This week Garry Golden, Jeff Hilford and I had the pleasure to participate in the latest of The Speculist's outstanding Fast Forward Radio series (audio below the fold). Hosts Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon led us through a comprehensive exploration of the year ahead of us and then (of course) encourage a bit of speculation about events 10-30 years out.
Garry shared his energy and transportation policy insights and predictions for 2009 (a must listen), and ventured some suppositions for the future including the possibility of converging on a space-based Dyson Sphere.
Jeff discussed the ongoing rise of social media and the future meme, then offered up a longer-term prediction concerning Actuarial Escape Velocity, aka the point in time that medicine becomes capable of extending the average lifespan quicker than nature can take it from us.
I of course got into the steady growth in prosumers, intelligence amplification and a bit of simulation theory.
After kindly facilitating our output :), the hosts also got into the speculation game, with Phil tackiling issues including Global Quantification and Cancer Containment (very cool conept), and Stephen venturing the prediction that the first generation of life extension technologies are much closer to reality that we may suppose.
All in all, it was a wonderful brain-fest that I encourage you check out whenever you've got a spare hour on your hands. And be sure to add The Speculist to your RSS as they've got a steady stream of great future content, including their weekly podcast, flowing through regularly. -- (Audio is below the fold.)
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg today announced that "150 million people around the world are now actively using Facebook and almost half of them are using Facebook every day."
This brings Facebook to just over 2% total global penetration in just under 5 years time (the company was founded in February 4, 2004) and, based on the shape of this diffusion curve, confirms its status as a major Interactive Communication Technology, as defined by communication scholar Everett Rogers.
Furthermore, it lines up nicely with the history of ICTs, as demonstrated by business and comm professor Vijay Gurbaxani, in which the diffusion of subsequent ICTs gets steadily sharper (telegraph, telephone, web connections), which supports the conjecture that either Facebook, a mirror technology (MySpace, Linked In, Microsoft Live, Orkut, iGoogle), or a combination thereof (most likely) will quickly attain much greater adoption. Obviously this ongoing trend has some serious deep-rooted consequences for the near-term accelerating future.
Equally as interesting is Zuckerberg's observation that, "If Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated in the world, just ahead of Japan, Russia and Nigeria."
While I'm sure the statement was carefully considered and is meant to innocuously communicate the significance of the milestone, it also reveals the immense power inherent in social networks. These structures are among the primary drivers of a flattening world, exerting change on existing culture as they permit a new form bonding across distances, generations and (in just a few years) across language barriers. As such, they are in fact a new type of Massive Meta-Nation that transcends borders and increasingly affects law-making, behavioral norms and personal identity (just as international companies have done for many decades).
Enter Serious Value Creation/Facilitation: If you think the Facebook and social networking phenomenon is just peripheral to real culture and business, you are dead wrong.
A variety of thinkers have converged on the notion that humans rely on what is essentially "software" to build our simulation(s) of the world around us.
Abstractions Driving the Flynn Effect: Cognitive historian James Flynn attributes the steady rise in IQ over the past 100+ years (known as the Flynn Effect) to better human abstraction abilities, not to any significant increase in physical brain power:
Our brains at conception are no better than they ever were. But in response to the evolving demands of society, we can attack a far wider range of problems than our ancestors could. It is like the evolution of the motor car in the 20th century. Are automotive engineers any brighter than they were 100 years ago? – no. But have cars evolved to meet modern demands for more speed and entertainment while we drive (radios, tape decks, etc) – yes. Our brains are no better but our minds have altered as dramatically as our cars.
Flynn's observations line up nicely with both the concept of memes & temes advanced by Dawkins and Blackmore, as well as philosopher Terence McKenna's theory that culture is in fact an operating system.
In other words, the abstract thought frameworks that we drill into our children during critical periods, including math, science, biology, maps, businesses, social networks, new language, etc, are in fact a form of software that affects our IQ and ability to navigate the world.
This simple yet powerful abstraction (npi) is a critical paradigm shift in our definition of what it means to be human and opens the door to additional metaphors for social, economic and intelligence studies.
Particularly intriguing is the question of how quickly and/or regularly we (individuals, groups, societies, nations) experience software upgrades, akin to loading the latest Windows or Linux versions.
Michael Arrington at TechCrunch predicts that Google will soon release an advertising service for their Friend Connect application (a program that "enables any website to offer social applications and content from Facebook, Hi5, Orkut, Plaxo, MySpace, Google Talk and other social networks" wikipedia) that will allow developers who place Friend Connect widgets on their respective sites to earn revenue in the same manner that websites earn money through Google AdSense. Though it's not all that surprising, such a move will mark another big step in the race to monetize the information contained in social networks, while at the same time greatly spurring the ongoing networking of online information by rewarding the placement of social widgets all over the web.
Just imagine it: Millions of bloggers who place social network widgets on their posts will be able to monetize those. Retail websites that use Friend Connect to show you what your friends have purchased will be given the option directly monetize that webspace (in addition to increasing the likelihood of purchases). News sites will be be given the option to monetize their comment entry forms or entire comment streams by embedding ads there. And so forth.
Biological history has much to teach us about our web economy. In particular, we can glean a great deal from the well-established patterns of punctuated equilibrium (the idea that growth and death come in spurts, which is very similar to many technology and social diffusion cycles) and evo-devo biology (a new theory of life in which Darwinian evolution acts in concert with structured development to optimize organisms AND biological systems for survival).
Just as the sudden death of the dinosaurs permitted small warm-blooded mammals to vary and scale during the subsequent ice age, so too is the swift death of old media models creating the ideal conditions for nascent software and social media models. Though this sort of cycle is nothing new, it is illuminating to apply it to the current economic situation in which printed newspapers are dying, open source IT is winning marketshare, and increasingly more people are sharing their information online.
When considering the near-term future and the year ahead, we can be reasonably certain that the dire economic conditions will serve as a breeding ground for new advantageous innovations. It was no accident that we experienced a spurt of great literature during the Great Depression as brains were freed up and exposed to an extreme environment. And now it's no accident that were vacillating from commercial enterpise to "programming subculture", as Kevin Kelleher at GigaOm puts it.
The quick rise of the prosumer is exerting great force on the social networks and platforms that depend on these users. As prosumers are empowered and generate more value their options broaden, allowing them to control more of their web and market environment through their participation.
The output power of individuals is increasing rapidly largely due to evolving web, information and other technologies. At the same time it's getting much easier to capture and generate digital content that can then return value through the web.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg observes that of late people are sharing roughly 2x more digital data about themselves every year. With better, cheaper video, audio, graphics, machinima, and search capabilities arriving regularly, this new content is steadily growing richer.
As the web market evolves, more value is returned to users through better ad pairing/serving, payment through links, personally relevant structure (i.e. social networks) and access to other data. Ultimately, prosumers (consumers that create content) gravitate toward services that give them the most and best rewards for their time and attention spent.
In a previous post I examined Six Industry Perspectives of the Future of Blogging. To build on these, here's a list of less frequently discussed environmental trends and potential disruptors that may also play a big role in the evolution of the field:
1. The LAW of ACCELERATING RETURNS: Yes, the costs of various blog-related technologies are dropping quickly, but you may be surprised by how fast this is occurring across pretty much all fields. Ray Kurweil's Law of Accelerating Returns is a nice umbrella paradigm for the lightning fast pace of innovations in areas such as computing (doubling every 18 months - Moore's Law), interface (high-end screens approach human visual reality by 2015 - Smith's Law), image capture (affordable Flip cams now come in HD), search (Google's database steadily returning better results for longer queries), speech-to-text translation (Dragon's high-end software already is 95% accurate. Among other things, Google's database of audio search queries will help accelerate this.) , etc. Though Kurzweil's Law may flatten out at some point, there are enough amazing developments on the immediate horizon to plan for a crazy decade that thoroughly transforms blogging.
2. EXPONENTIAL DATA: Parallel to technology, the total amount of data on the planet is growing at an exponential rate. Much of this can be attributed to the growing number of sensors and input devices (linked by the expanding web) that permit people to post more information online. If this trend is to continue, it's highly likely that it will be supported by a massive increase in blogging by humans.
3. QUANTIFICATION: As data proliferates, humans are incented to sort it all into meaningful knowledge. Much of this is accomplished by piecing together systems representations of different environments, locations, historical events, technologies, and human behavior. As it becomes more widely recognized that such quantification is economically rewarded, it's likely that much blog output will be structured to fit into such models (it already is - ie Wikipedia).
A blog (a contraction of the term "Web log") is a website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order. - Wikipedia
To me, this definition is synonymous with the regular output of thoughts by a human brain to the web, organized by date, which means that blogging is really just a faster way to share ideas. As such, it marks a critical developmental step in our collective ability to process knowledge. And it is far from static.
As blogging spreads, the blog industry is also transforming due to evolving technology and market forces. These include a steady influx of ad dollars, more intelligent software and search, and faster computers, to name a few.
When contemplating the future of blogging, it's important to consider 1) informed industry perspectives on the topic, 2) environmental trends, and of course 3) the fundamental socio-economic role of blogging.
To start, here are some of the widely acknowledged visions of what's next for blogging:
BIGGER AD PIE, LOWER AVERAGE RATES: Morgan Stanley Web guru Mary Meeker has assembled data indicating that both ad impressions and the total value of the web ad market are experiencing strong growth, which is unsurprising as the world grows more intermeshed and more people start blogging. At the same time, she expects the average price of such ads to drop as inventory (# of websites and blogs) grows. These trends reflect the fact that more bloggers are making money through generic ad serving apps such as Adsense, ValueClick, AdBrite and Project Wonderful, but that the serious cash is being made by content publishers who reach niche population segments with smarter, focused content that can be paired with highly targeted ads. This seems quite reasonable and natural as content proliferates and redundancy increases.
CONSOLIDATION of the FITTEST: Michael Arrington, currently the #1 blogger on Earth, is working hard to build out his Tech Crunch blog network according to the assumption that, "The only way to compete with CNet [king of the top-down blog networks] in the long run is to group [proven] writers together. They should be better writers than CNet has because they are all competitive entrepreneurs with a lot of equity at stake.” (Bits Blog) Viewing things from the inside-out, Arrington backs the notion that a specific type of worker (the natural born output super-hero) with a specific voice will dominate the near-term future of blogging as they band together through formal corporations.
"You can have children reading about Alice in Wonderland ... and Alice can pop out of the page, and have a tea party on the page."
Every amazing new technology needs to be wrapped in an equally elegant high-demand application if it is to diffuse past just the military on through the human masses. Often the first killer app is targeted at youth (ie, Facebook, Club Penguin, MMORPGs), then gradually spreads upward to older generations that require more convincing and immediately useful applications.
When it comes to augmented reality, it's possible that a company called Mixed Reality Lab (MXR), a spin-off owned by the National University of Singapore, is on the verge of creating such a cross-over app: Virtual 3D Pop-ups for Children's Books.
Coming on the heels of MXR's real-time augmented battlefield displays, the new Magic Books product aims to generate revenue from mommies and daddies who feeled compelled to get their kids interfacing with the most advanced new media.
As sensors and computers continue to spread throughout the world they quantify our environment and offer the opportunity of real-time feedback. Case in point is Honda's new "Ecological Drive Assist System for Enhanced Real World Fuel Economy", a sensor/display system that learns your driving style and conditions you to become a more ecologically conscious driver.
Here's what the interface will look like:
And here's Honda's description of the new system:
TOKYO, Japan, November 20, 2008– Honda Motor Co., Ltd. announced the development of the Ecological Drive Assist System, which combines three functions to enhance fuel economy: the ECON Mode utilizes harmonized control of the continuously variable transmission (CVT) and engine to support more fuel-efficient driving; the guidance function uses speedometer color to provide real-time guidance on fuel-efficient driving; and thescoring function provides feedback about current driving practices, as well as feedback on cumulative, long-term fuel-efficient driving.