Matt Thompson's Posts
By popular demand, I’m liveblogging R/GA’s session about the Internet of Things, a.k.a. “everyware.” (Everyware, btw, is a much better name.)
Description: “Why have smart refrigerators failed to take hold? Where are the smart tables that were supposed to fill our homes? Smart products with embedded sensors are poised to share their intelligence, but lack of connections among products and services have limited their usefulness. Until now. In this session, we will showcase emerging smart products and break down the design and technology that will separate the wheat from the chaff. We’ll examine the connections these products will make with our lives by bringing more sensibility to sensor-based products.”
Speakers are Chloe Gottlieb, R/GA’s VP of Interaction Design, and Will Turnage, R/GA’s VP of Tech. Read the rest of this entry »
Update: Dropped in the wrong embed code. I wondered why it was so quiet! Fixed.
Must not sleep. Must liveblog Ze Frank.
Will post metadata after the panel. Session description here.
I’m flying my journalism colors for a little bit, liveblogging Jay Rosen’s solo presentation: “Bloggers vs. Journalists: It’s a Psychological Thing.” If you haven’t yet, read Jay’s introductory post: “Why Bloggers v. Journalists Is Still With Us.”
Here’s the session description: “I wrote my essay, Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over, in 2005. And it should be over. After all, lots of journalists happily blog, lots of bloggers journalize and everyone is trying to figure out what’s sustainable online. But there’s something else going on: these two Internet types, amateur bloggers and pro journalists, are actually each other’s ideal “other.” A big reason they keep struggling with each other lies at the level of psychology, not in the particulars of the disputes and flare-ups that we continue to see online. The relationship is essentially neurotic, on both sides. Bloggers can’t let go of Big Daddy media— the towering figure of the MSM — and still be bloggers. Pro journalists, meanwhile, project fears about the Internet and loss of authority onto the figure of the pajama-wearing blogger. This is a construction of their own and a key part of a whole architecture of denial that has weakened in recent years, but far too slowly.”
The sole speaker is Jay Rosen; the esteemed Lisa Williams is helping with the setup and backchannel. And without further ado:
By popular demand, I’m blogging a session on “Brand Journalism.” This will be useful research for the ONA session I’ve proposed with the inimitable Megan Garber. (More on that soon.)
Here’s the description for this session: Hard to believe it’s been 11 years since The Cluetrain Manifesto, and we’re still doing the same f***ing panel. And we’re still trying to teach big companies and ad agencies how to communicate like humans, how to listen, and how to use transparency as a messaging tactic. Brand Journalism is a way to take those decade-old ideas and incorporate them into actual campaigns (we know, we’ve done it). The first step is to teach agencies and clients to think like publishers instead of marketers–it’s not a new idea, but it’s one that is rarely executed well. In this panel, Brand Journalism pioneers will share some of the secrets, successes, and obstacles of their award-winning campaigns.
Speakers: Bob Garfield, Brian Clark, David Eastman, Kyle Monson, Shiv Singh
By popular vote, I’ll be covering a post on the U.S. military’s mad science. Here’s the session description:
For more than 50 years the mad scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—aka DARPA, the outrageous research arm of the Pentagon—have been launching the most disruptive technologies on earth, living up to their mantra of “high risk—high payoff.” We have DARPA to thank for the personal computer, the Internet, the Berkeley Unix system, most of NASA, and countless crazy military innovations. Their mission is to think beyond the possible and forever be three decades ahead. In this talk we will dig into, and present the relevant parts of, DARPA’s $3 billion-dollar budget, pulling out the most amazing and most-likely-to-reach-fruition projects. Think electromagnetic bazookas, telepathic soldiers, ape-inspired robots, memory chips in brains, shapeshifting planes and boats. It might sound like sci-fi, but given its inspired history it seems that analyzing DARPA’s current projects will give us one of the clearest views into our future reality. Fasten your seat belts.
Speakers: Christie Nicholson, Christopher Mims, John Pavlus
Liveblog after the jump!
I need a little help figuring out what to attend (and live-blog!) at SXSW this year, so I figured I’d turn to the smartest crew I know. Help me decide, after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday NiemanLab published some of my musings on the coming “Speakularity” — the moment when automatic speech transcription becomes fast, free and decent.
I probably should have underscored the fact that I don’t see this moment happening in 2011, given the fact that these musings were solicited as part of a NiemanLab series called “Predictions for Journalism 2011.” Instead, I think several things possibly could converge next year that would bring the Speakularity a lot closer. This is pure hypothesis and conjecture, but I’m putting this out there because I think there’s a small chance that talking about these possibilities publicly might actually make them more likely.
First, let’s take a clear-eyed look at where we are, in the most optimistic scenario. Watch the first minute-and-a-half or so of this video interview with Clay Shirky. Make sure you turn closed-captioning on, and set it to transcribe the audio. Here’s my best rendering of some of Shirky’s comments alongside my best rendering of the auto-caption:
|Manual transcript:||Auto transcript:|
|Well, they offered this penalty-free checking account to college students for the obvious reason students could run up an overdraft and not suffer. And so they got thousands of customers. And then when the students were spread around during the summer, they reneged on the deal. And so HSBC assumed they could change this policy and have the students not react because the students were just hopelessly disperse. So a guy named Wes Streeting (sp?) puts up a page on Facebook, which HSBC had not been counting on. And the Facebook site became the source of such a large and prolonged protest among thousands and thousands of people that within a few weeks, HSBC had to back down again. So that was one of the early examples of a managed organization like a bank running into the fact that its users and its customers are not just atomized, disconnected people. They can actually come together and act as a group now, because we’ve got these platforms that allow us to coordinate with one another.||will they offer the penalty-free technique at the college students pretty obvious resistance could could %uh run a program not suffer as they got thousands of customers and then when the students were spread around during the summer they were spread over the summer the reneged on the day and to hsbc assumed that they could change this policy and have the students not react because the students were just hopeless experts so again in western parts of the page on face book which hsbc had not been counting on the face book site became the source of such a large and prolonged protest among thousands and thousands of people that within a few weeks hsbc had to back down again so that was one of the early examples are female issue organization like a bank running into the fact that it’s users are not just after its customers are not just adam eyes turned disconnected people they get actually come together and act as a group mail because we’ve got these platforms to laos to coordinate|
Cringe-inducing, right? What little punctuation exists is in error (“it’s users”), there’s no capitalization, “atomized” has become “adam eyes,” “platforms that allow us” are now “platforms to laos,” and HSBC is suddenly an example of a “female issue organization,” whatever that means.
Now imagine, for a moment, that you’re a journalist. You click a button to send this video to Google Transcribe, where it appears in an interface somewhat resembling the New York Times’ DebateViewer. Highlight a passage in the text, and it will instantly loop the corresponding section of video, while you type in a more accurate transcription of the passage.
That advancement alone — quite achievable with existing technology — would speed our ability to transcribe a clip like this quite a bit. And it wouldn’t be much more of an encroachment than Google has already made into the field of automatic transcription. All of this, I suspect, could happen in 2011.
Now allow me a brief tangent. One of the predictions I considered submitting for NiemanLab’s series was that Facebook would unveil a dramatically enhanced Facebook Videos in 2011, integrating video into the core functionality of the site the way Photos have been, instead of making it an application. I suspect this would increase adoption, and we’d see more people getting tagged in videos. And Google might counter by adding social tagging capabilities to YouTube, the way they have with Picasa. This would mean that in some cases, Google would know who appeared in a video, and possibly know who was speaking.
Back to Google. This week, the Google Mobile team announced that they’ve built personalized voice recognition into Android. If you turn it on for your Android device, it’ll learn your voice, improving the accuracy of the software the way dictation programs such as Dragon do now.
Pair these ideas and fast-forward a bit. Google asks YouTube users whether they want to enable personalized voice recognition on videos they’re tagged in. If Google knows you’re speaking in a video, it uses what it knows about your voice to make your part of the transcription more accurate. (And hey, let’s throw in that they’ve enabled social tagging at the transcript level, so it can make educated guesses about who’s saying what in a video.)
A bit further on: Footage for most national news shows is regularly uploaded to YouTube, and this footage tends to feature a familiar blend of voices. If they were somewhat reliably tagged, and Google could begin learning their voices, automatic transcriptions for these shows could become decently accurate out of the box. That gets us to the democratized Daily Show scenario.
This is a bucketload of hypotheticals, and I’m highly pessimistic Google could make its various software layers work together this seamlessly anytime soon, but are you starting to see the path I’m drawing here?
And at this point, I’m talking about fairly mainstream applications. The launch of Google Transcribe alone would be a big step forward for journalists, driving down the costs of transcription for news applications a good amount.
Commenter Patrick at NiemanLab mentioned that the speech recognition industry will do everything in its power to prevent Google from releasing anything like Transcribe anytime soon. I agree, but I think speech transcription might be a smaller industry economically than GPS navigation,* and that didn’t prevent Google from solidly disrupting that universe with Google Navigate.
I’m stepping way out on a limb in all of this, it should be emphasized. I know very little about the technological or market realities of speech recognition. I think I know the news world well enough to know how valuable these things would be, and I think I have a sense of what might be feasible soon. But as Tim said on Twitter, “the Speakularity is a lot like the Singularity in that it’s a kind of ever-retreating target.”
The thing I’m surprised not many people have made hay with is the dystopian part of this vision. The Singularity has its gray goo, and the Speakularity has some pretty sinister implications as well. Does the vision I paint above up the creep factor for anyone?
* To make that guess, I’m extrapolating from the size of the call center recording systems market, which is projected to hit $1.24 billion by 2015. It’s only one segment of the industry, but I suspect it’s a hefty piece (15%? 20%?) of that pie. GPS, on the other hand, is slated to be a $70 billion market by 2013.
I’m not going to recount the long insomniac thought trail that led me here, but suffice it to say I ended up thinking about mission statements early this morning. Google’s came immediately to mind: To organize the world’s information, and make it universally accessible and searchable. I’m not sure what Twitter’s mission statement might be, but a benign one didn’t take too long to present itself: To enable a layer of concise observations on top of the world. (Wordsmiths, have at that one.)
I got completely stuck trying to think of a mission for Facebook that didn’t sound like vaguely malevolent marketing b.s. To make everything about you public? To connect you with everyone you know?
When I read Zadie Smith’s essay as an indictment of Facebook — its values, its defaults, and its tendencies — rather than the “generation” it defines, her criticisms suddenly seem a lot more cogent to me. I realized that I actually am quite ambivalent about Facebook. I thought it was worth exploring why.
I was thinking about the ways social software has changed my experience of the world. The first world-altering technology my mind summoned was Google Maps (especially its mobile manifestation), and at the thought of it, all the pleasure centers of my brain instantly lit up. Google Maps, of course, has its problems, errors, frustrating defaults, troubling implications — but these seem so far outweighed by the delights and advantages it’s delivered over the years that I can unequivocally state I love this software.
I recently had an exchange with my friend Wes about whether Google Maps, by making it so difficult to lose your way, also made it difficult to stumble into serendipity. I walked away thinking that what Google Maps enabled — the expectation that I can just leave my house, walk or drive, and search for anything I could want as I go — enabled much more serendipity than it forestalled. It’s eliminated most of the difficulties that might have prevented me from wandering through neighborhoods in DC, running around San Francisco, road-tripping across New England. And it demands very little of me, and imposes very little upon me. (One imposition, for example: All the buildings I’ve lived in have been photographed on Street View. I’m happy to abide by this invasion of privacy, because without it, I wouldn’t have found the place I live in today.) For me, Google Maps is basically an unalloyed social good.
Google has been very prolific with these sorts of products — things that bring me overwhelming usefulness with much less tangible concern. Google Search itself is, of course, a masterpiece. News Search, Gmail, Reader, Docs, Chrome, Android, Voice — even failed experiments such as Wave — I find that these things have heightened what I expect software to do for me. They have made the Internet more useful, information more accessible, and generally, life more pleasurable.
I was trying to think of a Facebook product that ameliorated my life in some similar way, and the first thing to come to mind was Photos. Facebook Photos created for me the expectation that every snapshot, every captured moment, would be shared and tagged for later retrieval. At my fifth college reunion, I made a point of taking photos with every classmate I wanted to reconnect with on Facebook. When I go home and tag my photos, I told my buddies, it will remind you that we should catch up. And it worked like a charm! I reconnected with dozens of old friends on Facebook, and now I see their updates scrolling by regularly, each one producing a tinge of warmth and good feelings.
But the dark side of Facebook Photos almost immediately presented itself as well. For me, the service has replaced the notion of a photograph as a shared, treasured moment with the reality of a photograph as a public event. I realized all of a sudden that I can’t remember the last time I took a candid photo. Look through my photos, and even those moments you might call “candid” are actually posed. I can’t sit for a picture without expecting that the photo will be publicized. Not merely made public — my public Flickr stream never provoked this sense — publicized. And although this is merely a default, easily overridden, to do so often feels like an overreaction. To go to a friend’s photo of me and untag myself, or to make myself untaggable, feels like I’m basically negating the purpose of Facebook Photos. The product exists so these images might be publicized. And increasingly, Facebook seems to be what photos are for.
Of course that’s not true. I also suddenly realized that I’ve been quietly stowing away a secret cache of images on my phone — a shot of Bryan sleeping, our cat Otis in a grocery bag, an early-morning sunlit sky — that are quickly becoming the most treasured images I possess, the ones I return to again and again.
Perhaps Facebook Photos has made my private treasure trove more valuable.
I use Facebook Photos as an example first because it’s the part of the service that’s most significantly altered my experience of the world, but also because I think it reflects something about the software’s ethos. That dumb, relentless publicness of photos on Facebook doesn’t have to be the default. Photos, by default, could be accessible only to users tagged in a set, for example, not publicized to all my friends and their friends. I’m not even sure that’s an option. (My privacy settings allow most users to see only my photos, not photos I’m tagged in. But I’m not sure what that even means. When another friend shares a photo publicly, and I’m tagged in it, I’m fairly certain our friends see that information.)
Facebook engineered the photo-sharing system in such a way as to maximize exposure rather than, say, utility. For Facebook, possibly, exposure is utility.* I think that characterizes most of the choices that underpin Facebook’s products. With most of the other social software products I use — the Google suite, WordPress, Twitter, Flickr, Dropbox, etc. — I am constantly aware of and grateful for the many ways the software is serving me. With Facebook, I’m persistently reminded that I am always serving it — feeding an endless stream of information to the insatiable hive, creating the world’s most perfect consumer profile of myself.
I don’t trust Google for a second, but I value it immensely. I trust Facebook less, and I’m growing more ambivalent about its value.
I don’t think I want to give up Facebook. I value the connections it offers, however shallow they are. I enjoy looking at photos of my friends. I like knowing people’s birthdays.
But I am wary of it, its values and its defaults. How it’s changing my expectations and my experience of the world.
* Thought added post-publication.
I’m sitting in the dev lounge during the last of the day’s sessions at Public Media Camp, an unconference for folks interested in public media stuff.
Fair warning: This is not going to be your standard Matt Thompson Conference Liveblog, and will possibly not be interesting in any way. I’m trying out two things: (1) live curation of Twitter (which I haven’t really done), and (2) a Snarkmarket-customized CoverItLive template, that will allegedly not require you to see the title page. I’ll be very excited if this latter thing is true. Update: Not true. Still have to click to see the liveblog. Darn it.