The Unusual Evolution of the Internet

The Internet we have today evolved out of improbability. It shouldn’t have happened like it did. It evolved as a wide-open network forged by starry-eyed academics and geeks who really believed it might make the world better. It wasn’t supposed to win against walled gardens like Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL — but it did. If you rolled back the clock, knowing what we know now, you could be sure it would never play out the same way again.

To use the same analogy that Eric Raymond did in his now-famous essay on the development of Linux, these were people who believed in bazaars rather than cathedrals. The internet was cobbled together to scratch an intellectual and ethical itch, rather than a financial one.

But today, as this essay in The Atlantic by Jonathan Zittrain warns us, the core of the internet is rotting. Because it was built by everyone and no one, all the superstructure that was assembled on top of that core is teetering. Things work, until they don’t: “The internet was a recipe for mortar, with an invitation for anyone, and everyone, to bring their own bricks.”

The problem is, it’s no one’s job to make sure those bricks stay in place.

Zittrain talks about the holes in humanity’s store of knowledge. But there’s another thing about this evolution that is either maddening or magical, depending on your perspective: It was never built with a business case in mind.

Eventually, commerce pipes were retrofitted into the whole glorious mess, and billions managed to be made. Google alone has managed to pull over a trillion dollars in revenue in less than 20 years by becoming the de facto index to the world’s most haphazard library of digital stuff. Amazon went one better, using the Internet to reinvent humanity’s marketplace and pulling in $2 trillion in revenue along the way.

But despite all this massive monetization, the benefactors still at least had to pay lip service to that original intent: the naïve belief that technology could make us better, and  that it didn’t just have to be about money.

Even Google, which is on its way to posting $200 billion in revenue, making it the fifth biggest media company in the world (after Netflix, Disney, Comcast, and AT&T), stumbled on its way to making a buck. Perhaps it’s because its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, didn’t trust advertising. In their original academic paper, they said that “advertising-funded search engines will inherently be biased toward the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers.”  Of course they ultimately ended up giving in to the dark side of advertising. But I watched the Google user experience closely from 2003 to 2011, and that dedication to the user was always part of a delicate balancing act that was generally successful.

But that innocence of the original Internet is almost gone, as I noted in a recent post. And there are those who want to make sure that the next thing — whatever it is — is built on a framework that has monetization built in. It’s why Mark Zuckerberg is feverishly hoping that his company can build the foundations of the Metaverse. It’s why Google is trying to assemble the pipes and struts that build the new web. Those things would be completely free of the moral — albeit naïve — constraints that still linger in the original model. In the new one, there would only be one goal: making sure shareholders are happy.

It’s also natural that many of those future monetization models will likely embrace advertising, which is, as I’ve said before, the path of least resistance to profitability.

We should pay attention to this. The very fact that the Internet’s original evolution was as improbable and profit-free as it was puts us in a unique position today. What would it look like if things had turned out differently, and the internet had been profit-driven from day one? I suspect it might have been better-maintained but a lot less magical, at least in its earliest iterations.

Whatever that new thing is will form a significant part of our reality. It will be even more foundational and necessary to us than the current internet. We won’t be able to live without it. For that reason, we should worry about the motives that may lie behind whatever “it” will be.

Adrift in the Metaverse

Humans are nothing if not chasers of bright, shiny objects. Our attention is always focused beyond the here and now. That is especially true when here and now is a bit of a dumpster fire.

The ultrarich know that this is part of the human psyche, and they are doubling down their bets on it. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are betting on space. But others — including Mark Zuckerberg — are betting on something called the metaverse.

Just this past summer, Zuck told his employees about his master plan for Facebook:

“Our overarching goal across all of (our) initiatives is to help bring the metaverse to life.”

So what exactly is the metaverse? According to Wikipedia, it is

“a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.”

The metaverse is a world of our own making, which exists in the dimensions of a digital reality. There we imagine we can fix what we screwed up in the maddeningly unpredictable real world. It is the ultimate in bright, shiny objects.

Science fiction and the entertainment industry have been toying with the idea of the metaverse for some time now. The term itself comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash.” It has been given the Hollywood treatment numerous times, notably in “The Matrix” and “Ready Player One.” But Silicon Valley venture capitalists are rushing to make fiction into fact.

You can’t really blame us for throwing in the towel on the world we have systematically wrecked. There are few glimmers of hope out there in the real world. What we have wrought is painful to contemplate. So we are doing what we’ve always done, reach for what we want rather than fix what we have. Take the Reporters Without Borders Uncensored Library, for example.

There are many places in the real world where journalism is censored, like Russia, the Middle East, Vietnam and China. But in the metaverse, there is the option of leapfrogging over all the political hurdles we stumble over in the real world. So Reporters without Borders and two German creative agencies built a meta library in the meta world of Minecraft. Here, censored articles are made into virtual books, accessible to all who want to check them out.

It’s hard to find fault with this. Censorship is a tool of oppression. Here, a virtual world offered an inviting loophole to circumvent it. The metaverse came to the rescue. What is the problem with that?

The biggest risk is this: We weren’t built for the metaverse. We can probably adapt to it, somewhat, but everything that makes us tick has evolved in a flesh and blood world, and — to quote a line from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

It’s fair to say that right now the metaverse is a novelty. Most of your neighbors, friends and family have never heard of it. But odds are it will become our life. In a 2019 article called “Welcome to the Mirror World” in Wired, Kevin Kelley explained, “we are building a 1-to-1 map of almost unimaginable scope. When it’s complete, our physical reality will merge with the digital universe.”

In a Forbes article, futurist Cathy Hackl gives us an example of what this merger might look like:

“Imagine walking down the street. Suddenly, you think of a product you need. Immediately next to you, a vending machine appears, filled with the product and variations you were thinking of. You stop, pick an item from the vending machine, it’s shipped to your house, and then continue on your way.”

That sounds benign — even helpful. But if we’ve learned one thing it’s this: When we try to merge technology with human behavior, there are always unintended consequences that arise. And when we’re talking about the metaverse, those consequences will likely be massive.

It is hubristic in the extreme to imagine we can engineer a world that will be a better match for our evolved humanware mechanics than the world we actually evolved within. It’s sheer arrogance to imagine we can build that world, and also arrogant to imagine that we can thrive within it.

We have a bright, shiny bias built into us that will likely lead us to ignore the crumbling edifice of our reality. German futurist Gerd Leonhard, for one, warns us about an impending collision between technology and humanity:

“Technology is not what we seek but how we seek: the tools should not become the purpose. Yet increasingly, technology is leading us to ‘forget ourselves.’”

Imagine a Pandemic without Technology

As the writer of a weekly post that tends to look at the intersection between human behavior and technology, the past 18 months have been interesting – and by interesting, I mean a twisted ride through gut-wrenching change unlike anything I have ever seen before.

I can’t even narrow it down to 18 months. Before that, there was plenty more that was “unprecedented” – to berrypick a word from my post from a few weeks back. I have now been writing for MediaPost in one place or another for 17 years. My very first post was on August 19, 2004. That was 829 posts ago. If you add the additional posts I’ve done for my own blog – outofmygord.com – I’ve just ticked over 1,100 on my odometer.  That’s a lot of soul searching about technology. And the last several months have still been in a class by themselves.

Now, part of this might be where my own head is at. Believe it or not, I do sometimes try to write something positive. But as soon as my fingers hit the keyboard, things seem to spiral downwards. Every path I take seems to take me somewhere dark. There has been precious little that has sparked optimism in my soul.

Today, for example, prior to writing this, I took three passes at writing something else. Each quickly took a swerve towards impending doom. I’m getting very tired of this. I can only imagine how you feel, reading it.

So I finally decided to try a thought experiment. “What if,” I wondered, “we had gone through the past 17 months without the technology we take for granted? What if there was no Internet, no computers, no mobile devices? What if we had lived through the Pandemic with only the technology we had – say – a hundred years ago, during the global pandemic of the Spanish Flu starting in 1918? Perhaps the best way to determine the sum total contribution of technology is to do it by process of elimination.”

The Cons

Let’s get the negatives out of the way. First, you might say that technology enabled the flood of misinformation and conspiracy theorizing that has been so top-of-mind for us. Well, yes – and no.

Distrust in authority is nothing new. It’s always been there, at one end of a bell curve that spans the attitudes of our society. And nothing brings the outliers of society into global focus faster than a crisis that affects all of us.

There was public pushback against the very first vaccine ever invented; the smallpox vaccine. Now granted, the early method was to rub puss from a cowpox blister into a cut in your skin and hope for the best. But it worked. Smallpox is now a thing of the past.

And, if we are talking about pushback against public health measures, that’s nothing new either. Exactly the same thing happened during the 1918-1919 Pandemic. Here’s one eerily familiar excerpt from a journal article looking at the issue, “Public-gathering bans also exposed tensions about what constituted essential vs. unessential activities. Those forced to close their facilities complained about those allowed to stay open. For example, in New Orleans, municipal public health authorities closed churches but not stores, prompting a protest from one of the city’s Roman Catholic priests.”

What is different, thanks to technology, is that public resistance is so much more apparent than it’s ever been before. And that resistance is coming with faces and names we know attached. People are posting opinions on social media that they would probably never say to you in a face-to-face setting, especially if they knew you disagreed with them. Our public and private discourse is now held at arms-length by technology. Gone are all the moderating effects that come with sharing the same physical space.

The Pros

Try as I might, I couldn’t think of another “con” that technology has brought to the past 17 months. The “pro” list, however, is far too long to cover in this post, so I’ll just mention a few that come immediately to mind.

Let’s begin with the counterpoint to the before-mentioned “Con” – the misinformation factor. While misinformation was definitely spread over the past year and a half, so was reliable, factual information. And for those willing to pay attention to it, it enabled us to find out what we needed to in order to practice public health measures at a speed previously unimagined. Without technology, we would have been slower to act and – perhaps – fewer of us would have acted at all. At worst, in this case technology probably nets out to zero.

But technology also enabled the world to keep functioning, even if it was in a different form. Working from home would have been impossible without it. Commercial engines kept chugging along. Business meetings switched to online platforms. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, as of the writing of this, is over 20% higher than it was before the pandemic. In contrast, if you look at stock market performance over the 1918 – 1919 pandemic, the stock market was almost 32% lower at the end of the third wave as it was at the start of the first. Of course, there are other factors to consider, but I suspect we can thank technology for at least some of that.

It’s easy to point to the negatives that technology brings, but if you consider it as a whole, technology is overwhelmingly a blessing.

What was interesting to me in this thought experiment was how apparent it was that technology keeps the cogs of our society functioning more effectively, but if there is a price to be paid, it typically comes at the cost of our social bonds.

Picking Apart the Concept of Viral Videos

In case you’re wondering, the most popular video on YouTube is the toxic brain worm Baby Shark Dance. It has over 8.2 billion views.

And from that one example, we tend to measure everything that comes after.  Digital has screwed up our idea of what it means to go viral. We’re not happy unless we get into the hyper-inflated numbers typical of social media influencers. Maybe not Baby Shark numbers, but definitely in the millions.

But does that mean that something that doesn’t hit these numbers is a failure? An old stat I found said that over half of YouTube videos have less than 500 views. I couldn’t find a more recent tally, but I suspect that’s still true.

And, if it is, my immediate thought is that those videos must suck. They weren’t worth sharing. They didn’t have what it takes to go viral. They are forever stuck in the long, long tail of YouTube wannabes.

But is going viral all it’s cracked up to be?

Let’s do a little back-of-an-envelope comparison. A week and a half ago, I launched a video that has since gotten about 1,500 views. A few days ago, a YouTuber named MrBeast launched a video titled, “I Spent 50 Hours Buried Alive.” In less than 24 hours, it racked up over 30 million views. Compared to that, one might say my launch was a failure. But was it?  It depends on what your goals for a video are. And it also depends on the structure of social networks.

Social networks are built of nodes. Within the node, people are connected by strong ties. They have a lot in common. But nodes are often connected by weak ties. These bonds stretch across groups that have less in common. Understanding this structure is important in understanding how a video might spread through a network.

Depending on your video’s content, it may never move beyond one node. It may not have the characteristics necessary to get passed along the ties that connect separate nodes. This was something I explored many years ago when I looked at how rumors spread through social networks. In that post, I talked about a study by Frenzen and Nakamoto that looked at some of the variables required to make a rumor spread between nodes.

Some of the same dynamics hold true when we look at viral videos. If you’ve had less than 500 views, as apparently over 50% of YouTube videos do, chances are you got stuck in a node. But this might not be a bad thing. Sometimes going deep is better than going wide.

My video, for example, is definitely aimed at one particular audience, people of Italian descent in the region where I live. According to the latest government census, the total possible “target” for my video is probably less than 10,000 people. And, if this is the case, I’ve already reached 15% of my audience. That’s not a mind-blowing success record, but it’s a start.

My goal for the video was to ignite an interest in my audience to learn more about their own heritage. And it seems to be working. I’ve never seen more interest in people wanting to learn about their own ancestors in particular, or the story of Italians in the Okanagan region of British Columbia in general.

My goal was never to just get a like or even a share, although that would be nice. My goal was to move people enough to act. I wanted to go deep, not wide.

To go “deep,” you have to fully leverage those “strong ties.” What is the stuff those ties are made of? What is the common ground within the node? The things that make people watch all 13-and-a-half minutes of a video about Italian immigrants are the very same things that will keep it stuck within that particular node. As long as it stays there, it will be interesting and relevant. But it won’t jump across a weak tie, because there is no common ground to act as a launching pad.

If the goal is to go “wide” and set a network effect in motion, then you have to play to the lowest common denominator: those universal emotions that we all share, which can be ignited just long enough to capture a quick view and a social share. According to this post about how to go viral, they are: status, identity protection, being helpful, safety, order, novelty, validation and voyeurism.

Another way to think of it is this: Do you want your content to trigger “fast” thinking or “slow” thinking? Again, I use Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s cognitive analogy about how the brain works at two levels: fast and slow. If you want your content to “go wide,” you want to trigger the “fast” circuits of the brain. If you want your content to “go deep,” you’re looking to activate the “slow” circuits. It doesn’t mean that “deep” content can’t be emotionally charged. The opposite is often true. But these are emotions that require some cognitive focus and mindfulness, not a hair-trigger reaction. And, if you’re successful, that makes them all the more powerful. These are emotions that serve their inherent purpose. They move us to action.

I think this whole idea of going “viral” suffers from the same hyper-inflation of expectations that seems to affect everything that goes digital. We are naturally comparative and competitive animals, and the world that’s gone viral tends to focus us on quantity rather than quality. We can’t help looking at trending YouTube videos and hoping that our video will get launched into the social sharing stratosphere.

But that doesn’t mean a video that stays stuck with a few hundred views didn’t do its job. Maybe the reason the numbers are low is that the video is doing exactly what it was intended to do.

COVID And The Chasm Crossing

For most of us, it’s been a year living with the pandemic. I was curious what my topic was a year ago this week. It was talking about the brand crisis at a certain Mexican brewing giant when its flagship brand was suddenly and unceremoniously linked with a global pandemic. Of course, we didn’t know then just how “global” it would be back then.

Ahhh — the innocence of early 2020.

The past year will likely be an historic inflection point in many societal trend lines. We’re not sure at this point how things will change, but we’re pretty sure they will change. You can’t take what has essentially been a 12-month anomaly in everything we know as normal, plunk it down on every corner of the globe and expect everything just to bounce back to where it was.

If I could vault 10 years in the future and then look back at today, I suspect I would be talking about how our relationship with technology changed due to the pandemic. Yes, we’re all sick of Zoom. We long for the old days of actually seeing another face in the staff lunchroom. And we realize that bingeing “Emily in Paris” on Netflix comes up abysmally short of the actual experience of stepping in dog shit as we stroll along the Seine.

C’est la vie.

But that’s my point. For the past 12 months, these watered-down digital substitutes have been our lives. We were given no choice. And some of it hasn’t sucked. As I wrote last week, there are times when a digital connection may actually be preferable to a physical one.

There is now a whole generation of employees who are considering their work-life balance in the light of being able to work from home for at least part of the time. Meetings the world over are being reimagined, thanks to the attractive cost/benefit ratio of being able to attend virtually. And, for me, I may have permanently swapped riding my bike trainer in my basement for spin classes in the gym. It took me a while to get used to it, but now that I have, I think it will stick.

Getting people to try something new — especially when it’s technology — is a tricky process. There are a zillion places on the uphill slope of the adoption curve where we can get mired and give up. But, as I said, that hasn’t been an option for us in the past 12 months. We had to stick it out. And now that we have, we realize we like much of what we were forced to adopt. All we’re asking for is the freedom to pick and choose what we keep and what we toss away.

I suspect  many of us will be a lot more open to using technology now that we have experienced the tradeoffs it entails between effectiveness and efficiency. We will make more room in our lives for a purely utilitarian use of technology, stripped of the pros and cons of “bright shiny object” syndrome.

Technology typically gets trapped at both the dread and pseudo-religious devotion ends of the Everett Rogers Adoption Curve. Either you love it, or you hate it. Those who love it form the market that drives the development of our technology, leaving those who hate it further and further behind.

As such, the market for technology tends to skew to the “gee whiz” end of the market, catering to those who buy new technology just because it’s new and cool. This bias has embedded an acceptance of planned obsolescence that just seems to go hand-in-hand with the marketing of technology. 

My previous post about technology leaving seniors behind is an example of this. Even if seniors start out as early adopters, the perpetual chase of the bright shiny object that typifies the tech market can leave them behind.

But COVID-19 changed all that. It suddenly forced all of us toward the hump that lies in the middle of the adoption curve. It has left the world no choice but to cross the “chasm” that  Geoffrey Moore wrote about 30 years ago in his book “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers.” He explained that the chasm was between “visionaries (early adopters) and pragmatists (early majority),” according to Wikipedia.

This has some interesting market implications. After I wrote my post, a few readers reached out saying they were working on solutions that addressed the need of seniors to stay connected with a device that is easier for them to use and is not subject to the need for constant updating and relearning. Granted, neither of them was from Apple nor Google, but at least someone was thinking about it.

As the pandemic forced the practical market for technology to expand, bringing customers who had everyday needs for their technology, it created more market opportunities. Those opportunities create pockets of profit that allow for the development of tools for segments of the market that used to be ignored.

It remains to be seen if this market expansion continues after the world returns to a more physically based definition of normal. I suspect it will.

This market evolution may also open up new business model opportunities — where we’re actually willing to pay for online services and platforms that used to be propped up by selling advertising. This move alone would take technology a massive step forward in ethical terms. We wouldn’t have this weird moral dichotomy where marketers are grieving the loss of data (as fellow Media Insider Ted McConnell does in this post) because tech is finally stepping up and protecting our personal privacy.

Perhaps — I hope — the silver lining in the past year is that we will look at technology more as it should be: a tool that’s used to make our lives more fulfilling.

To Be There – Or Not To Be There

According to Eventbrite, hybrid events are the hottest thing for 2021. So I started thinking, what would that possibly look like, as a planner or a participant?

The interesting thing about hybrid events is that they force us to really think about how we experience things. What process do we go through when we let the outside world in? What do we lose if we do that virtually? What do we gain, if anything? And, more importantly, how do we connect with other people during those experiences?

These are questions we didn’t think much about even a year ago. But today, in a reality that’s trying to straddle both the physical and virtual worlds, they are highly relevant to how we’ll live our lives in the future.

The Italian Cooking Lesson

First, let’s try a little thought experiment.

In our town, the local Italian Club — in which both my wife and I are involved — offered cooking lessons before we were all locked down. Groups of eight to 12 people would get together with an exuberant Italian chef in a large commercial kitchen, and together they would make an authentic dish like gnocchi or ravioli. There was a little vino, a little Italian culture and a lot of laughter. These classes were a tremendous hit.

That all ended last March. But we hope to we start thinking about offering them again late in 2021 or 2022. And, if we do, would it make sense to offer them as a “hybrid” event, where you can participate in person or pick up a box of preselected ingredients and follow along in your own kitchen?

As an event organizer, this would be tempting. You can still charge the full price for physical attendance where you’re restricted to 12 people, but you could create an additional revenue stream by introducing a virtual option that could involve as many people as possible. Even at a lower registration fee, it would still dramatically increase revenue at a relatively small incremental cost. It would be “molto” profitable.

But now consider this as an attendee.Would you sign up for a virtual event like that? If you had no other option to experience it, maybe. But what if you could actually be there in person? Then what? Would you feel relegated to a second-class experience by being isolated in your own kitchen, without many of the sensory benefits that go along with the physical experience?

The Psychology of Zoom Fatigue

When I thought about our cooking lesson example, I was feeling less than enthused. And I wondered why.

It turns out that there’s some actual brain science behind my digital ennui. In an article in the Psychiatric Times, Jena Lee, MD, takes us on a “Neuropsychological Exploration of Zoom Fatigue.”

A decade ago, I was writing a lot about how we balance risk and reward. I believe that a lot of our behaviors can be explained by how we calculate the dynamic tension between those two things. It turns out that it may also be at the root of how we feel about virtual events. Dr. Lee explains,

“A core psychological component of fatigue is a rewards-costs trade-off that happens in our minds unconsciously. Basically, at every level of behavior, a trade-off is made between the likely rewards versus costs of engaging in a certain activity.”

Let’s take our Italian cooking class again. Let’s imagine we’re there in person. For our brain, this would hit all the right “reward” buttons that come with being physically “in the moment.” Subconsciously, our brains would reward us by releasing oxytocin and dopamine along with other “pleasure” neurochemicals that would make the experience highly enjoyable for us. The cost/reward calculation would be heavily weighted toward “reward.”

But that’s not the case with the virtual event. Yes, it might still be considered “rewarding,” but at an entirely different — and lesser — scale of the same “in-person” experience. In addition, we would have the additional costs of figuring out the technology required, logging into the lesson and trying to follow along. Our risk/reward calculator just might decide the tradeoffs required weren’t worth it.

Without me even knowing it, this was the calculation that was going on in my head that left me less than enthused.

 But there is a flip side to this.

Reducing the Risk Virtually

Last fall, a new study from Oracle in the U.K. was published with the headline, “82% of People Believe Robots Can Support Their Mental Health Better than Humans.”

Something about that just didn’t seem right to me. How could this be? Again, we had the choice between virtual and physical connection, and this time the odds were overwhelmingly in favor of the virtual option.

But when I thought about it in terms of risk and reward, it suddenly made sense. Talking about our own mental health is a high-risk activity. It’s sad to say, but opening up to your manager about job-related stress could get you a sympathetic ear, or it could get you fired. We are taking baby steps towards destigmatizing mental health issues, but we’re at the beginning of a very long journey.

In this case, the risk/reward calculation is flipped completely around. Virtual connections, which rely on limited bandwidth — and therefore limited vulnerability on our part — seem like a much lower risk alternative than pouring our hearts out in person. This is especially true if we can remain anonymous.

It’s All About Human Hardware

The idea of virtual/physical hybrids with expanded revenue streams will be very attractive to marketers and event organizers. There will be many jumping on this bandwagon. But, like all the new opportunities that technology brings us, it has to interface with a system that has been around for hundreds of thousands of years — otherwise known as our brain.

The Importance of Playing Make-Believe

One of my favourite sounds in the world is children playing. Although our children are well past that age, we have stayed in a neighbourhood where new families move in all the time. One of the things that has always amazed me is a child’s ability to make believe. I used to do this but I don’t any more. At least, I don’t do it the same way I used to.

Just take a minute to think about the term itself: make-believe. The very words connote the creation of an imaginary world that you and your playmates can share, even in that brief and fleeting moment. Out of the ether, you can create an ephemeral reality where you can play God. A few adults can still do that. George R.R. Martin pulled it off. J.K. Rowling did likewise. But for most of us, our days of make-believe are well behind us.

I worry about the state of play. I am concerned that rather than making believe themselves, children today are playing in the manufactured and highly commercialized imaginations of profit-hungry corporations. There is no making — there is only consuming. And that could have some serious consequences.

Although we don’t use imagination the way we once did, it is the foundation for the most importance cognitive tasks we do. It was Albert Einstein who said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

It is imagination that connects the dots, explores the “what-ifs” and peeks beyond the bounds of the known. It is what separates us from machines.

In that, Einstein presciently nailed the importance of imagination. Only here does the mysterious alchemy of the human mind somehow magically weave fully formed worlds out of nothingness and snippets of reality. We may not play princess anymore, but our ability to imagine underpins everything of substance that we think about.

The importance of playing make-believe is more than just cognition. Imagination is also essential to our ability to empathize. We need it to put ourselves in place of others. Our “theory of mind” is just another instance of the many facets of imagination.

This thing we take for granted has been linked to a massive range of essential cognitive developments. In addition to the above examples, pretending gives children a safe place to begin to define their own place in society. It helps them explore interpersonal relationships. It creates the framework for them to assimilate information from the world into their own representation of reality.

We are not the only animals that play when we’re young. It’s true for many mammals, and scientists have discovered it’s also essential in species as diverse as crocodiles, turtles, octopuses and even wasps.

For other species, though, it seems play is mainly intended to help come to terms with surviving in the physical world.  We’re alone in our need for elaborate play involving imagination and cognitive games.

With typical human hubris, we adults have been on a century-long mission to structure the act of play. In doing so, we have been imposing our own rules, frameworks and expectations on something we should be keeping as is. Much of the value of play comes from its very lack of structure. Playing isn’t as effective when it’s done under adult supervision. Kids have to be kids.

Play definitely loses much of its value when it becomes passive consumption of content imagined and presented by others through digital entertainment channels. Childhood is meant to give us a blank canvas to colour with our imagination.

As we grow, the real world encroaches on this canvas.  But the delivery of child-targeted content through technology is also shrinking the boundaries of our own imagination.

Still, despite corporate interests that run counter to playing in its purest sense, I suspect that children may be more resilient than I fear. After all, I can still hear the children playing next door. And their imaginations still awe and inspire me.

Less Tech = Fewer Regrets

In a tech ubiquitous world, I fear our reality is becoming more “tech” and less “world.”  But how do you fight that? Well, if you’re Kendall Marianacci – a recent college grad – you ditch your phone and move to Nepal. In that process she learned that, “paying attention to the life in front of you opens a new world.”

In a recent post, she reflected on lessons learned by truly getting off the grid:

“Not having any distractions of a phone and being immersed in this different world, I had to pay more attention to my surroundings. I took walks every day just to explore. I went out of my way to meet new people and ask them questions about their lives. When this became the norm, I realized I was living for one of the first times of my life. I was not in my own head distracted by where I was going and what I needed to do. I was just being. I was present and welcoming to the moment. I was compassionate and throwing myself into life with whoever was around me.”

It’s sad and a little shocking that we have to go to such extremes to realize how much of our world can be obscured by a little 5-inch screen. Where did tech that was supposed to make our lives better go off the rails? And was the derailment intentional?

“Absolutely,” says Jesse Weaver, a product designer. In a post on Medium.com, he lays out – in alarming terms – our tech dependency and the trade-off we’re agreeing to:

“The digital world, as we’ve designed it, is draining us. The products and services we use are like needy friends: desperate and demanding. Yet we can’t step away. We’re in a codependent relationship. Our products never seem to have enough, and we’re always willing to give a little more. They need our data, files, photos, posts, friends, cars, and houses. They need every second of our attention.

We’re willing to give these things to our digital products because the products themselves are so useful. Product designers are experts at delivering utility. “

But are they? Yes, there is utility here, but it’s wrapped in a thick layer of addiction. What product designers are really good at is fostering addiction by dangling a carrot of utility. And, as Weaver points out, we often mistake utility for empowerment,

“Empowerment means becoming more confident, especially in controlling our own lives and asserting our rights. That is not technology’s current paradigm. Quite often, our interactions with these useful products leave us feeling depressed, diminished, and frustrated.”

That’s not just Weaver’s opinion. A new study from HumaneTech.com backs it up with empirical evidence. They partnered with Moment, a screen time tracking app, “to ask how much screen time in apps left people feeling happy, and how much time left them in regret.”

According to 200,000 iPhone users, here are the apps that make people happiest:

  1. Calm
  2. Google Calendar
  3. Headspace
  4. Insight Timer
  5. The Weather
  6. MyFitnessPal
  7. Audible
  8. Waze
  9. Amazon Music
  10. Podcasts

That’s three meditative apps, three utilitarian apps, one fitness app, one entertainment app and two apps that help you broaden your intellectual horizons. If you are talking human empowerment – according to Weaver’s definition – you could do a lot worse than this round up.

But here were the apps that left their users with a feeling of regret:

  1. Grindr
  2. Candy Crush Saga
  3. Facebook
  4. WeChat
  5. Candy Crush
  6. Reddit
  7. Tweetbot
  8. Weibo
  9. Tinder
  10. Subway Surf

What is even more interesting is what the average time spent is for these apps. For the first group, the average daily usage was 9 minutes. For the regret group, the average daily time spent was 57 minutes! We feel better about apps that do their job, add something to our lives and then let us get on with living that life. What we hate are time sucks that may offer a kernel of functionality wrapped in an interface that ensnares us like a digital spider web.

This study comes from the Center for Humane Technology, headed by ex-Googler Tristan Harris. The goal of the Center is to encourage designers and developers to create apps that move “away from technology that extracts attention and erodes society, towards technology that protects our minds and replenishes society.”

That all sounds great, but what does it really mean for you and me and everybody else that hasn’t moved to Nepal? It all depends on what revenue model is driving development of these apps and platforms. If it is anything that depends on advertising – in any form – don’t count on any nobly intentioned shifts in design direction anytime soon. More likely, it will mean some half-hearted placations like Apple’s new Screen Time warning that pops up on your phone every Sunday, giving you the illusion of control over your behaviour.

Why an illusion? Because things like Apple’s Screen Time are great for our pre-frontal cortex, the intent driven part of our rational brain that puts our best intentions forward. They’re not so good for our Lizard brain, which subconsciously drives us to play Candy Crush and swipe our way through Tinder. And when it comes to addiction, the Lizard brain has been on a winning streak for most of the history of mankind. I don’t like our odds.

The developers escape hatch is always the same – they’re giving us control. It’s our own choice, and freedom of choice is always a good thing. But there is an unstated deception here. It’s the same lie that Mark Zuckerberg told last Wednesday when he laid out the privacy-focused future of Facebook. He’s putting us in control. But he’s not. What he’s doing is making us feel better about spending more time on Facebook.  And that’s exactly the problem. The less we worry about the time we spend on Facebook, the less we will think about it at all.  The less we think about it, the more time we will spend. And the more time we spend, the more we will regret it afterwards.

If that doesn’t seem like an addictive cycle, I’m not sure what does.

 

I’ll Take Reality with a Side of Augmentation, Please….

We don’t want to replace reality. We just want to nudge it a little.

At least, that seems to be the upshot of a new survey from the International law firm Perkins Coie. The firm asked start-up founders, tech execs, investors and consultants about their predictions for both Augmented (AR) and Virtual (VR) Reality. While Virtual Reality had a head start, the majority of those surveyed (67%) felt that AR would overtake VR in revenue within the next 3 years.

The reasons they gave were mainly focused on roadblocks in the technology itself: VR headsets were too bulky, the user experience was not smooth enough due to technical limitations, the cost of adopting VR was higher than AR and there was not enough content available in the VR universe.

I think there’s another reason. We actually like reality. We’re not looking to isolate ourselves from reality. We’re looking to enhance it.

Granted, if we are talking about adoption rates, there seems to be a lot more potential applications for Augmented Reality. Everything you do could stand a little augmentation. For example. you could probably do your job better if your own abilities were augmented with real time information. Pilots would be better at flying. Teachers would be better at teaching. Surgeons would be better at performing surgery. Mechanics would be better at fixing things.

You could also enjoy things more with a little augmentation. Looking for a restaurant would be easier. Taking a tour would be more informative. Attending a play or watching a movie could be candidates for a little augmented content. AR could even make your layover at an airport less interminable.

I think of VR as a novelty. The sheer nerdiness of it makes it a technology of limited appeal. As one developer quoted in the study says, “Not everyone is a gadget freak. The industry needs to appeal to those who aren’t.” AR has a clearly understood user benefit. We can all grasp a scenario where augmentation could make our lives better in some way. But it’s hard to understand how VR would have a real impact on our day to day lives. Its appeal seems to be constrained to entertainment, and even then, it’s entertainment aimed at a limited market.

The AR wave is advancing in some interesting directions. Google Glass has retreated from the consumer market and is currently concentrating on business and industrial application. The premise of Glass is to allow you to work smarter, access instant expertise and stay hands on. Bose is betting on a subset of AR, which it dubs Aural Augmentation. It believes sound is the best way to add content to our lives. And even Amazon has borrowed an idea from IKEA and stepped into the AR ring with Amazon AR View, where you can place items you’re considering buying in your home to see if they are a fit before you buy.

One big player that is still betting heavily on VR is Facebook, with its Oculus headset. This is not surprising, given that Mark Zuckerberg is the quintessential geek and seems intent on manufacturing our own social reality for us. In a demonstration a year ago, Zuckerberg struck all kinds of tone deaf clunkers when he and Facebook social VR chief Rachel Franklin took on cartoon personas to take a VR tour of devastated Puerto Rico. The juxtaposition could only be described as weird..a scene of human misery that was all too real visited by a cartoon Zuckerberg. At one point, he enthused “It feels like we’re really here in Puerto Rico.”

zuckerbergvrYou weren’t Mark. You were safely in Facebook headquarters Menlo Park, California –  wearing a headset that made you look like a dork. That was the reality.

Bose Planning to Add a Soundtrack to Our World

Bose is placing a big bet on AR…

Or more correctly: AAR.

When we think of AR (Augmented Reality) we tend to think of digital data superimposed on our field of vision. But Bose is sticking to their wheelhouse and bringing audio to our augmented world – hence AAR – Audio Augmented Reality.

For me – who started my career as a radio copywriter and producer – it’s an intriguing idea. And it just might be a perfect match for how our senses parse the world around us.

Sound tends to be underappreciated when we think about how we experience the world. But it packs a hell of an emotional wallop. Theme park designers have known this for years. They call it underscoring. That’s the music that you hear when you walk down Main Street USA in Disneyland (which could be the Desecration Rag by Felix Arndt), or visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal (perhaps Hedwig’s Theme by John Williams). You might not even be aware of it. But it bubbles just below the level of consciousness, wiring itself directly to your emotional hot buttons. Theme parks would be much less appealing without a sound track. The same is true for the world in general

Cognitively, we process sound entirely differently than we process sights. Our primary sensory portal is through our eyes and because of this, it tends to dominate our attentional focus. This means the brain has limited bandwidth to process conflicting visual stimuli. If we layer additional information over our view of the world, as most AR does, we force the brain to make a context switch. Even with a heads up display, the brain has to switch between the two. We can’t concentrate on both at the same time.

But our brains can handle the job of combining sight and sound very nicely. It’s what we evolved to do. We automatically synthesize the two. Unlike visual information which must borrow attention from something else, sight and sound is not a zero sum game.

Bose made their announcement at SXSW, but I first became aware of the plan just last week. And I became aware because Bose had bought out Detour, a start up based in San Francisco that produced audio immersive walking tours. I was using the Detour platform to create audio tours that could be done on bike. At the end of February, I received an email abruptly announcing that access to the Detour platform would end on the very next day. I’ve been around the high tech biz long enough to know that there was more to this than just a simple discontinuation of the platform. There was another shoe that was yet to drop.

Last week, it dropped. The reason for the abrupt end was that Detour had been purchased by Bose.

Although Detour never gained the traction that I’m sure founder Andrew Mason (who was also the founder of GroupOn) hoped for, the tours were exceptionally well produced. I had the opportunity to take several of them while in San Francisco. It was my first real experience with augmented audio reality. I felt like I was walking through a documentary. At no time did I feel my attention was torn. For the most part, my phone stayed in my pocket. It was damned near seamless.

Regular readers of mine will know that I’m more than a little apprehensive about the whole area of Virtual and Augmented Reality. But I have to admit, Bose’s approach sounds pretty good so far.