Sunday, February 12, 2012

Webcam Societies

There has been an increasing number of people concerned about the "filter bubble" effect. In essence, they worry that people will only experience the internet they want (or are thought to want), and therefore will become insulated away in their own little world of... whatever it is they are interested in.

At first glance, this seems like a bad thing. Exposure to different thoughts, cultures, and people makes you a wiser, more interesting person, right?

Well, what if we turned it on its head?

Let's come at this from another angle. Let's say that we really want the future, now. We want our awesome robots, for starters. How can we foster a world where robots are more common?

Robots are in a weird spot. People are waiting for corporations to build better robots, and corporations are waiting for people to care enough to want them. But the technology required for robots exists, we're just not moving with it.

Plenty of people build robots in their spare time. And plenty more would build robots, or at least participate in the culture that builds robots, if they were immersed in it.

Immersion is a factor most people don't really think of very much. But immersion is what makes it possible for hundreds of thousands of teenagers to obsess over some pointless pop star, immersion is what allows artists to hone their craft day after day, immersion is what makes people believe Google is less evil than Apple, or visa-versa. Hell, immersion is why you want to make a game similar to the game you played last night.

It's true that some people perform consistently without immersion. There are obsessive people who, even without being constantly surrounded by pressure, will do what they want to do. I would argue that they actually immerse themselves, rather than being immersed by the world around them, but either way they are exceptions.

People who are less obsessed aren't less valuable or less interesting. They have just as much potential. They just aren't as focused if left on their own.

For those people, don't you think a "webcam society" might work? A kind of "filter bubble extraordinaire" where they are constantly exposed to the experiences of people who are working on something specific, something with a specific goal?

If you woke up in the morning and your computer screen was filled with videos of a group from China that built a robot to do housework, wouldn't you be more inclined to want to participate? Even if you're not a robotics engineer, you can still get excited about it. Even if you can't understand the language, the drive is contagious.

What if we consider "filter bubble" from the opposite angle: what if we could immerse ourselves in a bubble of our own choosing, to drive us to work harder and with more endurance at something we want to get done? It'd also be handy as it would allow us to get feedback from people who are also legitimately interested in the same thing (as opposed to random internet goons who are more likely to say "that engineer chick's hot" rather than "the robot can wash clothes!")

By forming the filter barrier around the group doing the same thing, you increase the concentration of that thing, you get bombarded more by that thing, and detritus that would normally wash by is kept out by the filter. It's not some secret society - it's just a kind of wiki/forum where you have to sign up to comment.

This same technique has been used since pretty much the beginning of human existence. Religions and cultures have invented many flesh-world techniques for isolating, concentrating, and increasing immersion. They have also been at the forefront of inventing on-line versions of the same, although perhaps they have been outpaced by the finance obsessives of the world.

Either way, it seems like it is an interesting practice to adopt for more general interests. It could be adapted for anything - I used robots as an example, but literally any interest, from boating to funding third world farmers, could use the same practice.

Unfortunately, it's not just a matter of finding a forum and signing in. There are a few additional details that it needs to have implemented in order for it to work well.

The primary problem is that a standard form of internet interaction is too low-concentration. You need to radically increase the level of pressure, both in terms of time and power.

As I mentioned before, a "webcam society" might be a viable version. This is a group of people who use video to interact with the society. Watching people try out their robot, or seeing someone's face as they describe a plan for how to refit their boat, it's a much more powerful experience than just reading a post somewhere.

By trying to make everything audiovisual, you radically increase the power of the pressure. You can increase the timing of the pressure by delivering these videos more aggressively. Google's new G+, for example, is an always-on wall of pressure scrolling by. Even when you aren't using it, if you're on any Google service, you're getting hit. Something very similar could work for a webcam society. In fact, you can get pretty close if you created a very this-is-my-video-centric circle on such a social network.

The last thing to keep in mind is that the human mind only has so much space for obsessions. The filter is as important for what it keeps out as what it lets in. My interests are widespread, and therefore so is my effort. If you participate in a webcam society, it's probably the only one you'll be able to participate in, because otherwise you'll get distracted.

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