Google Donates $5M to Develop Digital Journalism

Beyond simply wanting to “encourage innovation at the grassroots level,” why?  Google must have some interest in promoting new ideas in journalism.  Presumably generating more news content would allow them to sell more ads on Google News, but that connection seems tenuous.  I am stumped but intrigued.

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The Adjacent Possible

“All of us live in our own private versions of the adjacent possible.  In our work lives, in our creative pursuits, in the organizations that employ us, in the communities we inhabit—in all these different environments, we are surrounded by potential new configurations, new ways of breaking out of our standard routines.” -Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 40.

The “adjacent possible” is the set of all future states that are one step away; it’s why the Internet couldn’t have been invented in medieval times, but so many programs are written daily now. Johnson uses the metaphor of walking through a door into another room, which then has three more doors that lead to rooms you couldn’t have reached directly from your starting point.

This has interesting personal applications, beyond what it means for innovation and progress.  On one hand, the new and different is only a step away, waiting for us to make a new connection or open a new door.  On the other hand, we can only move so quickly and expect so much; change is often gradual because it involves many incremental steps.

Innovation vs. Invention

This article distinguishes between invention – turning money into ideas – and innovation – turning ideas into money.  (I’m not sure I would use the terms that way, but there’s an important distinction between idea-generation and commercialization.)  Lately I’ve seen a few instances were individuals come up with ideas that they themselves don’t want to commercialize, the latest being my unbelievably healthy ice cream recipe.  I wonder if there’s some way to connect random people who come up with ideas with the folks who actually want to work on them?

Innovation Quote of the Day

“A good idea is a network.” -Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 45.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one.  It has something to do with the fact that an idea – for a new product, process, subject to write about, etc. – is often a combination of various smaller components.  Microsoft Word combines elements of print writing with conventions of the computer screen.  This also helps explain why Darwin was able to write down all the essential components of his theory of evolution before, one night, realizing that he had a theory; the nodes of the network were there, but he had not yet zoomed out to see the full picture and all its implications.  Ideas-as-networks may also help explain why different perspectives are valuable; we may be focusing on a different aspect of an idea than our neighbor.

Innovation Quote of the Day

“Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor.” -Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, 17

So we can use our minds to alter our environment, and our environment also shapes how we think.  The inhabitants of a frigid tundra will not dream up polka-dotted umbrellas.  This is true.  The question then arises of where we place the emphasis – on the power of individuals to shape their world, or all the circumstances that individuals require to come up with particular innovations – on individual agency or external forces.

The Game of Life

According to this new TED talk from TEDxBoston by Seth Priebatsch, there is a “game layer” under construction in the world, and we should all care about how it’s getting built.

The game layer is a framework for interacting with other people that allows us to influence their behavior.  This framework involves various dynamics: the appointment dynamic requires players to return at a predetermined time; the influence and status dynamic manages players’ behavior through social pressure; the progression dynamic allows players to advance gradually through stages or steps; the communal discovery dynamic calls upon an entire community to solve a problem.

For example, restaurants set up happy hours that draw in customers at particular times; the color of credit cards varies with their spending limit, making us desire the prestige of a gold card; LinkedIn warns us that our profile is only 85% complete, an incentive to finish filling it in.

It would be interesting to explore how individual agency operates in this dynamic.  Presumably, people will not change their behavior unless it is to their advantage to do so; happy hour draws us in because the deals are pretty awesome.  But Priebatsch hints at an interesting phenomenon: sometimes, people get sucked into the game and act against their interests.  If Farmville required players to water their plants every half hour, he claims, people would do so, to the detriment of their productivity elsewhere.

So why do games appeal to us, and how do they affect our ability to make good decisions?  Why kinds of new skills do we need to live in this game world?


A Sticky Idea?

A recent Reason article explains a new iPhone app called Stickybits.  This app allows users to scan the barcode of a product they purchased, and then view all the comments that others have made about it (and make their own comments). Users can also create and print new barcodes to identify items (places, people, restaurants) that don’t already have a barcode.

Author Greg Beato makes a few points about this app:

  • “there’s this thing called the Web that provides similar functionality”
  • It won’t just be used by activists and culture jammers, but also marketers and big companies.

I’m not too sure what to make of Stickybits.  On one hand, as Beato alluded to, it seems to automate much of what’s already going on on the Web – on Yelp, product review forums, etc.  But the benefits of this automation may be outweighed by the fact that you need a physical barcode to call up all the comments – making it less effective for people who want information but haven’t made it to the store yet.  But Stickybits could easily allow users to look up items by name as well.

Will Stickybits become a valuable tool or a morass of rambling, poorly edited comments?  It depends on how it’s used (human agency, you know).  On my more cynical days, I wonder whether all these comment features springing up everywhere (think: the Facebook “like” button) discourage us from making our own independent decisions.  But part of me also thinks that more information can never be harmful.

I guess it’s up to you to make up your own mind about Stickybits.

In Defense of Twitter

A recent Newsweek article discussed how Twitter is being used by politicians to spread bite-sized misinformation.

Some examples: A Congressman tweeted that Obama’s tax increase would be the largest in history, and the Republican National Committee claimed that economists see Obama’s stimulus plan as an “epic fail.”

While it’s clearly a problem that politicians are misinforming their followers (an appropriate term for them if they take any tweet on face value), I’m more interested in how this article portrays Twitter.  As the article explains:

By design, Twitter limits communication. It provides its users with 140 characters to make a point – enabling them to oversimplify and exaggerate. In politics, this is considered an asset, and both parties have taken to the social networking site that now claims to have more than 100 million users.

Surely, 140 characters is not enough to make a reasoned argument.  But Twitter does seem like a useful tool to keep citizens apprised of the most recent developments in the political world, especially because tweets can link to longer articles.  I think it’s a mistake to claim that Twitter enables politicians to “oversimplify and exaggerate”; they’ll find a way to do that on any platform.

And the very fact that this article was written reminds us of the upside of Twitter and other Internet news venues.  Because they reach millions of users and because anyone can comment and publish, misinformation will be detected and publicized.

My point, in 140 characters or less: don’t blame the tool, blame the agent.

The Search for Bach’s Soul

This article discusses the work of David Cope, musician-turned-programmer who wrote a program called Emmy that could spit out Bach chorales indistinguishable from those of the famous Baroque composer.  Emmy – and her “daughter,” Emily Howell – have been met with shock and antagonism.  If the creative genius of the master composers can be reduced to an algorithm, “was there really any soul behind the great works, or were Beethoven and his ilk just clever mathematical manipulators of notes?”

I think the public response to Cope’s work is based on a faulty dichotomy, with human – creative, eccentric, emotional – on one side, and machine – mechanical, mathematical, unfeeling – on the other.  And it’s the “mathematical” that’s in the wrong place.

Critics assume that, if music can be generated automatically using rules, it has no beauty, spirituality, emotionality, etc.  But in the case of nature, this just isn’t true.  Fractals – geometric shapes built out of increasingly smaller copies of themselves – abound in nature, from snow flakes to lightning to blood vessels.   The golden ratio, around 1.618, was discovered in plant leaves and animal nerves, and the Acropolis.  Faces are said to be more beautiful when they are symmetrical.

The fact that Bach’s music follows patterns doesn’t mean it lacks soul or that our emotional response to it is misplaced.  It means that the human mind is so complex and so intricate that conveying our deepest emotions, touching listeners in indescribable ways, is based on the same elegant mathematics that underlie our universe.


On Premature Obituaries

The PC Officially Died Today,” announced Nicholas Carr in The New Republic and on his blog.  The cause of its death?  The Apple iPad, of course.

To Carr, the iPad represents a new era of personal computing, where users access the vast database of the Internet and all the media of the past, rather than using their computers primarily for software like Word.  The new computers are “portable, flexible, always connected.”

Although I was starting to think my college education was almost useless (practically speaking), it turns out that a few key ideas from the field of media studies can help understand Carr’s article.

Most strikingly, the declaration of the PC’s death – though it makes for a great article title – may not be entirely accurate.  When TV came along, it made filmmakers uneasy about their industry; by some accounts, the book should have perished by now.  Granted, Carr is talking about two forms of a particular technology, but the general point is that we should be hesitant to proclaim sharp breaks and total replacements (the media-studies term is “supercession”) rather than examining the ways in which old and new forms of media interact with and adapt to each other.  Maybe we’ll get tired of constantly being wired to the Internet (emails alerts ringing, Skype windows popping up) and desire a simple device where we can work, uninterrupted, on things like art and writing.

The same applies to the view of the computer as the ultimate multimedia device, “absorb[ing] the traditional products of media—songs, TV shows, movies, games, the printed word.”  It may be able to transmit all the entertainment we could ever want, but it can’t mimic the social experiences and cultural traditions of watching TV, going to the movie theatre, or reading a book.

But one of the most important points that Carr makes – a point that’s been made about journalism as well – is that periods of transition create instability and confusion, a jumbled mass of solutions to questions like “What’s the future of computing?”  Carr cites Acer and Asus netbooks, e-readers like Kindle and Nook, and smartphones like the iPhone and Nexus One.  “In some ways,” he writes, “personal computing has returned to the ferment of its earliest days, when the market was fragmented among lots of contending companies, operating systems, and technical standards.”

Well, good.  To figure out a solution – or, at least, the current path to take – we need lots of options.  We need to try things out, and see how they work, how they fit into our lives, how they shape our experiences and interactions.  If the iPad emerges victorious, then maybe we can start talking about the death of old PC’s.  Maybe.