Selfies: Your Face In Networked Space

Between us sits the grand mediator. We are increasingly talking with one another, maintaining and initiating friendships, even relationships through the grand mediator that is the Internet. As we continue to utilize the grand mediator in an ever more pervasive manner, we are inevitably bringing more of the subtleties of human interaction into cyber space. Internet-mediated conversations are filling up with expressivity and emotionality conveyed by the most ancient and powerful emoticon of all: our faces.

Now we can talk with anyone instantly, but conveying ourselves accurately without our best tool is difficult if not impossible. So much of conversation is sub textual layers conveyed by our original emoticons. Yet a video call is often not a possibility, or would indeed be a nuisance, and fully realized expressive 3D avatars do not yet exist. We need a way to bring more nuances to digital engagement within limited bandwidth constraints and without causing a drag on time demanded per engagement. So we have set about fixing the problem through a misunderstood trend: selfies.

I'll admit, I was skeptical of selfies at first, but then I realized their connecting power.

I'll admit, I was skeptical of selfies at first, but then I realized their connecting power.

I think people who bemoan the trend are missing what selfies are being used for at their core. Beyond the surface layer of vanity they function as instantly created avatar surrogates allowing us to more meaningfully insert ourselves into the cyber world. More than mere pictures; combined with the Internet, they’re a way to send yourself somewhere else, and in turn receive someone else.

Selfies are just a means to an end, a momentary digitization of yourself and your context that you add to the data pool and exchange with others. Selfies in the networked world are about fixing the communications gap by filling in an emotional and expressive component. No static avatar image or emoticon can truly convey what your individual face can express, so instead you digitize yourself to show others.

We see the selfie as a tool most notably with apps like Snapchat that are indicative of the broader trend often called the ‘Alive Web.’ Snapchat can be like hanging out with a friend anywhere on Earth, all the time. “Look over there at that thing!” they send in visual form, and you say, “wow what a cool thing, here’s my expression which is unique and maybe funny too,” and send them your avatar. This can apply not just to platonic friends, but also initiations of potential relationships. When meeting a special someone in the physical world, many people spend a great deal of time beforehand prepping their faces and practicing the interaction itself. Now they also spend time preparing to ensure optimal digitization.

Usage of selfies enables a richer form of the kind of quick bite interaction that thrives in the networked world. They fill a specific niche in the growing gradient of interaction modalities and further enable our capacity to interface in ever-more precise ways.

Selfies are just a response to a missing capability, a tool to further facilitate networked social interaction.  As our existence is increasingly enveloped in and mediated by the network, we are finding clever ways to bring the nuance of our humanity with us. Yet our conceptions of relationships and even the nature of the self will invariably adapt as we journey ever deeper into networked existence.

For those concerned that something is being lost in the transition to a networked existence I would ask that you consider what is being gained. Never before has humanity been this interconnected. We have always longed for connection and now it is ubiquitous. Current technology has its set of sacrifices, but we are filling in the gaps. As we utilize the grand mediator in an ever more pervasive manner, we will continue to bring our humanity with us.

Our network connections will grow in strength and nuance until some day soon we will cross a threshold. Soon our networked presence will be as nuanced as our physical. Soon we will have the ability to send a meaningful majority of our individual perception and our individual self anywhere on Earth at any moment. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook know this, they spent $2 billion on the Virtual Reality headset company Oculus to ensure their place in this future.

The grand mediator’s role is becoming so pervasive that its visible status of mediator is ebbing away. It is becoming thoroughly transparent in practice. Through better technology and clever usage the Internet will transcend beyond something we connect to in order to connect with each other, and become just us connecting with each other.

Selfies represent a stepping-stone along our grand path, a new tool for our humanity to express itself through the grand mediator. Better tools are coming, they always are.

- JH

Toward the "Answer Engine" - 2 of 2


Part 2 - The Peril

Also published on the Atlantic Council's FutureSource Blog

In my previous blog, I outlined what living in an Answer Engine-powered Internet might look like. There is much to be excited for as we move toward the future where the Internet is woven into every facet of life. Think how far we’ve come already and how quickly it happened. Think about your relationship with your mobile device. This merging of Internet and life is inevitable; in fact it is already almost a fait accompli. There is also an array of dangers to be concerned about. The most worrisome negatives must be understood and addressed if we are to have any hope of mitigating them. 

In the future Internet, privacy as we have known it is gone. The global mesh of cameras and sensors combined with a powerful Answer Engine AI will ensure that the most information that can be known will be known, although a secrecy arms race will likely still be boiling under the surface. Every human and every artifact he or she owns can be tracked and accounted for in real time. 

Yet I do not think we are headed for an uncontrollable transparent society. Instead I foresee social contracts of the future that are immensely more nuanced and codified than they are today, especially at the individual level.

Lovers might grant each other full privacy permissions, while new acquaintances will be insulated from each other with myriad permissions doors. Every piece of your networked experience will be sharable, but you choose who is allowed to share it, for how long, and even at what price. Access to cameras, health data, location, even inferred mood will be available to share with others. Everything you do and say, but also increasingly, everything you think or even feel will be accessible to anyone with the key to these doors, or a good crowbar.  Perhaps governments won’t even need a key; they may weasel their way in at a design level, requiring guaranteed access as the cost of selling computing products within their borders. Every user’s most intimate data will potentially be accessible to every other user - but the individual will control access to much of this information. 

As well, the Answer Engine paradigm will mostly forgo providing huge swaths of broad information, instead providing small, calculated snippets of densely relevant information. As I forecast in my previous post, such a capability will be a boon for inquiry. However, it also presents a dark problem. Even modern Google responds to queries by placing advertisement links at the top and links prioritized by more dispassionate calculated relevance below. While the ad link might be a fine answer, it is also a terrible answer; it got the top spot not from pure relevance but by buying its way there.


The Answer Engine world could see people ferried about their daily lives not by the best answers, but by the answers that paid the most to be delivered. As we continue to offload internal memory to our networked world so too will we offload some amount of inference and even decision-making. Existing in and relying on an Answer Engine Internet opens your mind up to a powerful new form of direct manipulation: the answers to your questions delivered by the top bidder, the solutions to your life’s daily problems offered by the entity with the biggest wallet. Who is in control then? 

With huge swaths of society being literally controlled by advertisers, the potential for dystopia is alarming. More worrying still, there are efforts currently underway by Facebook and others to gather data and synthesize inference about people so nuanced that it begins to form a picture of who they actually are, not just what they like. Advertisements taking the form of help, of solutions. Ads tricking people into thinking they are the best answer by being a great answer. Not actually the best answer mind you, merely a great answer, one that makes you spend money and feel happy.

Consider this hypothetical: The Answer Engine knows you’re feeling sad based off body sensor data, the wistful social posts you’ve been making, and the fact that you just got a digi-paper from your boss telling you that you’re fired. It also knows you like sweets. All on its own and at a perfectly calculated moment, it proposes that you stop worrying about your future and buy a treat for yourself from Cand-Corp instead. Wow, thanks Answer Engine, you always know how to cheer me up! Given this level of context and insight, ads might move from annoyance to friend. But of course, this friend only wants one thing from you, and it will use every trick imaginable to get it, all while giving you vapid nothings dressed up as wisdom in return.

Hopefully, the future will be characterized by seeking balance, by being aware of what one might gain by accepting a technology and what one might lose. Understanding the forces at play will be instrumental to retaining power and agency. To accept blindly is to be powerless. The majority of Earth’s population could end up as mere cyber-serfs who have no knowledge of how the technologies that define their existence function and thus are basically at the mercy of whatever entities they have trusted with their data - and their lives. They could become "ignorant masses" trapped inside the information pool, being ferried about by a handful of mega-corps and savvy individuals, blindly following while given a shallow illusion of control. Yet to swim completely upstream and escape the pool will become increasingly difficult. Some trends are unavoidable, at least not without forgoing integration with the rest of society. There will simply be fewer and fewer places left to hide. Joining this potentially dystopian future could become less of a choice and more of a silent oppression; either join or be left behind.

Billions more humans are still waiting to be connected to the Internet. These next decades will see the completion of the transition from the Internet as a tool, to the Internet as part of existence itself. This transition will be rocky, it will change who we are, and it will open up cans of worms previously unimaginable. Many already use the Internet for the most nefarious of ends, and they have abilities at their disposal that were once the sole purview of only the world’s most powerful governments. 

Still, regardless of risks and perils, this is what we humans do. We’ve been absorbing our technologies into our lives since before recorded history. Now we cook food, we wear clothes, we live in structures, we use electricity, and we are connected to the Internet. This network of networks is a basic utility now, something that all are entitled to. It is driving the biggest change that humanity has ever undergone, a growth in knowledge and power of truly exponential proportions. Yet knowledge and power are just tools to forward ambition. Good and evil both will be empowered. The opportunities for failure are high, but then so too are the opportunities for success.

Personally, I am optimistic. Being aware of potential future pitfalls helps us avoid them, or at least know where to look and to try to mitigate their impact. Now is not the time for pessimism in the face of massive change.  Rather, it is the time to find the balance, to assert control, to be proactive in shaping our future. I believe optimism and pessimism alike create self-fulfilling prophecies, and I prefer to pick the better prophecy. 

- JH


Toward the "Answer Engine" - 1 of 2


Part 1 - The Promise

Also published on Atlantic Council's FutureSource Blog


The Internet is moving beyond a portal to another world and becoming part of the very world itself, meshing with and augmenting physical reality. The idea of the “Alive Web” sees the Internet becoming an increasingly real-time affair.  We are in the beginning. Apps like Snapchat and Twitter already represent the new pace and face of the new web: it’s nearing real-time, and it involves us directly. No longer about stale ‘feeds’ and static data, but experiences and emotions in the present. Less about user names and pseudonyms and more about identity strewn across the world, ready to interact with anything. Not snippets of text and culled media, but a nuanced and raucous interactive conversation happening across the globe. Forget myriad disparate websites and links; imagine an ever-growing pool of everything being fed by a never-ending deluge of data. This is the Internet of tomorrow. 

Currently, when you have a question that cannot be answered within your brain, you must take it upon yourself to seek the answer. This has become so ubiquitous and easy that it merely takes a few taps on a device in your pocket and dozens of answers appear before you. Yet the burden is still on the user, to format the question within guidelines, to cull the answer from myriad sources and arrive at a conclusion. It is still very much a process of actively seeking, which often constitutes a break in flow, if only just a brief one. 

Imagine if you didn’t have to seek. Imagine if you didn’t have to cull. Imagine if the answer to your question was delivered right as you desired it, maybe even before. No break in flow, just ubiquitous information when you need it.

The future will be powerfully defined by the emergence of servile computing, enabled by powerful contextual information. No more asking for help, future computing will simply provide it -from sensors on the device itself, sensors on your body reporting your bodily state, and the coming wealth of ambient information available from the “Internet of Things” along with, of course, the huge amounts of data exhaust we all leave behind in living our cyber lives. Combined with clever and powerful processing, these huge swaths of data can transcend noise and become salient real-time answers. The push toward ubiquitous mobile computing all but demands the emergence of the next generation of search engines, or more accurately, Answer Engines. No more clunky queries, no more digging through links, no more breaking flow, just the answer you want when you need it.

I use the term “Answer Engine” as a catch-all phrase for powerful artificial semi-intelligences—think IBM’s Watson Jeopardy champion— fed by immense sources of data from individuals and environment, coupled with the fluidity of interaction that will characterize the coming wearable modalities of computing. Already the search engine-powered Internet has become part of working cognition, and the Answer Engine-powered Internet likely will see this role increase to the limits of our current imagination.

Interacting with the Answer Engine Internet will be characterized primarily by very little actual interaction. The Answer Engine -- if you choose to enable its features -- can listen to your conversations and do searches on key terms or concepts automatically. The Answer Engine hears you humming along to some tune and can find it for you for later listening. The Answer Engine knows where you are and knows what you’re interested in. It can make suggestions about where you might like to be, or where your schedule says you’re supposed to be. The Answer Engine might even have access to where your gaze is pointed and can infer interest, querying relevant details automatically based on objects, people, locations – anything it thinks you’re interested in. It might even have access to detailed information about your bodily state and help guide you in regulating your health. If you allow it, it might even have access to do this via small wearable medication injection systems or more exotic Nano-machines, biological or otherwise. This is no longer merely about search and ‘social’ applications; this is an extension of self, of mind.

Aside from answers to daily problems and questions, the Answer Engine’s powers will scale exponentially for providing more complex answers. It will have increasing access to networked artifacts and sensors via the “Internet of Things.” The Answer Engine can be used to provide real-time answers to queries about the current state of almost the entire Earth, scaling elegantly from a single room to the entire planet and beyond. It will also have access to networks of connected cameras, terrestrial, and orbital. On a lark, you could have it deliver answers to queries that are almost impossible to address today.

For example, combining its access to sensors, location data for every connected human and artifact, computer vision, and the global mesh of cameras, you could ask it–in natural language–something like, “when it next rains in Paris, count the number of yellow umbrellas seen from beginning of rainfall out 5 minutes; do this for 5 rain days and report the average number of Parisians with yellow umbrellas for this period. Correlate observed location of umbrella with individuals’ locations and ignore duplicates. Report margin of uncertainty.” Useful? Perhaps not. Representative of statistical inference abilities unheard of at any cost today? Very much yes. Of course the data that a badly worded query like this would generate would be full of problems, but think what it represents. Imagine what kinds of questions you might like to ask it, and imagine if you could ask as many as you would like; think of the questions such answers would lead to!

The Answer Engine is about smashing together data from any and all sources available, and future sources of data are set to increase exponentially. Its powers of inference will only grow, and every question it answers or query it receives will be catalogued and recombined to provide better answers in the future, to hone its intelligence further.

While the Answer Engine Internet itself is a powerful amalgamation of artificial intelligence (AI), it also knows humans who might have an answer for you. If you require complex assistance beyond its scope, it might facilitate a connection to someone who can help. The Internet of the future knows where everyone is and can even coordinate them in "meat-space" if so desired. This is the longer-term future of the Answer Engine Internet, presenting all users with a seamless river of relevant information built from unifying human and software abilities and knowledge into one useful whole. 

For example, a little marker might appear in your field of view pointing you to a human near you who shares your interest on a topic or can help you with a 3D-space project. Or you could instantly give an expert access to your current view and have her help you through the problem, likely for a small fee. If today’s networked youth are any indication, many users will opt-in to this system. Providing a way to seamlessly engage with new people anywhere on Earth, requiring only the desire to do so; perhaps only coming together to solve a problem or provide an answer, never to see each other again. As the Internet and physical reality merge, we’ll see online paradigms and modalities of community and interaction rub off on the physical world and vice versa.

Collaboration as fluid and dynamic as meat-space interaction, but no longer limited by physical barriers or confines. The online/offline distinction is dying and in its place a new kind of hybrid reality is emerging. No longer just running parallel to the physical world, but intricately woven into it; responsive and aware, but also affective. The Internet of the future is ubiquitous. The fluidity of querying your own mind applied to the global mind. Software and human voices aggregated together into a seamless whole. As search engines enabled the indexing of data, Answer Engines will enable us to do something with it.

Continue to Part 2: The Peril


More than the Sum of its Parts

As we enter 2014 on the Gregorian calendar, I feel we should take a moment to reflect on the monumental achievement that is this network of networks. Our lives and our world are now irreversibly changed, they are now enveloped by the Internet. As we continue to journey into it, the Internet is achieving a level of raucous activity that has a beautiful parallel in nature, one that reveals the true genius of our creation.

Right now this network of networks is still in the process of developing, new connections are being made and existing ones being strengthened. It is being empowered with new and ever more intricate ways to query its depths and measure its activity. This network is made of silicon and light, forged from and filled with human ingenuity and desire. Far from artificial, it is beautifully natural. Its progression is following the path of the great network, the one that started our journey of discovery: the human brain. The human brain is composed of relatively simple pieces, neurons, that connect and aggregate to be much more than the mere sum of their connections. Individually, a neuron is just a cell, but together in one system they are conscious. While our brains are made of cells that are akin to mere switches, this new brain is composed of entire brains, both human and computer. This new brain’s activity is made of our data, knowledge, thoughts, imaginations, and feelings. This new brain remembers everything that it ever was. This new brain is exponentially smart. Just as each of us grow and learn from experience, so too is the Internet growing and learning.

In building this mesh of connections between humans and computers, we are creating an intelligence beyond any possible single machine; we’re turning the Earth into our collective brain, channeling our power, and that of our inventions, into a single conduit. Far from some hive mind dystopia, we’re just replicating and expanding what we each already are: billions of individual units aggregating to a whole, which manifests as greater than the sum of its parts. Individuality isn’t lost, instead it thrives, as it unleashes the incredible power of immense complexity. Humans and software working together to be more than they ever could be alone. Where ideas once took many rotations around the Sun to spread, now they ripple through the global mind as quickly as they are formed. Ever-changing and uncontrollable, an endless foaming roar of activity. Creating memories, thoughts, even dreams.

The Internet is coming alive, its mesmerizing din rising toward the ubiquitous, rapid, beautiful, and barely orchestrated cacophony that characterizes the complexity of a mind. This new brain has already proven to be immensely powerful, and even a small bit foreign, reflecting our input but with its own sometimes baffling interpretation. All of us connected together has emerged as so much more than the sum, and there are still many billions of new connections to make. This journey has only just begun. 

- JH


Further reading on consciousness from Cristof Koch in Scientific American.