Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Web 2.0 Sensorium

This is in response to Tim O'Reilly's blog, "Daddy, Where's Your Phone?" where he says that he thinks that the web is still primarilly a PC experience with mobile as an add-on. I disagree with the characterization, rather than his perception, and that is what this blog is about.

The defining characteristic of Web 2.0 for me is Tim's "harnessing collective intelligence" meme. I've been interested in "intelligence" ever since I saw Hal 9000 when I was 14. In the early 80's I was avidly reading Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid". More recently I have been interested in swarm intelligence, and now E. O. Wilson has written "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies" which puts ants firmly in the group intelligence sphere and is re-positing the previously discredited the idea of evolution at the group level.

So what has this to do with accessing the web? If Web 2.0 is about collective intelligence, or how the actions of all the participants generates meta information, we can see the parallels between humans participating in a group mind and ants as part of a colony mind. But whereas ants cannot see the big picture as they mindlessly toil, we humans can do do, or at least, see fragments of it reflected back to us. A good example is Amazon's book suggestions which offers me a lot of information on the quality of a book from reader's purchases and feedback. In effect, Amazon offers me access to the group mind's view of the book, and effectively enhances my book buying cognitive processes. Wikipedia, and other data look up services, is like an extended memory. And here's where we get to the point. I don't want my extended memory and cognive processes turned off when I leave my PC. My brain is mobile by definition. If Web 2.0 is going to increasingly become part of my mind. Today that access has reduced bandwidth and resolution when I use my phone. It's like looking at the world through a rolled up newspaper. But, since my brain is mobile, my access must be too, however limited in scope. It is arguably even more important to be connected to the group mind when I am away from a PC, and as that mind expands, that will become ever more important. The cell phone has become the ubiquitous personal communication device. It is highly portable. Coverage is global. And "smart phones" like the iPhone are bridging the gap between PCs and basic phones. But clearly they will be used differently, much like calculators were not used like mainframe computers. Phones will become connection between my brain and the group brain and thus will need to use their limited bandwidth to efficiently to get me the salient information from that group mind - "What are the good restaurants nearby? Is this restaurant good? How much wil it cost me for a meal? What are the popular dishes and combinations? Has anyone I know eaten here recently? Has the health inspector shut down the kitchen in the last year?" and of course adding my information to the mind, much like an ant adds a drop of pheromone to the sugar trail.

It's early days of course. I would like my phone to have a screen that can be made larger, more like a paperback book, and definitely faster data transfer. The interface to use the device could be a lot better, But I think the trend is obvious to an observer. The mobile web is transitioning to become the dominant paradigm, leaving the richer, PC based access to different usage patterns. This seems to me another of the "good enough" devices that will undermine the use of PCs for web access for anything but the more specialist roles that need its power.