Monday, December 2, 2013

The Last Smartphone in John Stoian's Front Closet, Part II

 This is the second part of the first of two short stories I've written which take place in the same "universe": one possible near future, in which a collective consisting of technologists and creatives has carved out a niche for themselves in a world of diminishing opportunity.

Part 2 of 4

 The streets were as familiar as the faces of loved ones. Here, an abandoned liquor store, still completely empty, and the rest of the strip mall awaiting redevelopment that may never come. There, a fabbed apartment complex, brightly colored with unnatural geometries, in the modern style that Chungy liked to call “Rio favela chic”. He also liked to remind her that they weren’t really fabbed. Just the concrete infrastructure and the drywall. Everything else was still put there by a worker. Just so you know.

As she headed north, the main drags became less familiar, and more residential. The old strip malls had largely been replaced by flag lots with new, modest-sized houses and shops, some of which adopted the favela chic, toned down slightly for the discriminating palate. All of them looked happy—physically happy somehow, and though the paving in the lots was a bit haphazard, the miniature neighborhoods seemed so much more healthy and alive than the older homes on the sidestreets.

She popped off the scooter on one of these sidestreets, in front of a large, cookie-cutter house that appeared to have been built during the 00s housing bubble. Beige, tan, gray. Stucco everywhere. Rounded corners. It was a sight. She never thought someone as edgy as John Stoian would live in a house without, you know, edges. She called Chung again.

“Hey, I’m here.”

“Alright,” then in a muffled voice, “John, Lucy’s at your house. Can you buzz her in?” then back to Lucy, “OK, you should be in.”

Lucy tried the door. “Perfect, thanks love.”

The inside of John’s house was spooky, silent, gray. Lucy found a light switch that revealed an intriguing (to her, at least) lack of decor. Directly to the left of the entrance, there was a door which was likely a walk-in closet. She opened the door to find jackets and a small bookcase, which held a wide variety of technological artifacts in various states of repair. On the top shelf, there was a lone brown cardboard box.

The phone on the inside was very odd looking. The body was uncolored, translucent and matte-finished. There was a small sticker with a serial number near the top, by the front camera, but there were no logos, or branding of any kind. It looked like it must be a prototype of some sort. There were various unfamiliar accessories in the bottom compartment of the box, which Lucy decided she would explore when she returned to the apartment.

“Hey, Chungy, I got the new phone. This thing is so...badass,” she said, “Do you not realize how much money you all could make just by selling these things? It’s like I’m holding some kind of secret government phone or something. Anyhow, I love you, and I’ll let you get to your conference. Call you tonight your time, while I’m on my way to the meetings. Bye!”

Lucy hopped on the scooter, and forgot about dialing Google Maps again. She got herself out to John’s house; she could certainly get back to the apartments.

Soon enough, Lucy was lost, ducking behind a defunct gas station in a terrible neighborhood. She could hear the reports of backfiring gas engines, mixed with what sounded like either fireworks or guns discharging. It must have been drag night in one of the nearby slums.

This is just how things had shaken out in parts of LA and across the country. Politicians had tried, but not very hard, to prevent the massive unemployment and poverty inherent in last decade or so in technological advance, but they fought all the wrong battles. In the end, no one seemed to be able to explain why things had gotten so bad, and no one seemed to be able to turn it around. Those who could freelance did so, and those who couldn't retreated rather desperately into what became suburban slums.

Lucy stood by her scooter, and picked up the old backup slider phone, trying to get the Outboard phone service to pick up on her location. After the third failed attempt, she pocketed the phone and reached into her bag to grab the cardboard box. The translucent body of the device caught a glint of the streetlight.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Last Smartphone in John Stoian's Front Closet, Part I

 This is the beginning of the first of two short stories I've written which take place in the same "universe": one possible near future, in which a collective consisting of technologists and creatives has carved out a niche for themselves in a world of diminishing opportunity.

Part 1 of 4

You may recall that Lucy Fernandez is considered by all who know her to be a smartass. A very confident, loving, capable, and talented smartass, but a smartass nonetheless. And you may know, if you happen to know a kind, decent, usually moral, personable, and gentle smartass, that they usually come across a moment of crisis when they finally recognize the nature of their reputation. It can come as quite a nasty shock, and may result in a more humble and appropriate personality, but that personality is often much less fun.

It was very near this mode in which Lucy found herself, inching internally toward the realization that those around her, if pressed, would have characterized her default facial expression as “too clever by half”, and that the shortest possible description of her might be “smug”, if only because it is one letter shorter than “short”. She also happened to be sitting on a ridiculous white heavy cardboard chair owned, if you could call it that, by her boyfriend José Chung, aka Chungy, aka the Chungmeister, aka José mi amor when she was feeling up to it. Lost in thought, she inched closer to this great and terrible moment of realization, only to be jarred from it by an unfamiliar, digital crashing sound, as though a robotic goose were in distress.

“Damn it!” she shouted, as she saw the flashing error message on the smooth face of her smartphone, reflecting the fading sunlight. She swiped this way and that. The phone was unresponsive. Chungy might be halfway across the world, but he was definitely the man to call. She rummaged around in the desk drawer until she found truly ancient slider phone and swapped SIMs.

“Hey Chungy, it’s the love of your frickin life. I’m calling you from the backup phone ‘cause my phone just decided it couldn’t go on living while you were in Amsterdam. Look, I know you’re probably getting shot down by some tall, blonde, and swanky Dutch babe right now, so why don’t you call me back. She’s not half as good as me. Oh yeah, and tell me how to fix my phone. You do remember about how tomorrow’s the biggest day of my adult life, right? Kinda need that phone. Love you, bye.”

“Hey José, it’s me again. Just wondering when you’ll call me back, you know, so that I can finally get my phone fixed so I can go to my client meetings tomorrow so I can start my business so I can finally have a life. Maybe I’ll get into your cool hackers club even. You know I’m kidding when I make fun of them, right? John’s pretty cool, and Trish is alright too, even if I know you want her business. She’s not even paying attention to you, alright? Anyhow, call me back, help me fix my phone, and be safe out there, alright?”

“Hey Chung. I’m sorry I’m such a moron. I didn’t realize it was frickin...six a.m. there. Bet you have your ringer off. Sorry about that, and I’ll call back in a couple more—oh hey that’s you calling. Bye.”

“Lucy, what’s up, honey?”

“Chungy, I’m so sorry, I was just wigging out about my meetings tomorrow. My phone died, and I don’t know how I’m going to bus to three different places across town without a real phone. This thing doesn’t even have GPS.”

“Well, first thing is: have you tried rebooting the phone?”

“Yeah, it won’t even turn on. I hold down the button, screen stays black. Hey, wait. Can’t you have John send me one of your hacker-club cars to drive me around tomorrow?”

“The self-drivers? Sorry, babe, they’re all on loan while we’re gone. Whenever all of us are out, we donate them to a good cause until we get back. So, they’re being used by the Red Cross to get supplies for the wildfire victims in Arizona.”

“Hell, Chungy, why do you guys have to be so stupid charitable? Just kidding, I love that about you,” Lucy said in a quick breath. “OK, so how do I get from point A to points B through, like, Q?”

“Print out directions from Google Maps?”

“Well, you see,” Lucy’s tone took on a timbre of faux condescension, which she liked to use when she knew she was being a brat. “I really like my smartphone? And I’d really like to have access to my docs? And, like, you friggin took the laptop with the 6G modem in it, so yeah,” Then she snapped back into a normal voice. “We don’t have money for a new phone, do we?”

“Weeeelllll, we might. But I have a better idea. Let me talk to John and call you back.”

Lucy checked her social media aggregator. To a friend on Facebook who had posted “Going to a show with Death Cab and Decemberists!!”, she responded “How are you getting there, a time machine? :)” She scrolled through a couple of her fandoms on various channels, and was interrupted by the backup phone again.

“OK, Luce, here’s the deal. At John’s house, we keep a closet full of tech. Anyone in the group can just take a keyboard, a tablet, a—”

“—phone? Yes, that’ll work, thank you, thank you love!”

“Yeah, so about that. It’ll be a loaner, and it won’t be very good-looking. And it probably won’t come with a manual, so good luck if you can’t figure it out—”

“—I can just—”

“—no, you can’t just google it, because the phones are made to a spec that’s, uh, unique to the crew, and we probably haven’t gotten around to, um, documenting those."

"José, are they illegal?"

"They're...legal enough. Remember, if you get in a real jam, text me or something, I’ll ask Dan.”

“Dan’s in Amsterdam? Now that I gotta see.”

“Yeah, he offered to go with the cars or stay in his basement in the fetal position for a week, but John figured out how to change his mind. I think it was basically bribery.”

“Watch out Europe.”

“No kidding. Anyhow, can you make it to John’s place before we hit breakfast?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” then she interjected, talking to an automated agent instead of Chung, “OK Outboard, this is Lucy. Can you text me John Stoian’s address?”

"Damn, forgot this isn't a smartphone." She repeated herself to her computer.

A moderately realistic automated woman’s voice said to both her and Chung, “Information sent via text message.”

“Awesome,” said Chung, “So you don’t need anything else?”

“Well, I need to get into John’s house, of course.”

“Sure, I’ll just have him buzz you in.”

“He can do that from Amsterdam?”

“He could do that from Mars, but it’d take about 8 minutes.”

“Alright, I’ll let you know when I’m there.”

“You taking the bus?”

“Something like that.”

“Aw, Luce, not the scooter again. You know that thing’s unsafe. It’s nighttime there, for heaven’s sake.”

“I’m a very safe driver, thank you very much.”

“Ugh. OK, love you.”

“Love you too, sweetie.”

Lucy repaired to the bike rack, where she had hitched the little electric scooter. She checked the solar batteries. Fully charged after a long, bright LA day with no riding. She clicked the backup phone into the cradle on the handlebar, and popped in her bluetooth earbud. The voice from the phone-in version of Outboard connected to Google Maps and gave her directions based on her address and John’s address, which had taken the speech recognizer three tries to get right. The wind in her hair made her forget the chafing of the invisible helmet around her neck and the tug of her messenger bag. The gentle whir of the motor was the meditative mantra that held it all together. John’s house was, sadly, not that far.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Meta Stuff and Story Time

So, I've been a little lax in the posting department recently, by which I mean I took an unscheduled, unplanned, and unannounced one year hiatus. This is largely due to the fact that my employment situation changed drastically in November of last year and by past February, I changed most of the circumstances of my life. My family remains the same, which pretty awesome, of course, but I no longer take freelance writing jobs. I moved from Phoenix to Portland, and I'm now doing computational linguistics work full time, which has been treating me rather well.

I remain interested in the questions I've been exploring in this blog, and I've been undertaking, very slowly, a fiction project based on a number of the ideas from here and from Dispatches From the Future. I have two short stories and am working on another and a novella or a full sized novel. I plan to serialize at least some of that content here, as well as write some content similar to my last two posts: short, observational material as well as longer, futurism-related stuff.

A short list of the types of things I intend to post in the near future:

  • A brief survey of the state of modern online political discourse, especially vis-a-vis the rise of perhaps intentionally deceptive tactics in "satire" and community infiltration.
  • Prediction pieces on religion, American politics, and social media.
  • Perhaps a humor piece on social media.
  • Story one: The tale of a young woman who finds her professional life at the mercy of her ability to play a smartphone game.
  • Story two: The adventures of a professional athlete and internet celebrity whose popularity and livelihood are threatened by an unruly online mob.
  • Parts of the upcoming novel and/or novella. Will take place in a near-future setting in a collaborativist community.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Future of Online Content

The rise of the internet has proven revolutionary in every aspect, but perhaps the largest of all of these is its effect on the dissemination of news information, the redefinition of journalism and the emergence of an amateur, shadow fourth estate. An amateur content creator and futurist myself, I'm going to try to take a stab at projecting what is likely to happen to online informational content in the next ten years.


First, the trends that are in place right now:


• Print newspapers are dying.
• Content farms have emerged to serve ads to people who search certain terms. Being useful to actual humans is an afterthought—if it is a thought at all.
• Certain news bloggers have become famous and trusted. Some have even managed to be trusted on news issues despite not claiming to be journalists.
• Blogging has been introduced into a number of traditional news franchises. For example, Nate Silver's statistical prediction site, FiveThirtyEight, was picked up first by the New York Times, then moved to ESPN.
• SEO exists as a consideration. Some sites appear to be sources of neutral information, but are commissioned content designed to drive traffic to a third party. Often, content is "spun" through software which paraphrases, changes word order, and alters paragraphs to avoid detection as duplicate content.


Projections through 2023:


CC 3.0 BY-SA Willi Heidelbach, from Wikimedia Commons


Dominance of freelance and quasi-freelance journalism. Journalism is already freelance heavy, and non-journalistic content produced for sites other than newspapers is already nearly completely freelance. Expect bloggers, vloggers, internet-famous twitterers, and others to take spots that previously would have been reserved for J-school grads. Of course, trained journos will still be needed, especially for the actual groundwork, major stories, and to staff the remaining major papers. [This article on freelancing gives a taste of what's coming to the workforce in general.]

The rise of spun content. While a major publication like Washington Post would never allow the all-but-plagiarized output of spinner algorithms, less ethical publications, link bait empires, and sites making revenue from gray-hat SEO will almost certainly start publishing spun news if they haven't already. It will be the burden of well-meaning smaller outlets to check their incoming freelance work for originality.
 
Buzzfeedization. Undisputed king of the link bait jungle, Buzzfeed provides listicles announcing the top five this, the top twenty that (although six is becoming hipper than five, and you can quote me). Iin the last couple of years, however, it has pushed its way to the news world, with notable coverage of the 2012 presidential campaigns. Buzzfeed's model puts news content, celebrity gossip, pop culture nostalgia, and "25 things only Vermonters know about" side-by-side, deinstitutionalizing the fourth estate and collocating it with the world of brain candy internet entertainment.

Buzzfeed and its ilk get much of their revenue from ads, and many of these sites operate within ad networks, as described here. Ad networks present a revenue stream and a link topography that further embeds the news into a landscape that prioritizes entertainment value.

Paywalled sites begin to collapse. The New York Times bucked conventional wisdom in [year] when it added a paid option to its online offerings. Realizing that internet offerings were more detrimental to broadsheet sales than they were beneficial in the form of online ads, the Gray Lady decided to block viewers who want to read more than a set number of articles per month without paying. It is unlikely that this model will continue for much longer, as free content is available to nearly everyone.
Solidification of meme structures. If you look up a how-to page on any normal household task (changing the oil in a car, say), you'll find that most of your hits give you instructions that are very similar. Because the task is simple, fairly uniform, and not at all novel, the general instructions haven't changed much over time, and don't vary from person to person much. On the internet, this effect is magnified to where even the verbiage is relatively identical. As content becomes reused more and more, uniformity becomes inevitable. Look for memes about how-to items, historical facts, popular science and psychology theories, and large-scale world events to become much more solidified, flattening out nuance and largely failing to question the wisdom of the crowd.
Some of this is already happening, as one can see from the historical treatment of Christopher Columbus. Of course, the traditional wisdom, inculcated over the course of centuries, is that Columbus fought the folk understanding of a flat earth to boldly sail west, and land, thinking he found India. There wasn't much said about his adventures afterwards, except perhaps that he was interested in bringing Jesus to the savages. Recently, however, there has been an uptick in skepticism regarding this view, and Ol' Chris has been recast as a profiteering opportunist, oppressor, and all around bad operator. The Oatmeal, a general-interest webcomic, illustrates (literally) the recently developed current opinion.

In this case, the memetic ossification of Columbus-as-villain is likely to be more accurate than the folk historical view, and the new meme structure is more robust than the old. There is no guarantee that this will hold for all other memes solidified in the various hiveminds of the internet, though, and much like the diversity of species in the natural world, those being pushed to extinction by artificial means far outnumber those being pushed out by their own lack of fitness.

Conclusion

The overarching "meta-trend" behind all these predictions is that it is going to become easier and easier to manufacture popular opinions by increasing the rate at which content is produced and limiting the number of brains involved in directing that production. The power of the media then becomes the power to change millions of minds at once, in subtle ways. This flash opinion creation changes traditional wisdom on the time frames of economics and politics, which in turn increases the volatility of culture. The revolutions of 2011 are likely just foreshocks.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The McFly Effect: Why Everything on Facebook Is Probably a Lie

A Facebook friend posted this image this morning.


Those of you in particular social media circles will feel a twinge of familiarity, as you probably saw something remarkably similar in the middle of last year, when the exact same image appeared, also doctored to the then current date. I, myself, am something of a BTTF aficionado, having watched the trilogy far too many times as a teen, and so when I saw the 2012 version, something struck me as a slightly off. I did a quick search on Snopes and found that I was right—the date had been altered.

Changing a seven-segment display is, like, Photoshop 101. No, it's Photoshop 97, the remedial class for people who totally missed the "how to turn on your computer" class in high school. There's no real reason to trust this image. But that's not how your brain works. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow identifies two parts of a mind: System 1, the instant-reaction, automatic computation part, and System 2, the slow-thinking solver of complex problems. The brain, he says, is a "machine for jumping to conclusions", where System 1 does most of the work, and enlists System 2 only when the going gets relatively rough. And System 1's default is to trust what it sees.

Unless System 2 is active, System 1 will take whatever it's given and run off. And our control over our own vigilance is spotty. Acts like self-control and vigilance require energy, and this energy can be spent over time, in a phenomenon known as "ego depletion". When mental energy is low, we're even more eager to believe everything we see and hear than usual. Facebook is a great ego sink, as people often use it to relax, procrastinate, or otherwise fill downtime. Facebook also offers people a litany of choices, and decision-making further depletes mental energy. So, you arrive at a place where most users have a means of sharing information, and show up at a time when they're most likely to believe it at face value. The perfect storm.

Because of the strange topography of social media content propagation, these ideas will bounce around the tubes like used swim diapers in a wave pool. And, the rule of 10,000 ensures there will always be someone there to pass it on.

Friday, October 5, 2012

2030 Prediction: Long Tail Content

It’s clear that in the network-driven content model, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to become popular, and not just in the “go viral” sense. The web phenomena that have sustained fandoms are just as surprising as the one-offs. Who would have imagined that millions of people would read an insane, low-res webcomic about a video game that brings about the Apocalypse? Or watched videos of two brothers, just shooting the breeze about whatever random topic strikes them? Or read a sexually graphic book that started as a Twilight fanfiction? In the world of 2030, the most successful content producers will realize that producing prolifically is the only way to obtain the audience necessary to create a deeper universe of work. They will put volumes of content into the internet ether based on what they themselves want to see on the web, not what they think will grab eyeballs—creating for what I want to call a “null audience”.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Intro: Sketches from 2030

The year 2030 seems far away, but not too far—something of a middle-ground between the present, and the “real” future. If our current rate of change holds or increases, it’s likely that this future world will seem as foreign to us as our present world would seem to someone from 1994. The future is a funny thing: it always progresses in some ways that surprise us, in some ways that don’t, and sometimes the progress we expect fails to appear. Starting today, I'm going to start interspersing among my larger posts some short pieces about my predictions for what the world will look like in the fourth decade of this century—while we’re being inundated in new technology, most of the biggest changes are likely to come from social reorganizations. Of course, while I think I'm a reasonably smart guy, I'm totally open to being told my predictions are crazy.