Here Come the Social Machines

July 30th, 2009, by Giovanni Rodriguez | located in Conversations | Comments off | trackback

In their 2000 book “The Social Life of Information,” John Seely Brown (former chief scientist at Xerox PARC) and Paul Duguid wrote at length about how folks in the information sciences tend to lose their periphery vision as a result of the extreme focus required to do their jobs. This was well before the Web 2.0/DIY age, and today I’d argue that you can make the same observation of people who spend most of their days on the Web. I believe that the Web 2.0 world has extended the malady to the masses, myself included. One trend that has been cut off from our vision — as we while away the hours searching, consuming, and contributing to all the information exchanged in the virtual world — is the accelerating advance of the devices that make all of this possible in the physical world. I am talking about the advance of ever more intelligent devices — computers, phones, other Web-enabled technology — and the increasingly important role they play in helping to manage our lives. This is a big area of focus for my blog, and now that I am coming to the end of my first week, I’m beginning asking people I know in the information sciences to help sort through what I believe are the three principle casualties to our collective — though not complete — inability to see what has been coming:

-It has limited our ability to see social technology in a wider technology context. We have a narrow definition that both (a) enables us to qualify — with extreme focus — what is Web 2.0 and what is not, and (b) discourages us from looking at the advances in the supporting, enabling technology. That limits our ability as professionals not only to describe what is happening today, but to predict what’s next. Recent though modest advances in AI — from voice recognition to pattern recognition — are powering all sorts of interesting applications, pointing to a future that is as much about machine power as people power.

-It has limited our ability to see social technology in a wider social context.
In two very good articles in The New York Times, Matt Richtel recently made the case that distracted driving — resulting from our dependence on mobile handsets — may be as serious as drunk driving. The coverage perhaps marked the first time that a mainstream publication made a well-heard (emphasis on well-heard) public safety alarm on a Web 2.0 issue. But this is just one of many public policy issues that get scant attention in the “attention economy.”

-It has limited our ability to see social technology in closer personal context. In another book from the pre Web 2.0 era, Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves argued that the relationships we form with devices are strikingly and disturbingly similar to the relationships we have with human beings. Nass, an HCI expert based at Stanford, is perhaps sitting in a place — between man and machine — where extreme focus might pay off big. For as much as we have become aware that the machine is becoming more like man, we are blissfully unaware of how much man is becoming more like machine. We’re seeing more and more research – not much, however, surfacing to mainstream consciousness — that our device addictions are taxing our neural anatomy, limiting our ability to perform, limiting our ability to relate to others. So, in the end, what has been cut off from our vision is not only the coming of smarter, more useful social machines (the title of a 2005 MIT Technology Review cover story about smart devices), but the extent to which we have become social machines as well.

I’ll be looking into each of these areas. Would love to hear from anyone with supporting or contradictory insight and research.

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