Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Which I Repeat Buzzwords to Attract Readers

Being as how I don't want to scare off any potential viewers with too much dense phenomenology, I'm going to tone down my ranting in this post and just do some idle speculation on current technological trends. Specifically, I want to look at a potential future for media as we begin to merge with our technology.

One of the questions often asked of technologists and futurists is what we're going to do with ourselves in the future, especially when so much information can be gathered and presently instantly and freely. Many believe that our technological companions, which are increasingly powerful and convenient, will soon replace print media. There will be no need for paper books, newspapers, or magazines if all the content we want is readable on a lightweight, long lasting computer tablet.

I believe this future is still a while off due to the lack of color e-ink, the premium you pay for your portable devices, the hassle of navigating a truncated computer interface just to read, and the irreproducible feel of an actual book. While the last one is most important to me and other passionate book readers, future generations will have never known this and won't miss it. I admit that in a few decades, when books are no more, I will seem quite old-fashioned still lugging around my library.

But what will we find to replace the immersing comfort of books? To answer that, I must turn to buzzwords. The burgeoning internet is rife with dreams of augmented reality, crowdsourcing, and the semantic web, with each meme just waiting for the chance to supplant whatever dying paradigm came before it. Implementing these wild ideas is easier said than done, and there has been plenty of criticism on that front. But as I said in an earlier post, the real problem may be that we lack a sophisticated enough means to interpret the preponderance of information available to us. When videos, comments, and advertisements annotate nearly everything around us from novels to people to buildings, will we be able to handle that information, to synthesize it properly, to rely on it?

Jamais Cascio suggests that we may find ourselves in a sort of participatory panopticon where voluntary transparency will breed trust. But, as can be seen from the scandals of Facebooking teachers, traditionally private information made public tends to be greatly exaggerated and taken out of context. Think of how much nastier and more pervasive political muckraking would become if politicians' lives were open to such scrutiny. Rather than a collective stream of consciousness thrust onto the web without review, what we need is a more intelligent way of aggregating fiction and nonfiction that can be presented to us in a unified, articulated manner.

And I believe the best place to look for such a concept is the simple web crawler. Web crawlers, automated news services, and feed readers are the precursors to intelligent agents that will, in the future, organize the world for us. While the current breed of intelligent agents are in their infancy and possess no recognizable creativity, artificially intelligent software will eventually be able to read and understand natural knowledge and build original pieces of work. We have long had software that can generate music and art, and we are now beginning to create programs that can construct complete narratives of real events.

The next step for a new immersing content medium is software that can create linear movies constructed from photos, uploaded cell phone videos, and archived footage. This can be combined with generated music that matches the theme or mood of the story being told as well as your preferences. And each element in a constructed video can have contextual information connected to objects and people with original descriptions culled from twitter updates, blog posts, or Wikipedia entries.

Rather than subscribing to a dozen different blogs and news sites that are chock full of misinformation and bias and then attempting to sift through that data to find the gem of information you were actually looking for, an artificial system such as this would have the ability to instantaneously compare information from hundreds of different sources in order to identify and collect verifiable facts that it could present in a novel format best suited to your learning style.

A thorough piece of software would be capable of tracking down a fact's original source to prevent you from following link after link until eventually ending up back at the first link. By identifying where data comes from, software could focus on finding data related to the original source that added to the story it was trying to build. Intelligent fact-finding, if it became the norm, would stop the spread of rumors before they gained too much truthiness. By not allowing non-primary sources to add information to a story, these agents would be arbiters of objective information.

If sufficiently advanced, these programs might very well revolutionize news media, but that's hardly all there is to creative expression. In order to to create the next generation of thoroughly fulfilling fiction, software would have to be all-encompassing and interactive. Programs could be designed to create role-playing mysteries, geographically-aware chases and hunts, or passive narratives in which the user observes an artificial story integrated into the user's environment.

Imagine a future MMORPG in which, through a heads-up display, your environment was transformed into a fantasy wilderness replete with digitally created monsters. Other players in the area would appear before you in the guise of their character. Games that rely very heavily on imagination and internet support already exist, but with fully integrated displays that overlaid the real world, such games would be immersing and real in a way that no others before have been.

In the other direction, an artificially intelligent software agent with the template for a detective story could build up a realistic plot using geotagged data and objects. It would direct you to travel from one point to the next in the city you live in, and then advance the plot by enhancing real world structures and activities with digitally inserted characters or scenarios. All the while mood-appropriate music, pulled from online libraries or composed on the spot, would play in the background.

These programs, lacking the insight human authors can impart, would not be able to replace the novels and essays we have today until AIs reach human-level intelligence. But the stories they fabricate would be original and entertaining, and the freedom to literally move into and out of the setting and characters of a story you're experiencing would be unlike anything that exists today. If these programs are rich enough and complex enough, the chaos of a real world environment and real world users will create emergent themes and ideas that might not ever come to fruition if directed solely by human minds. To me, the prospect of discovering a new world hidden within our own world is very intriguing indeed.

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