Today's musings: Time Magazine, James Burke, and Social Networking
My roommate Ryan has a subscription to Time. Typically I will leaf through it, just to see what's deemed print-worthy these days. I gotta say, this issue is pretty abysmal. The cover story is about the worldwide spread of breast cancer. I am not attempting to mitigate the problem of breast cancer when I say this, but I greet the fact that breast cancer is becoming more common worldwide with a big fat "duh". Of course it's becoming more common worldwide, the average lifespan of humans is going up. Quite rapidly in some countries... any disease that is commonly associated with being older is going to be on the rise. I bet arthritis is on the rise worldwide. And Alzheimer's. And strokes and heart attacks and everything else that afflicts an aging populace. The article needed to be billed as how the world is dealing with the emerging problem of breast cancer, rather than just stating that it's on the rise.
Lately I've been blazing through James Burke's Connections TV Series. I watched the original 1978 Connections and despite the dated "modern" technology depicted in the show, his conclusions and predictions all echo extremely true, even 30 years later. I particularly liked when he said
We must be prepared to live in a world of increasingly fast change. The high paced rate of change of today (1978) will pale in comparison to that of the future. We are poised on the brink of a telecommunications explosion that will change the face of human interaction as we know it. [paraphrased]I find it funny that the bloggers/technologists/futurists of today are saying the same thing Burke said the year I was born. I'm now about halfway through Connections^2 which he did in 1992.
The other side effect of watching Connections is it makes me want to invent things. I look around me at all the items I use every day and think "someone invented that". I find myself looking at how to improve or combine stuff to form new things more often now. I haven't come up with anything amazing, but if I manage to keep this mindset indefinitely, sooner or later something's bound to spring to mind. My immediate thoughts focused on how to improve bicycle brakes, as they are of particular concern to me on a daily basis. The biggest flaw with them, to my thinking, is that they are friction based, and wear out by their very nature. I feel like there should be a way to use a piston and pressure to slow/stop a wheel from spinning, but I don't have a clear mental picture of how to implement it. I think I may need access to some high-tech legos or an erector set or something. Where's a Star Trek replicator when you need one?
Somewhat related to the Time magazine bit, the very back of this week's issue had an opinion piece on social networking. A hot topic of late, since it's still relatively new. Facebook represents the best of the social networking sites, in my opinion, and even so, I find myself growing more irritated by it with every passing day. It's far better than Friendster or MySpace or whatever other smaller operations there are out in the web-o-tubes, but all the same, it's irritating.
Why is it irritating? Because it forces me to look at it to get even the most basic information. I've said this before, and I'll say it again -- the best technologies are the ones that blend seamlessly and enhance existing technologies. Software that blends into the operating system to give it new functionality without looking like a separate program, being my favorite example. Social Networking sites will force you to look at them to get even the most basic information, like a personal message from your friend. (LJ seems to be an exception to this, as they will actually email you the comment itself, rather than merely a link or notification that you have a comment. Though it's debatable if LJ even qualifies as a SocNet site at all.) It is very annoying to get an email that says I need to click a link, log in, and then read the actual message my friend sent me. That's the antithesis of progressive technology.
Relatedly, the hot new thing in Social-Networking-Land seems to be Facebook Apps. The clever folks at Facebook went out of their way to make it easy to integrate web-based applications into FB. Which brings me to a story...
Once upon a time, in the days before the web was really much of anything, there was a Bulletin Board System called PCMM. I spent vast amounts of time on PCMM because it was a multi-line BBS. There was a chat room, and I hung out in that chat room for many many hours a day. Because I was a nerd. It improved my typing speed considerably, and also lead to meeting quite a lot of friends (in real life too! not just online!). The chatroom, much like IRC, had "actions" one could do via shortcut commands. Typing in something like "/hug Sarah" would result in something like *Al gives Sarah a BIG HUG*. The system had maybe half a dozen pre-defined actions built-in, and it was fine.
Then one day the SysOp of PCMM saw fit to grant me the power to create pre-defined actions. And oh boy did I create them. I probably expanded from that original six to a hundred or more. Bright colorful blinking things in all colors of the rainbow covering everything from a whack on the head to pinching someone's bum. Then one day I sat back and looked at my creations in all their glory. The chatroom log was predefined actions as far back as my screen buffer would scroll. It was revolting. I had killed conversation. No one was talking, they were all just playing with the actions shortcuts. I promptly deleted nearly all the actions I had created over the previous few months. I was met with anger from a large portion of the users, but I didn't care. I'd rather have them actually communicating in their own words than just watch them bop, poke, hide, pinch, punch, run, sit, sing, or whatever other stupid virtual-actions I'd come up with. I learned my lesson.
I see echoes of that lesson in two places these days:
1) Smileys in IM programs.
With regard to the smileys, I know a few people on the Yahoo IM network who are so dependent on the pre-defined smileys that it borders on impossible to communicate with them. I don't know what +8-D means on the official Y! IM client, nor do I care. I don't want an animated happy face wearing a hat (or whatever) in the middle of my conversations. Language is a beautiful thing, I hate to see it die because someone invented the smiley button.
2) Facebook Apps
It's really cool and Web 2.0 of them to make it so easy to integrate with FB, however a large portion of the Apps are useless annoyances. I'm lookin' at YOU Zombies/Vampires/Werewolves/Fruit Bats/Robots/whatever. They seem to fall under the same category as those "forward this to everyone you know and Bill Gates will give you all his money" emails. The only Apps I've found any use for are file-sharing related, or... well... Scrabble. Feel free to point me towards any others which might actually prove useful.