Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Thursday, November 3, 2011day link 

 Seeing the world through the Internet
picture In the human eye, a system of little rods and cones pick up light that comes into the eye. Some 120 million rods in an eye will measure the intensity of the light. The 6-7 million cones will measure colors. The brain then puts all these "pixels" together into what we perceive as one coherent, continuous picture, with lots of details, in color, different shades, etc. It is a bit of an illusion, but it allows us to rather accurately predict what we find around us. You see an object, you can estimate its distance, and you can reach out your hand and find it where you expected.

On the Internet, we're increasingly being presented with a stream of information chunks. Compared with a few years ago, the chunks have gotten smaller and there are many more of them. Twitter, Facebook walls, Google+, SMS, e-mail, it is all streams. New stuff shows up non-stop. Thousands of items every day for most of us.

At some point in the past, one would find it natural to simply process everything that showed up, because the volume of it was small. If somebody wrote me a personal letter, I would of course read it carefully, and I would of course sit down and write an answer back. Even if it took me an hour, and it was only for one person. If I subscribed to a newspaper, I would read it. And I still remember living in a country where there was one TV channel, only broadcasting in the late afternoon and in the evening. If there was anything on the program that would be within my interest area, I would watch it, as would everybody else. Today, all of that is more or less impossible, so we've gotten used to ignoring most of it, skimming a lot of it, and only digging deeply into a few choice items.

So, now, as we're no longer dutifully digesting and responding to every single item, it becomes more about the overall picture of what's happening. We're noticing what people are talking about, we're noticing trends. We have a general idea about what our friends are into, based on having seen a bunch of their postings flow by in our peripheral attention.

But are the information chunks we receive suitable pixels that allow us to form a coherent and continuous picture of what is there? Yes and no. We do get glimpses of a lot of incidental information that allows us to form a picture. But we also get large volumes of fictional information, stuff that's made up to present a certain picture, which isn't really what's there.

We've gotten quite used to experts preparing news articles for us. Then we pass those around, adding our own like or dislike opinions about them. Other people will write new articles, quoting those first articles. Whatever they say gets amplified, distorted and colored along the way. What people trade in and respond to is those information particles. Articles, postings, words, links, likes, retweets. None of that includes much in terms of ways of interacting with the source matter, the stuff that's actually there, or that actually happened. OK, an article might have links to sources, or to organizations being discussed. It might have pictures. There might be live or recorded video, showing actual events. But the ratio of actual stuff to opinions about such stuff is relatively low.

This all gives me the problem of how I can assemble a coherent and reasonably correct picture of stuff through the medium of electronic communications. First of all, all the pieces aren't easily assembled. They don't necessarily fit together. And even if I assemble what they say, the picture might be of something mostly fictional. Fox News presents a rather coherent picture, but it probably isn't what actually is there. Imagine then the difficulties of a Semantic Web, where the meaning of stuff supposedly would be brought out, simply by automatically examining how things are tagged. Spam and propaganda and misdirection are all included into the picture.

How can we make the stream of info pieces more useful for assembling useful pictures of what is there?

Incidental, peripheral information is often more honest than what is contrived and constructed to send a certain message. If somebody's sending you a message, you can expect that they've constructed the message to say just what they'd like you to receive, that it is somehow twisted to their advantage, and that they've left out lots of things that aren't what they wanted to say. There doesn't have to be any sinister motives for that, almost everybody's doing it to one degree or another. It is hard to know who people really are, if you only listen to their carefully crafted press releases, or tweets, or lectures, or comments. It is hard to know what really happened, if you get it from somebody with an economic interest in presenting it a certain way.

Incidental, unguarded, raw information feeds might be much better in conveying the complexity of the world, and might thus be much better material for assembling an image fo what is there.

If you're watching somebody give a presentation, a video feed would allow you to pick up much more information than the words he's saying, in the form of body language, the setting he's in, who else is there, etc.

Whereas you only get to know certain choice aspects of a certain person's personality from reading their tweets, an open video channel would tell you a lot more. Imagine just opening up a video conference connection with a friend for an hour, while each of you went about your normal business. If you simply ignored each other, you might well learn more about each other than if you had had an intense conversation during that time. Because you would convey information that isn't prepared and prepackaged to look a certain way. The complexity of the truth would be more available. Who you're receiving phone calls from, how you talk to your kids, what you actually spend your time on, how you look when you're not trying to look good, etc.

There are other ways it could happen than live video of course, but that is one good example. You'll notice that we have several kinds of Internet tools. Most of them are meant for conveying stuff that's constructed. Others are meant for conveying something more raw. There are location services that transmit your location, no matter where you are. There are others than let you check in when you're in an interesting place. Notice the difference. If I'd want to form a more true picture of you, I'd find more use in the continuous raw feeds, which also tells me that you go to the supermarket and the bank, not just when you travel to exotic places.

So, please, give me more raw un-edited feeds of everything. Also and particularly for big corporations and governments. I don't just want to see ads and speeches. I want to see raw complex feeds that I can piece together into what they actually are doing, not what they say they're doing.

Also, think about the raw material available for our collective intelligence to emerge. Imagine that a global brain is beginning to wake up, and that its raw material is the information we share electronically. If all we feed it is press releases, news articles, Facebook walls, tweets, and reruns of "I love Lucy", how is it going to turn out?

As the world is speeding up, becoming more complex and more inter-connected, it is becoming increasingly more important to be able to see what is going on in a wider sphere. There are a lot of forces at work that sabotage this. Information silos that keep things to themselves, inside their own sites, to hold on to customers and be more valuable. A culture where few people report on things, and most others just re-transmit the reports, without taking time to verify anything for themselves. Protocols that encourage information to be disconnected from their sources. For better or for worse, the Internet was constructed that way. You don't know if the e-mail you just got really was from the person it says it is from. You don't know where most of the information on web pages comes from. Better, more trustworthy, less fragmented technologies can be developed.

In the meantime, your best bet for seeing the world more as it is, is to seek out unfiltered, unguarded communication channels. Seek out or create feeds of stuff that it would be impractical for anybody to doctor or police. Poke holes through the armor of large organizations, force them to open up unfiltered streams of any kind.
[ | 2011-11-03 16:51 | 81 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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