Friday, May 30, 2008

Blue Sky Diving

Rama Hoetzlein and Pablo Colapinto led the "Blue Sky" session for the UCSB Social Computing Group, which was designed to show their brainstorming about "engineering architectures of participation." Some of their insights were explicitly borrowed from the world of corporate consulting and market research. For example, they cited my high school classmate John Battelle on his work on the "database of intentions" in which "not everything is voluntary." They also mentioned learning from Forrester Research about the continuum from "people" to "objectives," "strategies," and -- finally -- "technologies," to which they added the term "issues." As Alan Liu pointed out, perhaps the Social Computing Group was still excessively focused on the middle part of that spectrum, given their interest in purposive actions in the public sphere.

To show the critical role that design and art can play in discourses about social computing, which are often dominated in academic professional and research associations by those in the social sciences and information sciences, they showed Hoetzlein's Quanta, which can serve as a "knowledge dissemination project" that may be more meaningful than many Web 2.0 applications, although it includes some of the same interpretive mechanisms, such as timelines, which can also be important features of many social networking sites.

I've put in boldface many of the key terms of the Blue Sky presentation, such as extending, teaching, distributing to show the literacies that they were sketching out that included ubiquitous computing technologies. They also thought more traditional web-based involving, commenting, journaling merited attention, such as the Annotated NY Times, where the group found readers deconstructing the Spitzer scandal and the MySpace variant of what I have criticized as "Facebook journalism."

The group included measuring, predicting, conspiring as important concepts, in what might seem to be an initially unlikely triumvirate because they acknowledge how "trust metrics" and "quantum computing" that measures the immeasurable may be linked to certain ways of navigating the Internet that go back to the etymology of the term in "breathing together." In the geopolitical sense, this could mean what the Atlantic Monthly has characterized as "Jihad 2.0" or -- as the audience pointed out -- it could be a veiled woman using Bluetooth technology to show her face to everyone with a compatible device for ubiquitous communication. They argued that organizing, rewarding, policing were also key functions and showed Santiago Sierra's analog artwork about putting laboring unpaid people literally in a box.

The group argued that visualizing, abstracting should not be tied to current versions of "the social graph," since it might just as easily turn out to be something entirely different, such as "The Social Giraffe," which represents a "different kind of geometry" or "whole other animal." In that spirit of fancy, which should not be a bad word in social computing -- although it often is, the group added fantasizing, narrating to the list and displayed Matthew Johnson "Liberty City vs. New York City" Flickr set.

It is interesting to note that they prefaced examples of their own imaginative creations with a discussion of high risk social computing that was illustrated with the cockpit of the Atlantis space shuttle to make the point that the "more you represent information" the more you are potentially in danger of "the glass cockpit syndrome," which deprives users of the "knowledge that they are actually flying." Certainly, given that many pilots in many airports take off and land in response to e-mail messages, our own proximity to this kind of social computing is certainly worth recognizing. (This syndrome is important for other highly mediated fields outside of avionics that also depend on simulations for training, such as medical technology.) According to Liu, books like Gene Rochlin's Trapped in the Net could be useful for understanding this pathology.

Beyond all or nothing, fly-or-crash scenarios, the group asked "how do we season our information?" In other words, how do we handle all the nuances of our informational personalities and dispositions. To demonstrate this point, they showed a mock-up of "Dis-Play," "an information free-for-all," in which the user can click on someone to assume their identity and adjust their "grain of salt slider" to indicate the appropriate level of skepticism for messages from the outside world. As they suggested, one could generate one's online presence for a month and then "go to Bermuda," much as guests at fancy hotels can check their Blackberries at the front desk. As they jocularly suggested, perhaps you might want to “automate love life but have more control over your blog.”

Inspired by "hardware for intelligence," such as QR codes or vision systems, the group also proposed "The Social Spectrum Camcorder," which would combine identity detection, exposure settings, annotated community feedback, intuitive adaptive filtering, and a geospatial engine to generate a product that could be a marked-up digital standard. They also suggested installations for graveyards or libraries where messages could be sent from the past to the present such as “go six bookcases back,” so that more of the world would become "a game or a puzzle," and one could "leave information behind on your own time."

Other hypothetical projects involved interrogating spaces and connecting notions of graphs to awareness of a number of different ontologies in which we can orient our "friends" (or whatever we would call them) in relation to music or careers or disciplines. They also talked about a social dynamics simulation called Social Evolution that is based on grid computing but functions like The Sims video game, although the computer runs the character rather than the player. Finally they showed "Chalk," which dematerialized the computer interface entirely, so that an e-link could cause chalk drawings by children to appear on sidewalks at other playgrounds throughout the world.

Slides, including the group's inventions, are here.

In a gentle critique of the designers, Bill Warner pointed out that too often policy is put last, which is particularly regrettable given the economies of attention at work in our society. Elsewhere during the day, Warner also noted the dangers of "end of history" arguments and the uncritical acceptance of ideologies of liberalism, especially given the existence of current intellectual property regimes.

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