (honestly or not) and what they actually are (or would be perceived as being externally). Dating and social software websites tell who the person thinks he/she is, blogs show how the person actually is. Depending on the tone and level of information, a blog usually cannot help but display the personality, attitudes, value system, key focus areas and many other aspects of a person that are lacking in a cold profile. Reading someone's blog is presumably somewhat similar in some ways to what it would actually be like to interact with that person.

Which further begs the question of how can/is human interaction changing. Reading someone's blog (political, business, technology, personal or futurist) is generally public but intimate. There is much more of a sense of knowing that person (or more precisely, knowing what that person is like) than with other communications media. This happens all the time with celebrities but is closer and more intimate with blogs since bloggers are 'people like us' and there may be a higher degree of shared interests and the possibility of reciprocal communication.

Reading a friend's blog is a great and efficient way to stay current with what the person is thinking and experiencing and comments can certainly make the experience interactive. When a live interaction occurs, the focus does not need to be on catching up but can be on higher level aspects like synergistically developing new ideas. Can face-to-face interaction be diminished by reading blogs? Should it? Is this already occurring? What are our real human needs for live interaction and are they evolving?

Inadvertently, blogs seem to be advancing human communication towards the broader mind meld mechanism science fiction writers have long-imagined (one example is described in Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress), a communication system that moves beyond the primitiveness of literal words, body language and tone to the comprehension of multi-dimensional chains of thoughts and their genesis including value systems, beliefs and life experiences. Communicating with someone can be much broader than responding to how they look and speak at a specific moment.