Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus

I've been a fan of Clay Shirky since I first started reading his works, back in 2003 or 2004. After having just finished his latest book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, my admiration is a high as ever. If your interests are at all similar to mine, I have to recommend the book. I would love to one day be able to do something at least similar to what Mr. Shirky does for a living. The book is essentially an analysis of the social effects of the Internet and related technology, touching on subjects including behavioral economics, social network theory, political theory and the history of technology.

Attempting to summarize the main thesis of the book could perhaps be done better by Shirky himself in this video, which is essentially the opening chapter of Cognitive Surplus. For those of you who want something quicker than sitting through a 15 minute video though, allow me to make to the effort.

Cognitive Surplus has a relatively optimistic message, pointing out that the society of the developed world, has had a surplus of free time for the last 70 years, due in large part to the development of the 40 hour workweek, but that people have not had much of an outlet for this free time other than simply watching TV or consuming other mass media. Indeed, as pointed out by Robert Putnam in his 1995 book, Bowling Alone, many of the other, less passive, pastimes of people have actively withered away. People no longer spend as much time in bowling leagues, or other civic groups, as they did in the past. In part this has been because of the mass move to the cities and suburbs, because of the fragmented, unwalkable nature of suburbia, the ease of watching television or listening to the radio, and so on.

However, given a few more years to look back on, Shirky takes a much more optimistic view than Robert Putnam did, noting that this trend is beginning to reverse itself, as people begin to use the Internet for social collaboration. This surplus of free-time has finally found a large scale outlet and is just beginning to be used. We are just beginning to see the benefits to be gained from this, ranging from Wikipedia, to open source software projects, to the mass conversations occurring across blogs, Twitter, Reddit, and the like. Shirky makes the point that all of the man hours required to make all of Wikipedia is spent each weekend by American citizens watching television advertisements. And as that surplus continues to get directed away from the passive watching of TV, tremendous things will become possible. A redirection of how we spend our time as significant as what occurred during the Industrial Revolution is beginning to happen.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What Do I Want For Better Information Display?

Thinking about how much I like maps and graphically displaying information and that I am trained in part as a UI designer, I wanted to sit down and think about information visualizations that should be invented. We have a tremendous amount of data out there that is being collected by websites, social networks, cell phones, etc, and it is still largely opaque when thought of as a collection. This is a huge untapped resource that needs to get used.

We've definitely got some people beginning to use things in this vein, such as the Twitter moods visualization. A brief search show's other similar projects, such as mapping music relationships on, the affects of cell-phone based social networks on marketing, this project mapping tourist vs local hotspots using Flickr photos, and other such things.

Hrm... But I still feel that none of these things have quite gotten to where they need to go. I've seen plenty of social networking maps, but those generally end up appearing messy and must be lacking something that I'm looking for. They all tend to be quite specific to a given area of research. So, what am I looking for? What is it that I'm trying to imagine? I want some more universal framework in which to support all of my questions.

I suppose I'm still looking for a way to see objective measures of influence in social networks. Either absolutely or with regard to specific topics. I suppose I'd also like to see more economic data overlaid on these social networks, to see where money is flowing and to what effect. I want to see how people's opinions effect each other, see a map of how ideas are flowing, and see what effect this has on people's activities. Or just more overlays of social networks on physical locations. We're hitting the point where we'll have enough computational power that we could run the world in a Sim City like simulation.

A wonderful technology that I'm extremely excited about is Microsoft's Photosynth. This software can take a bunch of 2D photos of an area and then automatically build a 3D model of that area. It's a beautiful technology. And I'm just grasping for something similar with all this social networking data, something that can combine the data that's available on Facebook and and Reddit and Twitter and credit card records and political contributions and the like and combine it into a usable, searchable, visualizable format.

There are a lot of questions I have that should be easier to answer. But then, I'm still trying to actually refine these questions.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oh, Damn, the Blog

I've completely let this blog fall by the wayside over the last four and half, months. I suppose it's been a combination of work, dealing with all the setup for Burning Man, oh and yeah, adjusting to being single again. That gave me a bit of a distraction. So, I find myself at the moment with not much to rant about as I would normally like. I will work on that, now that my memory of this site is refreshed, and I'll be back here with ideas somewhat soon.