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    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...
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    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.
    I admit that I am not the superstitious type. Superstitions have never resonated with me as my mind simply doesn’t grasp the idea of something unnatural. It is, therefore, with some reluctance that I use words like ‘ghost’ and ‘immortals’ here. However, they are useful to explain my thoughts on digital identity for reasons which I hope will soon be obvious. First, permit me a minor philosophical detour.

    Who are you?

    It takes seven years for each and every atom in your body to be replaced by another. Not overnight, of course; it’s not some big switch that gets flipped once every seven years. No, it’s an ongoing replacement of every atomic particle, step by step in your body, changing the former physical you into the current you.

    It’s so gradual as to escape your notice, aside from the receding hairline or the extra few pounds. But, as you morph through the different versions of you, your actions as a product of each of those versions gets hard-coded into the fabric of space-time (however that might look), never to be revisited, never to be undone. It is, however, from a physical point of view, what makes you, you.



    The traces we leave behind

    I said, “never to be revisited,” and from the vantage point of the space-time continuum, it is true that we can’t revisit our former selves. We can’t undo what has been done, at least not in practice, but we can do something else. We can remember and we can reflect.

    We don’t remember everything; in fact, far from it. But we do remember enough to feel a causal connection between our past and the present. Memory serves to remind the current you of the various former yous, to create a consistent narrative, to make us feel like we are separate from everything else.

    Our very existence leaves traces of our former selves, both in our own memory, and perhaps as important, in the minds and memories of others. These traces create the possibility of identification. All relationships are established through shared history. It’s this shared history (the traces) that builds relationships. Trust as well as distrust.

    I am identifiable, not simply because of the former versions of me get plotted into space-time but because of the traces I leave behind in other observing me’s. Me’s who in turn leave traces of themselves in former and current versions of me. Every conversation, every night out, every vacation, every interaction, establishes relationships between you and someone else. But there will never be a real you, only a continuum of you’s who remember traces from the past.



    In other words, we are feedback loops in constant flux and perpetual transformation. We are feedback loops with memory banks, transmorphing through time, collecting traces of the world around us, simulating not the reality but a reality.

    Who’s your best friend?

    In one of my previous essays I talked about how our actions in the physical and digital space are beginning to merge and affect each other in an ever-increasing relationship. Some relationships are built solely through digital channels. There are people who have never met or talked to each other through anything but their avatars, handles or emails. There is nothing currently that seems to change this tendency. So unless socializing suddenly become unfashionable (unlikely but possible) we are bound to see increased convergence between digital and physical life.

    Another tendency that also seems rather persistent is the divergence of technology into ever more mobile, aware and personal tools. Well tools and tools. It would be a shame really to call them tools as they are more akin to digital wingmen, accompanying us in every facet of our lives.

    They know what messages we receive and which we send and to and from who. They know if we are in Portugal or Thailand, Lisbon or Koh Phangan. They know things that never crossed our minds to retain. They know things about us that not even our best friends know. There is literally no limit to what they can and potentially could record from our lives. In fact, these wingmen can be said to contain traces of our very existence.

    And this is where things really start to become interesting.

    How many times must I say that I am who I say I am?

    As explored in “The power of digital ecosystems” the difference between a physical ecosystem and a digital one is that the former works through the free flow and exchange of energy and the latter through the free flow and exchange of data.

    Despite all the talk about our being in constant flux, the very premise of our existence is that we occupy not only information space but physical space, and that we are carbon-based, biological beings, not silicone-based, digital ones. In other words, there is a wall between the ‘me’ in physical space and the ‘me’ in digital space.

    So when we log on to the internet, access our mails, social networks, bank accounts and other services, we must identify ourselves as the rightful users through means of abstraction. The current abstraction for identification is the use of usernames and passwords. We can no longer rely on the same kind of recognition as that in our daily lives. Traces don’t count when we interact with our bank. It doesn’t identify us; it identifies a password and a username.

    This is an artifact from a time when the interaction between humans and machines and the services they hosted were sporadic and, well, …between humans, machines and their services. It isn’t well-suited for situations where the machines are an extension of us to the degree they are today.

    Imagine a world requiring you to identify yourself with a password each time you met or telephoned your friends. Every morning when you awaken, you must prove to your wife and kids that you are the right spouse, the right parent. We wouldn’t dream of treating strangers we meet in a bar or on an airplane like that.

    I’m sorry

    It’s always easy to critique the work of others. Many reasons exist as to why we still use these identification methods. It is not my intent to critique the great work of pioneers like Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart and Vince Cerf who made it possible for me to sit here and rant; they sure did their part to move the world forward.

    Perhaps the current OpenID/Twitter/Facebook approach is the way forward. Or perhaps I am missing something. (Certainly possible). But I believe we need to look for alternatives in our approach to identification. If, for nothing else, to benefit from the new opportunities it will bring, not to mention saving a couple of years repeatedly typing passwords and usernames.

    This is where traces come into play. As our physical identity doesn’t easily transcend into digital space, we are left with a situation that is neither secure (with just root access you can steal information on millions of credit cards or accounts) nor elegant (future generations will scoff at how much time we wasted remembering, retrieving and typing in those passwords and usernames). In an attempt to take advantage of scalability, we still force humans to obey machine thinking instead of the other way around. It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be like that.

    The ghost protocol


    I said I’m not the superstitious type and I am not. Yet one word keeps popping into my mind as I try to formulate my thinking – ghost.

    Ghosts are said to be trapped between the physical world and the afterlife. They lack physical properties yet still manifest themselves as alive and humanlike. They have a history; they used to be someone, someone who, although they no longer exist as flesh and bone, still carry the accumulated memories and knowledge of a past self.

    Could it be that these traces we leave behind at one level constitute the ghosts of our former selves? Could it be that these ghosts can manifest themselves in digital space as non-material versions of former me’s? Instead of being merely printed into the fabric of space-time and into the minds of others, might they also be printed into the fabric of the digital continuum and allow for a kind of transcendence?

    Now, imagine these ghosts represent our digital identity.

    As with your Social Security or telephone number, an empty ghost can be acquired from a ghost service provider.

    Whatever we do, wherever we go, with whomever we interact, or even however we interact, our ghosts will build relationships with other ghosts, increasing or decreasing trust as they get to know each other, as they/we build up shared history and develop relationships–some strong and tight, some sporadic, some emotional, some practical, some public, some secret; but all decentralized from any central verification process. These are the social machines I talked about in “Slaves of the feed”.

    Our digital wingmen will capture all this in ever greater detail and share it perpetually with other ghosts, just as in the physical world, only in much, much, much greater detail. They will always be connected with each other and therefore not as easily deceived. After all, how can someone pretend to be my ghost if my ghost and another ghost are never separated?

    With time, and as the amount of information increases and the complexity of the relationship fidelity increases, perhaps your ghosts even take on some sort of agency and become ever more indistinguishable from the physical you, helping you make decisions, leaving traces in your physical mind.

    And, finally, as entropy takes its toll on your physical body, instead of “you” being an essay here, a wiki mention there and a tweet here, your entire life, your every move, is recorded into the fabric of the digital “space-time” continuum where it continues to live, only this time to be revisited by later generations. Perhaps it even becomes part of a consensus of ghosts, a consensus summoned by future generations whenever big decisions need to be made or forgotten solutions to problems need to be found.

    We might not have the kind of transcendence that theists or trans-humanists talk about, but we might still make a difference in the future.

    Isn’t that a kind of immortality worth striving for?
    Thu, Apr 29, 2010  Permanent link

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    When Sony introduced the PlayStation in 1994, it wasn’t at all obvious that they would be successful. Nintendo and Sega were already in fierce competition and, although their arena was the 16-bit market, they were much more experienced in selling consoles and games.

    One of the features that was radically different with the PlayStation was the introduction of a different storage medium. Instead of the cartridge, used by both Nintendo and Sega, Sony had decided to use a cheaper medium, the CD. When it came to guarding against piracy, though, CDs were seen as insecure. Sony had to develop a special version of CDs (the one with the black rear side) to guard itself against this.

    It didn’t take long, though, before someone figured out how to crack it. By installing an inexpensive chip (called a mod-chip) it was possible to circumvent the copy-protection and allow anyone to burn original games onto regular CDs and play them. And in fact many did.

    Now, this essay could have been a story about ”the gaming console that tanked because its copy protection got cracked.”

    It’s not…

    The PlayStation is one of the most successful gaming consoles ever, and was only recently discontinued after 10 years of service.

    So why am I spending all this time talking about the PlayStation, and what does it have to do with digital ecosystems? We will get back to that a little later, but first let’s look at what ecosystems are.

    A system of all systems

    According to Roy Clapham, who coined the term back in 1930, an ecosystem is:

    "the combined physical and biological components of an environment."




    Makes sense. But I think we can elaborate on that a little more. Arthur Tansley might lend us a helping hand. He redefines it to mean:

    "The whole system… including not only the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment."




    OK, so an ecosystem is not only about the biological and physical components; it is also about the subdivisions of these. From atom to ape, so to speak. That seems reasonable, but something is still missing.

    Eugene Odum, a contemporary thinker on this subject, put it like this:

    "Any unit that includes all of the organisms (ie: the ”community”) in a given area interacting with the physical environment so that a flow of energy leads to clearly defined trophic structure, biotic diversity, and material cycles (ie: exchange of materials between living and nonliving parts) within the system is an ecosystem."




    This is interesting. So, not only is an ecosystem the animate and inanimate subdivided components that make up an environment; it is also the interaction and exchange of energy between these objects. The flow of energy throughout the system, so to speak.

    The environment we live in is based on interdependencies in this flow. The sun needs hydrogen, helium, iron, oxygen, carbon and neon to create energy which transforms into light.

    With light, photosynthesis can happen, which means plants can exist. When plants exist, animals have something to eat and with animals, humans.

    These humans then use the environment to do all sorts of things: from making fire to inventing the wheel to creating moving vehicles to mastering French cuisine and even creating digital ecosystems.

    Everything is an exchange of energy flowing through the system, creating ever more complex relationships. Now that we understand this, let’s look at the digital ecosystems.

    Digital Ecosystems

    On one side, digital ecosystems are simply an extension of the ecosystem. The flow of energy, albeit a different kind of energy, is certainly necessary for the system to exist at all.

    What truly makes it digital, though, is the flow of data. It is ultimately the data that make it possible to do all the wonderful things we do with our computers and the network they are connected to.

    Playing games, running businesses, making money transactions, sharing pictures, sending emails and IMs, downloading applications, uploading files, writing blogs, sharing information, streaming video and music: the possibilities are literally endless, and so are the ways to define them.



    There probably isn’t any one definition that would suffice. It could be:

    "A Digital Ecosystem is any distributed adaptive open socio-technical system, with properties of self-organisation, scalability and sustainability, inspired by natural ecosystems."


    Or it could be:

    "A Digital Ecosystem is any connection of nodes where data flow and multiply to be interpreted and transformed into readable or meaningful structures by an interpreter."


    The definition I prefer is this:

    "A Digital Ecosystem is any distributed scalable network allowing data to flow freely between its nodes and allowing trusted interpreters to access, edit or extrapolate value of the data."


    Sounds complex, but let’s break it down.

    ”…any distributed scalable network…” = Any network where nodes can be added or removed to change the size and reach of the network.

    ”…allowing data to flow freely between its nodes…” = allowing for games, music, video, documents, money transactions and everything else to move within the mesh that defines the digital ecosystem.

    ”…and allowing trusted interpreters to access, edit or extrapolate value of the data…” = allowing the right person or machine to interact with the data.

    So a digital ecosystem is any network where nodes can be added or removed to change the size and reach, allowing for games, music, video, documents, money transactions and everything else to move within the boundaries of the network and allowing the right person or machine to interact with or share the data.

    The data in itself is worthless without proper interpretation: just zeros and ones being transported back and forth in the network without any purpose. But with the proper interpreters, such as humans or machines, value emerge.

    You can say that getting on the internet is the first example of a digital ecosystem, where you, as the trusted interpreter, have access to a host of options. Your email account and correspondence with friends or colleagues is another.

    In reality, each individual on average will be considered a trusted interpreter in many different networks in any single day, making it impossible to speak of just one type of digital ecosystem. They all have one thing in common, though, and that is that data can flow freely within them, not between them.

    If data flow is limited either because of incompatibility between the data and the interpreter or access restrictions stop the flow, then defines where one digital ecosystem ends and another begin.



    This is not just a philosophical point. It illustrates the reach and friction of the network, and thus its strength, which again has implications concerning its success, as we will see later.

    To add to that, there are even more exotic variations of these systems as I am going to show now.

    The Digi-Mechanical Ecosystem

    The PlayStation didn’t fail, despite the poor copyright protection of the CDs. On the contrary, it survived because of it. When it was known that it was possible to use a modchip to play copied games, a lot of people (myself included) warmed to the idea of buying a gaming console. In effect, the sales of the PlayStation would rise even higher and make it more attractive for game developers to develop for it. This positive feedback loop elevated the PlayStation to being one of the most successful gaming consoles ever.

    Obviously other factors played a role, but I think it’s fair to say that a great deal of the success of the PlayStation can be ascribed as much to the emergence of a semi-digital ecosystem around the console. Perhaps we could go so far as to claim that this was the first time we really saw the power of digital ecosystems helping sell products.

    The distributed network of humans, their consoles and CDs created a digi-mechanical ecosystem and allowed for games to be copied and thus the network to scale. The uniformity in the network (human, console, data, CD) allowed for rapid multiplication of nodes. You can say that scaling up was a relative commodity because the same data were allowed to flow and multiply, compared to the trapped data in the Nintendo and Sega cartridges.

    Typecasting the networks


    The Sony example is, of course, not your typical digital ecosystem, and the rules have changed quite dramatically as game consoles today are connected over the internet. But I wanted to include the example just to show that we don’t need to constrain our thinking. What is important is that data can flow and the network scale relatively easily.

    The PlayStation is far from the only example of this phenomenon, so let’s look at a couple of others examples.

    Product Ecosystems:

    Apple
    When Apple recently announced their new iPad, many critiqued the poor specs:

    No camera, no USB, no multitasking, no Flash, no OS X, glorified iPod touch and it didn’t have e-ink like the Kindle.

    But this critique is missing what the iPad does have, and what really matters: an almost unbeatable digital ecosystem to connect your iPad to. Whether you want games, applications, music, films, books, audio-books, newspapers, magazines or browse the web, the iPad gives you access to all that and with literally no friction.

    The strength of Apple products today is their ecosystem, not their products. No-one really cares about products anymore. Obviously they have great products and a great interface, don’t get me wrong, but today we don’t buy gadgets because they have great technical specs. We buy them because they have great access to content.

    Apple goes to great lengths of uniforming everything within its ecosystem. Ironically, that is why the App Store approval process is so hard. But once you get your application past that, it will normally benefit from the frictionless environment that has been established.

    Amazon

    The Kindle is no exception. Minutes from having unpacked the Kindle, you can start to download books directly to your device. Again, data flows almost without friction. The Kindle makes it possible to view the content, but without access to a wealth of books it would be worthless.

    Service Ecosystems


    37 Signal is a great example of a service ecosystem. By allowing others to develop third-party solutions through making an API available, they have basically strengthened their offering. For companies developing for 37 Signals digital ecosystem, it is a great way to gain access to the trust factor. Can you think of other companies digital ecosystems that are worth developing for to take advantage of the trust they have established?

    Social Ecosystems:

    Most of these ecosystems are well known, so I won’t spend too much time explaining them.

    Facebook
    Obviously a digital ecosystem that allows data to flow freely between friends.

    Twitter
    In fact, Twitter is almost nothing but a digital ecosystem mass-distributing a uniform 140 characters data unit. But that is its strength. It’s a very uniform format, allowing the data to flow freely and be read by almost any type of interpreter you can imagine. It’s just text but this text represents value.

    Other examples would be Flickr, Steepster, Gmail, Buzz, 4Square, WOW, EVE Online, CyWorld etc. The digital space is filled with these social networks and they all have the same metrics that define them: uniformity, scalability and frictionless flow across the network allowing trusted interpreters to interact with the data and extract value from it.

    The future of digital ecosystems

    If you have followed me this far, let me offer you a final observation.

    The next big battle is going to be a battle between digital ecosystems; not gadgets, not products and not services.

    The most important weapon is going to be the WMCs: Weapons of Mass Connection, a.k.a. the APIs.

    These APIs will make it possible for different organizations to have data flow freely between them. Allow for anyone with the right idea to leverage on others’ success without taking anything away from them. On the contrary, the more trusted interpreters you can give access to the data flow, the more robust the digital ecosystem will be.

    Just ask Zynga about that. Or what about Tweetdeck, Topsy or Seesmic? And what about eBay and the thousands of people building small shops on top? When you boil it all down, they are digital ecosystems that allow you to tap into the flow of data by using the APIs they have made available and are dependent on.

    The more who join, the more who find it attractive to develop for them; and the more that gets developed, the more attractive the ecosystems are to join. This creates the same positive feedback loop that allowed the PlayStation to succeed.

    This is what it is all about: creating the strongest digital ecosystem by allowing data to flow freely between the nodes.

    In conclusion

    Understanding the power of digital ecosystems is going to be one of the major differential factors to any successful organization in the future. Either you should attempt to create your own data flow or you should tap into the existing API’s of the digital ecosystems you believe you can benefit from. Who know what kind of possibilities this will bring. But it going to be exiting to be a part of.
    Fri, Mar 12, 2010  Permanent link

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    Let’s start with what most people probably can agree.

    Information is accumulating online. The amount of available information is increasing at an exponential rate, some say it doubles every second year. This mean that any illusion of being able to stay up to date with everything that is going on is utopian and has been probably since Guttenberg invented the press.

    Most people know this, yet that is exactly exactly what we all seem to be doing.

    There is no shortage of content aggregators and aggregators of aggregators, daily developed to give us a better overview of all the sources of information we have subscribed to and found ourselves now depending on.

    This has resulted in an endless stream of articles, news, pictures, websites, products, updates, comments of updates and comments to these comments, being delivered to us second by second that each of us have to deal with.

    Constantly checking our feeds for new information, we seem to be hoping to discover something of interest, something that we can share with our networks, something that we can use, something that we can talk about, something that we can act on, something we didn’t know we didn’t know.

    It almost seems like an obsession and many critics of digital technology would argue that by consuming information this way we are running the danger of destroying social interaction between humans. One might even say that we have become slaves of the feed.

    It might be an obsession, but I think it’s an obsession that many critics will find themselves having to submit to sooner or later.

    The digital space is real but different.

    Information accumulating is not the only thing that progresses exponentially. Human social interaction also moves online at an accelerating pace, which mean that the consequences of our actions in the digital space exponentially affect what happens not only in the digital space but also in the physical space and vice versa.

    If you have doubt about this just ask the music, movie, telco, publishing, financial, news, media, photography, design, illustration, programming, consultancy, accounting and advertising industry. They have all felt the impact of this trend forcing them to re-think how they approach their businesses.

    In the digital space there is close to zero friction. The limitations of the physical space do not apply to digital and taking advantage of network effects has never been easier. Whether you are the sender, the receiver or the relayer, information that used to take days or even weeks to reach public mind, now only take hours or even minutes to spread to far corners of the planet. Information is becoming more and more transparent, bringing companies to their knees, unsettling governments and allowing for a new ways to interact globally and instantly.

    It’s not without problems though. With the increase in information and near zero friction emerges the issue of noise and redundancy.

    To get “signal” we need to plow through our noisy feeds to find the gold-nuggets that are of importance to us. Manual work by which our lacking ability to consume more than one feed item at a time becomes the bottleneck for how fast we can process and evaluate the information. Something gotta give.

    This is not the real time web you’ve been looking for

    It’s clear that we need information because we orient ourselves more and more through our online living. But it’s also quite obvious that our natural ability to process the very information that we need, don’t scale well.

    The paradox we find ourselves in is that on one hand we don’t know what we don’t know so it doesn’t really make sense to exclude any sources of information.

    On the other hand, much less than what we are forced to consume is really of relevance but we only find out which after we have consumed it.

    In a world where time is one of the most precious resources this doesn’t compute.

    We need quality instead of quantity in our feeds. We need a better ability to find the gold nuggets. But as some of you have probably already asked yourself, what is quality? How can we know what is truly of relevance? Thus we find ourselves in an unsettling scenario.



    Designing for the bottleneck

    In other words, the aggregators that we have are capable of harvesting almost as much information as we want from them, but we have to evaluate each piece of information, meaning that we have to design the aggregators around the bottleneck. Meaning us.

    There are attempts to solve this in order to create better quality data streams. Wordburst algorithms that look for when words or sentences suddenly start to peak within a short period of time, is one example. Popularity of a given feed item might be a different approach. But right now most of these algorithms don’t take the individual interest-space into account. Instead they look at global trends and as much as I believe that New Moon the movie is a great youth movie. I was kind of hoping for New Moon the moon when I clicked on the tag in the trend cloud.

    We find ourselves in a situation where there is no shortage of information in the digital space but only a very limited ability to extract relevant information thus making us depending on so much manual labor, one would be excused to think that slavery had in fact been re-inserted.

    Surely there must be a better way to deal with information. A way to put the laborious task of monitoring information in the hands of the machines we use, rather than on us.

    Social machines – our subconscious memory.

    One way to do this might be if our machines (computers, cell phones, PDA’s) started exchanging much more information to build tighter relationships with each other. The quality of the data in our feeds right now are depending on what sources we are aware of pointing them to. But so much valuable information is hidden in the exchange between our machines and I believe is one of the main reasons why we are still only designing for the bottleneck.

    If I have been visiting the MagmaBooks online shop then all sorts of relevant information could be retrieved. One of these things could be the a physical address if it existed so that the next time I am in London, their machine will inform my machine (location aware mobile) that they are just around the corner from where I am.

    In other words, while humans might operate at one level, actively engaging in whatever we might be interested in, our machines should be building machine-social relationships underneath based on these engagements. This way creating a more context aware ecosystem that creates indirect and potentially meaningful relationships without bothering us with having to process the information snippet could emerge.

    The way towards better quality in our feeds is not by cutting down on information but by increasing the amount of information. Not by adding yet another source for manual consumption, but by feeding the system, allowing for the exchange of information on a sub-human level machino-e-machino.

    That way we can finally start to build the kind of relationship that is necessary for what I am going to talk about next.

    Information as matter

    Most peoples know that what allows us to read well is not that we spell out each word, letter by letter, but that we read it either word by word, words by words or line by line. Some people are even capable of reading almost entire paragraphs.

    Perhaps what our machines should do is to read information snippets the same way we read words and sentences. Perhaps information can be gathered and represented not on an entry by entry basis but as a model of a digital reality based on accumulated information.

    Perhaps we need to design for projection rather than the bottleneck?



    This means that we must approach information as our brains approach matter. As both discrete objects as well as a whole. This way noise becomes part of the signal and instead of burdening us with having to relate to it on a one to one basis, it’s there to provide the background that meaning will arise from. It's not a feed we have to go through but part of our reality, overlayed on top of our physical reality.

    The sole purpose of information as matter will be to provide us with enough information to reach better projection. The more information we can gather, the higher the fidelity of the projection. The higher the fidelity of the projection the better our feeds become. That is if we can even call them feeds anymore.

    Perhaps this is what virtual reality really should mean. Not a 3D projection done by an architect with a specific composition in mind. But rather as a framework for representing information as matter in a landscape that don’t discriminate between noise and signal. When it really comes down to it, isn’t one mans noise is another mans signal?

    I am not sure what it really means to design for projection. I am aware that it might seem a little far out. I admit that I am not entirely clear on everything, but I know that the current way we approach information can't be the final thing there is to say about this matter. We need to free ourselves from the manual labor of watching our feeds, we can do so much more with our time. And to do that we need to turn the burden onto the very machines rather than the other way round.

    Perhaps starting to think about information differently will free us from the chains we have already been burdended with for too long.

    Anyone else out there thinking about this? Let me know what you think.
    Tue, Dec 15, 2009  Permanent link

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