| At the Corner of Technology and Culture

The Sniffer, Nov. 4th, 2011: Trends in Publishing and Cellie Use

What does a physical object mean in a digital age? Even as many of us embrace ebooks, convert our music libraries to mp3s, or stream movies online, we still seem to hunger for the tactile. It’s something we’ve talked about before, both on Spark (for instance, in this interview with Mark Paterson) and on my podcast with Cathi Bond. This time on The Sniffer podcast, Cathi has a look at a new art/fashion-y publication called The Slant. What I find intriguing about it is the idea of paper publication as artifact. If you’re going to make something physical, tactile, you have to bring real value to the physical product – make it something that can’t really be replicated as digitally. Let’s see how The Slant does!

You can listen to the episode below, or head over to The Sniffer blog to listen and check out the links to our stories. Thanks!
Sni-2011-11-04 by nora3000

Learning, Libraries, and Credibility Hubs

Image of GuardianLast night, I was in Stratford, ON for a town hall meeting on the future of the Stratford library. I was part of a panel – the first step in coming up with a 4-7 year strategic plan for the library. I love that Stratford is making this an issue for public consultation and discussion. It was an inspiring group of people, who left me with a lot to think about. One of the points I touched on is something I’ve been thinking about for a while: organizations and individuals who can be informal “credibility hubs”. As the old top-down model of rigidly curated and approved information breaks down (largely for the better, I think) we’re all struggling a bit with Clay Shirky’s “filter failure“. How can people such as journalists, academics, expert-amateurs, and librarians act as informal, less hierarchical nodes of expertise within the new information ecosystem? Algorithms have taken us some way down this curatorial road, as have the social relationships on networking sites, of course, but I wonder what role people who, by dint of their training, expertise, or jobs, might effectively help the communities we serve without retreating into old hierarchies. It’s something the always thought-provoking Anand Giridharadas has written about here.

More on Games from Spark

Further to Thursday’s post, this week’s episode of Spark is a repeat from last season. It’s a special theme issue on games, and it was one of our favourites from last year. You can listen online here, or subscribe to the podcast. Thanks!

Games People Play

Image Referring to the Use of Games in Everyday Life
Gamification” is a huge buzz term these days. It refers to the use of games and game mechanics to all sorts of tasks, including those we don’t normally think of as fun, such as chores or public policy outcomes. The popularity of video games shows us that people will engage in focused activity – even if it isn’t in itself ‘fun’ – if it’s structured around principles such as challenge and reward, tension and release, levelling up, and effective feedback. It not only helps people achieve goals, but can also lead to deeper understanding, thanks to the immersive power of games.

Technology Review points to an intriguing example of this immersive power in action with Spent, a game designed to show players what it’s like to live in poverty. Personally, I’ve experienced the emotional power of this sort of immersion in a game called Loneliness. It’s a simple, minimalist game that takes you through what it feels like to be socially isolated – shunned. It actually brought tears to my eyes. Its emotional power is especially intriguing because it’s so simple…abstract, even. It suggests that we don’t need sophisticated graphics or ‘realistic’ games to tap into their immersive potential. These games have tremendous power to teach empathy.

Games are powerful tools. Gamification does leave me with some questions, though. Where is the line between making the most out of the human response to games on one hand, and manipulating people on the other? If we are in some sense hard wired to respond to games, does this mean that using games to ‘get’ people to eat their veggies, say, amounts to a sort of denial of individual choice? Traditionally, art is the way that we develop and refine our sense of empathy. Literature and theatre can put us in someone else’s shoes. Is there something about the subtlety of other arts that we miss in the abstracted world of games? Finally, I know that whenever we talk about gamification to achieve goals like education on Spark, I hear from people who are disturbed by the idea, primarily in a moral sense. The objection is generally that life isn’t always fun, and kids ought to learn to accomplish goals for reasons other than the rewards of successful game play. So, what if we are able to make virtually any task game-like? After all, game designer, Jane McGonigal has even made recovering from a head injury into a game. Is there something else that we are sacrificing in gamification, and what is that something?

The Sniffer, Oct. 7th, 2011: Trends in Publishing and Niche Subscriptions

The latest episode of The Sniffer, my podcast with Cathi Bond, is up. This time we talk about the hard questions any author interested in self-publishing needs to ask, and I look at a couple of examples of niche subscription services as a way of selling scarce goods in a digital economy. You can listen below, or hop over to The Sniffer to find links to stories and more.
Sni-2011-10-07 by nora3000

First Spark of the New Season

Today, we launch season five(!) of Spark, my CBC radio broadcast/podcast. You can listen to it online here, or subscribe to the podcast.

The Sniffer Launches!

My podcasting pal, Cathi Bond, and I have launched the new season of our trendwatching podcast, The Sniffer. We began way back in 2005, and we’re still enjoying it. We’ve also pegged quite a few long range trends in our time. You can listen below, or at The Sniffer website, where you’ll also find links to the stories we talk about.
Sni-2011-09-09 by nora3000

Network Analysis and Privacy

There’s a great article in The Economist’s latest Technology Quarterly, called Untangling the Social Web.  It’s about how the field of network analysis looks at the behaviour of people in terms of the trails of data exhaust they leave behind, but not as individuals.  Rather, it considers the behaviour of people within their social context.  For example, by studying the pattern of phone calls made by telco customers, network analysis can determine who is an ‘influencer’, and hence more likely to get friends and relatives to change telcos when they do.  If you can tell who the influencers are among your customers, you can offer them better deals, thus ensuring fewer lost customers.

Leaving aside the question of how we non-influential misanthropes might feel about formalizing this two-tiered structure of clients, what I find fascinating is the way it refocuses how we need to think about the boundaries of privacy.  Often, we think about privacy in terms of the content of our information.  In this case, though, it’s not that companies are tracking who amongst their clients is saying things like “hey I think you should by stock in company x,y,z” or searching their client base to find out who have important jobs; rather they’re tracking the pattern of calls:  calls made late at night, length of calls, etc, and making inferences about the social relations that underlie those patterns.

Nothing To Do With Anything

This has nothing really to do with technology and culture, just an image I love from my recent trip to Sicily.  It’s the duomo in the Ortygia island part of the city of Siracuse.  It was built in the 7th century, on top of, and incorporating, the much earlier Temple of Athena (5th c BCE).  Such a meditative, spare, space, after all the fabulosity of the Sicilian baroque architecture throughout the south of the island.

Yes, That’s Right, It’s a New Post

A while back, I visited experimental architect, Philip Beesley, in his studio in Toronto’s west end.  I went to talk to him about the enormous, beautiful, installation piece he’s taking to the Venice Biennale of Architecture, representing Canada.  It’s a remarkable work, called Hylozoic Ground.  You can see some images here.  Hylozoism was the concept that everything contained some sort of life force, and this is reflected in Philip’s work metaphorically.  He’s working in the area of ‘responsive architecture,’ where structures can change or move in response to external, environmental conditions, or in response to the way the people within the space are using it.

What I love about Philip’s work is the way he’s breaking down the hard line between the built and the natural environment, creating spaces that are permeable, changeable, and, well, responsive.  As we humans start to generate more data about where we are, and how we are using the space around us (for example, with our GPS-enabled phones, we ‘check in’ at locations) will we be able to provide buildings with more information about us, and how we want to use the space?  You can imagine a future in which architecture, the environment, and us, are all in a loop of information and response to that information.

Anyhoo, if you’re curious about Beesley’s thoughts, my interview with him on Spark is here




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