Being Virtual

By Brian Ohanlon, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 12 years 6 weeks ago.

I read through Danah Boyd's Being Virtual discussion yesterday and I have still to throw an eye on shirky's Second Life post at corante. But for my auntie who is getting involved in some kind of wiki project to introduce new health standards in a hospital she works at, I wanted to dig out Nicholas Carr's roughtype post is web 2.0 enterprise ready, where he comments on Andrew McAfee's MIT Sloan Management article on the subject. I found this quote from Carr, which is worth throwing into the discussion about Being Virtual:

"there's always at least a small group of technologically-inclined employees who will gravitate to a seemingly cool new platform. The real test comes later, when the personal costs and benefits of using the system become apparent to a broad set of employees..."

I just noticed the required reading on Andrew McAfee's blog site. His link to the New York Times Magazine cover story, Open Source Spying. Of course, spying is just one piece of the puzzle, in terms of world political balance and resolution. Because the world is becoming so global and linked together in such complicated ways, machines will increasingly become necessary to underpin the workings of this global system of trade and relationships. Even at the level of the individual, we see how technology is being used to underpin a way of life and economic reality that would seem foreign to earlier generations. This web of connections, while mostly good, can turn against you at the most unexpected of times, like when you change jobs, or get sick or something - it is hard to switch off these days, when you really need to. The machine doesn't want to shut down.

"The Internet lets Amazon aggregate demand for books at the end of the long tail, and thereby profit. The Net also lets Wikipedia aggregate supply from people at the end of the long tail of willingness to produce, and we all profit. But these people are a tiny, tiny fraction of all Internet users."

That is a statement about the platform that is the internet. I guess selling books, is an exercise in logistics management. There are other tasks which might be fully accelerated by some kind of cyber intelligent system. For instance, it might be useful for a general in charge of armed forces to enter into a virtual world, to study a situation is more ways than meatspace would allow him or her to.

Consider concepts such as cyberwar, which will become more important in the future, definitely a platform with its own specific properties might be required. I read not too long ago in one of Malcolm Gladwell's books - I think it was Blink, about the cyberwar the Americans undertook as an exercise prior to the last gulf war. Certainly, it would appear that the information systems the military were using at that point, were no help at all. You will have to refer to Gladwell's own book, for a proper explanation of this.

Waging war is not like selling books. Consider all those grown men who keep toy trains and toy battle field mock ups of famous wars in their spare room. I don't think the web as a platform, via VRML or anything similar with scale up to the complexity of arrangements of time and space required. I know you give examples like WOWs etc - but lets face it, if you ask any real hard core gamers about the war simulation games out there at the moment - it is so easy to defeat the code, when you get used to it. A more stable and reliable platform is needed to wage wars in.

I listened with interest, to Ester Dyson adn Mitch Kapur talk in the web 2.0 converence a while back. How the early stages of computing gave us tools like the Excel spreadsheet - which allows us to study non-linear phenomena. But in this web 2.0 stage, we cannot accelerate individuals any more, it is about accelerating the group. Ester talks about a sort of project management application for ordinary folk. The conversation at the web 2.0 conference asked good questions - like why did the calendar stay in paper format for so long.

Another question to ask, is why have we so many devices for telling the time or date, which don't match up? I remember reading about the communist calendar once, and how Stalin invented several calendars to try and organise better productivity in the planning economic experiment, that was old Communist Russia. Let us consider the fact, that Russia was attempting something far more ambious with ancient vaccuum tube computers, than web 2.0 is trying to do today with infinite silicon pulling power. I got this email from a pal of mine, a few days back:

"Did I ever tell you that my parents bought a building to house their
company in. It was ~35K sq feet, had 40 foot ceilings on the first
floor, air conditioning from hell, and barely any heating. It was built
in the 1950s to house a computer."

I would imagine myself, that a real virtual space to enhance productivity of a whole army, would not be called Web x.0 anything. It would have to be a whole new application running on the network. It would probably be the equivalent of web 20.0 rather than web 3.0. I think that this Stephenson/Gibson virtual space that everyone talks about, it out there on the distant horizon somewhere, and could be used as a tool to help build civilisations on Mars or beyond. But in computing terms, we are still back Bletchly Park, with notepads and chalk, as far as the holo-deck level of virtual reality is concerned.

I think Thomas Friedman's description of the Flat World platform, will be remembered years from now, by students of VR, as an account of one of the earliest ancestors to Holo-deck world. Like Kevin Kelly talks about bacteria now, is the context of where life came from, and what is evolution - Darwinian or Lamarckian.

Danah Boyd mentions how religion is ready to go virtual. It is a very intriguing possibility. But do bear in mind, something about ancient pagan religions which we might be about to rediscover. There were a lot of things, in the older religions, which were about time and organisation of resources etc.

I watched a television series about the Celtic people recently. It described at one point, the de-centralised organisation of the Celtic people, really not unlike the internet kind of world we live in today. There was no central capital, like in the Roman world. But what was interesting, was the tools the Celts had for organising time - they had some kind of caladar made of bronze with lots of little holes punched in it, with bits of string etc. Apparently, the Celts had much better computers back in those days than the Romans had. Anyhow, when the Roman conquered the Celts, a great deal of effort was made to erase the evidence.

But it seems interesting, Danah should talk about virtual religion, at the same time the web 2.0 conference should talk about calendars moving into the virtual space too. We are beginning to get glimpses now through archaeological studies of the Celtic world, where a decentralised system was used all across Europe. We are so used to seeing the Celts down through history through the eyes of Roman historians. The calendar and religion were very close to each other, in those old pagan times. It was vulnerable as we know from studying of networks today - but it also afforded a social environment, where a Celtic woman could rise to become the wealthiest and most influential member of a community. Something the Romans, who granted no rights to females at all, found horifying.

So while on one hand, I find this new technology all very new and interesting. On the other hand, I wonder how far we have to journey back in time, pre-Roman, pre-Catholicism to find de-centralised organisation of economics and society.