Posts tagged ‘technology’

Our desire for backchannels

September 1st, 2006

Recently I saw Snakes on a Plane with Felix Petersen. After the movie, Felix soon exclaimed: “We should have had a backchannel!”. That got me thinking.

Backchannels everywhere these days. But what is a backchannel? It’s a kind of parallel discussion, a collectively shaped comment on some ongoing conversation. An alternative channel, often with a different conversational modus.

We see a world that is becoming increasingly hypermediated. The idea of immediacy often attributed to the conversation seems to be fading. The notion of sequentiality is being replaced by a sort of multi-modal parallelity. In other words, the backchannel is going mainstream. Soon it will be everywhere, in all conversational contexts imaginable.

Why? Because there’s a demand. In fact, isn’t there for every conversation a hidden, mirroring, and even antagonistic conversation? For every shared experience a colorful array of potential comments on that experience? For every explicated thought, aren’t there dozens of potential thoughts flocking around it, some countering it, some intensifying it?

Such is the nature of the conversation, but it is only lately that parallel, tacit reflections have become incarnated in mediums where they can evolve and flourish. And so we see chats, feeds, collaboratively edited documents, and even entire parallel worlds turning into shadow conversations appearing and vanishing in tight interplay with a multitude of ongoing discourses.

Sometimes the backchannel even takes center stage–reducing the speaker, or the movie, or the experience in question to a mere object of intense discussion. I myself saw Robert Scoble turn into a de-throned moderator for a stormy backchannel during his talk at Reboot last year.
Similarly, instant messaging is often just a conversational backdrop for what we do in front of our computers–ever heard of continuous partial attention? What used to be intense one-on-one conversations are now ongoing background mumblings in our hypermediated daily lifes.

The backchannel is here to stay. With time it will become ubiquitous. It will enter our most private and intimate spaces. And we will wonder how we ever could live without it.

12% Powerbooks

July 22nd, 2006

It’s just not a feeling anymore, hard numbers show that Apple is indeed gaining ground with their portables. Now they’re at 12%. I’m still confused after 2-3 years of waiting for the MacBook Nano (or MacBook Thin or whatever you want to call it). I never use my DVD drive, I don’t need 13.3” (12” was nicer, but it flew down the stairs one day).
So again, here’s my message to Apple: Look around you and realize that you have to make a portable computer that weighs in under a kilo. NOW!

Apple “Switching”

June 6th, 2005

All bad things aside, I’ll finally be able to run Virtual PC at full speed — yeeehooo! Wonder how long it’ll take my Intel Mac to be able to dual boot Longhorn+OS X?! Woah, this surely is a change in religion!

Envisioned BlackBox, got iShuffle

March 31st, 2005

Almost exactly two years ago, I was predicting that Apple would do a palmtop computer in 2005. Sadly, I was wrong–and here I am in 2005 with an iPod Shuffle in my pocket. It’s a bare bones mp3 player, nothing more, almost less. But, aside from not being a fully featured 3G handset+PDA+media station, it does what it’s supposed to do very well. There are only three annoying things about it:

  • Updates through iTunes–an application that I otherwise love–are sluggish. I know that updating other iPods isn’t sluggish at all, so probably it has to do with the fact that the shuffle uses a flash memory. But it’s annoying nevertheless since it keeps you from updating it. Apple should figure out a way to multi-thread things.
  • The headphones that come with it have a plug that sticks straight out about 10-15 mm–that’s way to much, and I’m wondering how they can have missed out on this. It’s bound to break the connector sooner or later (I was already close). Luckily I can use my beloved HD-25 with it (with a custom made plug).
  • There is no way of fixing the headphone cord to the lanyard the way you can with e.g. the Jens of Sweden players, which is also unbelievable. With Apple being against cords, I can’t see why they messed this up.

iPod Shuffle etc.

That said, it’s still a neat piece of hardware. Now it’s up to Apple to save 2005 by releasing a subnotebook. I imagine a plain 12” book, no CD/DVD, half the weight of the current 12”. All the other players have one, and Apple would be stupid to ignore such a large segment of businesspeople and students, who would want a device like this from it. Hell, even I, a mac user for 20 years, have cravings for the Vaio 505 extreme

Trust me!

October 22nd, 2003

I’m on the boat from Helsinki to Stockholm, eating breakfast. Just returned from a weekend in Helsinki where I, among other things, attended the Aula Exposure book release brunch. The book, which I wrote a piece for, has come out both interesting and beautiful. Shoutouts to Alex, Jyri, Marko and the book designers for such great work!

I spent last night in the cheapest possible cabin with a drunk trucker from Russia and two gays from France, also drunk. Scary — the minute these strangers entered the cabin, I knew I would sort of have to watch out for them all night. I tried being rational and just shut my eyes and sleep, but my gut feeling was constantly saying “You don’t trust these guys”. And so it happened that my relentless thoughts once more returned to the subject of trust and computers.

Kids playing
Kids lost in car game on the boat

To me, it’s obvious that one of the trickiest issues in interface design today is an issue of trust. The average user suffers from lack of trust in computers and the softwares running on them — and this, in a sense, keeps us from designing smarter programs and interfaces.
By “smarter” I mean programs that can drastically reduce human workload by conducting some kind of behind-the-scenes reasoning — I’m talking about ways of improving the way the computers work with us rather than the way we work with computers (but clearly the former imposes radical changes to the latter).

Of course, this widespread lack of trust has many reasons. A big one is that computers still are dumb and buggy. Another one would be that we’ve seen so many “smart” UIs and agents who turned out to be stupid and annoying. Remember the “smart menus” from Windows ME? You were desperately fumbling after the disable button after having experienced this numskulled something constantly deciding for you which menu items were important and which were not.

Yet, we are inevitably moving into a future where we will be forced to put a lot of trust in computers in order to get by. We are seeing evidence of this already today.
For instance, I trust my mail client to take care of junk mail for me. I have just a vague concept of how it’s doing it — probably it’s by using a combination of boolean logic and neural nets — but I’ve learned to trust it nevertheless.
In essence, what I trust is something — call it an agent or entity — capable of some kind of reasoning. Yes, I know that real people programmed it’s behavior at some point, and that it’s actually them I trust and that it’s actually them I ought to blame if something goes wrong.

But, in everyday life that’s not what happens — in everyday life you will blame the damn program when it filters out the wrong mail.
I mean, imagine calling up your secretary’s mom and complain just because your secretary happens to throw important stuff in the bin! And even if you do complain, that won’t get rid of your secretary.
Besides, it probably turns out the programmers stole the AI code from some obscure open source project anyway. And the guy who originally wrote that code died.

Silicon Slaves

I have, and millions of Hotmail users have, without even being fully conscious about the implications, engaged ourselves in a trust relation with a computer program, at least on the level of our everyday life.
In fact, the moment we make the computer do work of this kind for us — reasoning if you will — we simply have to trust it, or at least relate to it as if we trusted it.
Annoyingly enough, since it’s just a computer, we can’t blame it when it does wrong, and this gives rise to a lot of frustration. Actually it makes people furious.
On the one hand we have this entity which happily overtakes hours of our work without a complaint, on the other hand this work is done exclusively on the premise that we’re not permitted to complain if things go wrong. And we won’t get an excuse, nor a promise that the same thing won’t happen again. Actually we can be quite sure it will.

And yet, we humans seem to be able to establish a sort of pseudo trust in all kinds of devices and processes – and the need for an ability like this seems to grow by the day. Just think about everything from games to search engines to smart book recommendations to the segway to electronic pets (for your kids) to modern jetfighters to autonomous trains. Everywhere things are starting to use all kinds of different models for autonomous reasoning, and we just have to sort of go with the flow and trust these devices, even though we don’t know how they think and even though we can’t expect the devices themselves to explain this to us.

Where will this take us? I’d still say someplace good. I think this development is necessary, inevitable and that it eventually will bring harmony, possibly virtuosity or even a divine feeling of greater symbiosis, to computer use.
But we have a long way to go, and before we get there — much much more frustration.