Our sci-fi future: stuff we’re geeked about + book list

Photo by Chrys Wu

Photo by Chrys Wu

Today at the MIT/Knight Civic Media Conference, I led an unconference session called “Our sci-fi future, news in 20 years”. Chrys Wu was kind enough to transcribe the concepts we discussed and help me annotate the list with related works of science fiction. Here’s what we wrote down:

Influencing factors are in italics, related books and films are in bold:

All your data in the cloud


Instantaneous backstory (I want the machine to know what I know and only give me what’s news to me)
Diamond Age

Worldview mapping

Conversion tracking (like in advertising) for information, track the impact of the reporting

Virtual connections w/ physical stimuli

Implants for sensory input
Altered Carbon

Heads up displays
Mona Lisa Overdrive

Real-time maps of information spread

Millions of little flying cameras, ubiquitous surveillance
Counting Heads

Infinite bandwidth, infinite processing

Machine translation/transcription (babelfish)
Hitchhikers Guide

Computer Q&A

More ambient experiences (like the radio, not the radio)

Individually relevant metrics (Mint, Bedpost)

Gargoyles (permanently plugged in)
Snow Crash

The singularity (when human and machine become indistinguishable)
The Way of All Flesh
House of Suns

Info valet / personal information assistant
Counting Heads

The map of information consumption

Augmented Reality
Rainbows End

Pervasive advertising
Jennifer Government

Attention markets (trade your attention, certain people’s time worth more than others)
Crystal Express
Little Brother

Embodied news narratives

Authentication/authority systems
A Fire Upon the Deep

Other reads, unassociated with a particular topic listed above:
Maul, Tricia Sullivan
Summer Wars
Ghost in the Shell
Iron Sunrise
Marq’ssnan Cycle
The Information

Photo by Waldo Jaquith

Photo by Waldo Jaquith

Stock charts for everything else: Google Public Data

Google rolled out a simple little feature today: enter “unemployment rate wayne county” and they’ll offer you a chart. Click it, and you’ll see the unemployment rate since 1990, and be able to add other counties to compare. It ain’t much, but it’s neat.

Now, unemployment data *is* take-my-shirt-off-WOO-HOO-high-five thrilling, but this’ll get much more interesting if Google follows through (from the Official Google Blog):

The data we’re including in this first launch represents just a small fraction of all the interesting public data available on the web. There are statistics for prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers’ salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on. … we have been working on creating a new service that make lots of data instantly available for intuitive, visual exploration. Today’s launch is a first step in that direction.

Tidy snippets of civic information, linkable and comparable, from all aspects of public data — that’s one damn cool almanac! More like Everyblock than Wikipedia. Data, but easier. Fucking linkable!

Who’s gonna step up?

From this day forward, any news story about unemployment must link to the chart, just like business stories link to stock charts. Anything less is a disservice to readers. It’s zero-effort, free, informative, and damn neat. Why the hell not?

The future

The sci-fi geek in me sees this as just one more step towards Google’s lofty mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It’s coming: All the data, one gesture away, on my cornea-screen. Oh, hell yes.

Battlestar Galactica panel at the U.N. — Liveblogging tonight!

BSG is coming to the United Nations, and I’ll be there. Woot!

From the Chicago Tribune:

On March 17, there will be a “Battlestar” retrospective at the U.N. in New York and a panel discussion of how the show examined issues such as “human rights, children and armed conflict, terrorism, human rights and reconciliation and dialogue among civilizations and faith,” according to Sci Fi.

The “Battlestar” contingent on the panel will consist of executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, as well as stars Mary McDonnell (who plays president Laura Roslin on the show) and Edward James Olmos (Admiral William Adama).

UN representatives on the panel are Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of the New York office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Robert Orr, assistant secretary-general for policy planning, executive office of the Secretary-General.

The panel will be moderated by “Battlestar” fan Whoopi Goldberg.

Tune in at 7PM EDT for the play-by-play!

Battlestar Galactica panel at the U.N.

Open the viewer in a new window.

Feeds, tweets and APIs are the beginning. Will news orgs step up to augment reality?

In her TED talk, Unveiling the “Sixth Sense,” game-changing wearable tech, Pattie Maes demos a system that creates interactive visual layers over the real world. The actual implementation, a tiny projector tied to a wearable computer that watches your fingers for input (using colored marker caps to identify fingertips!) is cheap, but not something you’d likely want to wear to the store.

But imagine for a moment a similar system, one that detects more subtle gestures and does not physically project light onto the objects you’re manipulating. A device that annotates the real world and presents information about the person in front of you, the product you’re considering purchasing or the comparitive likelihood of catching a cab at this corner or the next block over.

Map for driving by eszter
Map for driving by eszter, based on MacGyver Tip: Heads up display with a reversed paper map from LifeHacker.

I’ve blogged about this before, but Maes’ talk reminded me how important this technology will be. It *will* happen, and although there’s much work left to do in the end user interface (Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge, and Counting Heads by David Marusek present brilliant visions of how they might work) the inputs to these systems are coming online today.

Feeds, tweets and APIs aren’t just for the web

Twitter, when paired with TweetDeck gives me an always-on, ambient awareness of events worldwide. Its like a tiny, quiet news radio, feeding me timely information on events I care about. When I’m at my desk, I can hear the Internet hum. Soon, that spatial restriction will be lifted.

I already use Amazon from my phone’s web browser when I’m shopping, but the APIs are there to build new, better interfaces, that, as the Maes’ demos in her talk, can port Amazon ratings and everything else into the real world.

The NYT’s and The Guardian’s new APIs are similarly useful, but present even richer information. Detailed, expert analysis of not just products, but news and events. (And surely Bittman’s recipe for Roast Chicken With Cumin, Honey and Orange would be handy to have on a heads-up display, at the grocery store, when cooking, and when you’re regaling friends with the elegant simplicity of roasting a whole bird.)

Who’s building the future?

Of the 1180 APIs cataloged at ProgrammableWeb, only 18 are categorized as “news”. If news orgs want to hang on to their last shred of credibility as the essential information providers of the last century, they’d best get on it.

APIs are the future of information, and the content creators who adopt them will augment our reality.

Froot loops, search addicits, and augmented reality

Quote of the day goes to David Coen: “I wish I could just “command-F” for C.T.C (Cinnamon Toast Crunch).”

Amen! My pinky finger twitches for the “/” key (old-school Firefox shortcut) all the time: when I’m scanning ingredients, reading a news story, and finding my location on a map.

After a taste of what the web can do, I’m hooked. I need it all the time.

cereal aisle, by Ben McLeod
cereal aisle, by Ben McLeod

More from Señor Coen:

If you wanted to know what happened in the world you either turned on the TV or checked the headlines in your morning newspaper. Google has them beat. It’s too late to try and become the aisle sign (the first thing people go to). But there is still room to become the helpful employee roaming the aisle. That’s where news organizations can still make their mark.

So, paper is out, and journalists will become be the online guides. Boing Boing does this remarkably well. They post the stories that matter to me, and a whole lot of people like me. (Who knew copyleft, unicorns, and cryptozoology could command such an audience?)

But we’re still trapped in our computers

Find as you type makes the web livable. But off-screen search, now that would make reality livable. Epiphany, the just-barely-science-fiction augmented reality device from Vernor Vinge’s excellent book Rainbows End, gives the wearer queryable visual (and haptic) overlays of the real world:

If you override the defaults you can see in any direction you want. You can qualify default requests — like to make a query about something in an overlay. You can blend video from multiple viewpoints so you can ‘be’ where there is no physical viewpoint. That’s called ghosting. If you’re really slick, you can run simulations in real time and use the results as physical advice. That’s how the Radners do so well in baseball.

This is the sort of stuff journalists need to be geeked about. If we’re to be the sensemakers, as David’s post implies, we can’t let ourselves get stuck in the narrative tar pits.

We must create new ways to make sense of the world.

(I’ll happily host the first meeting of the sci-fi for journalists book club. Who’s bringing the chips?)