Watts (chipotle) wrote,

Ubiquitous presence

I described Twitter in an earlier post as “micro-blogging,” which it is, sort of. If you go to the site and register, you will see a text field labeled:

What are you doing?

and an input box of 140 characters total. No more. Type something there, and it’s immediately posted on your Twitter page.

“And that’s it?”

Well, mostly. You can send these little “tweet” updates from an IM client, or a mobile phone. You can subscribe to someone’s Twitter “presence” as an RSS feed. The home page acts like a LiveJournal Friends page when you’re connected, showing the last “tweets” that people you’re following have sent. It can track conversations. And there are clients out there like Twitterrific which talk to the Twitter API.

“And… that’s it?”

Well, yeah, pretty much.

There are other Twitter-like services, most notably Jaiku, which lets you interconnect other “networking” sites in with your Jaiku presence page. Posts to my (somewhat neglected) tumbleblog or even this journal could show up in Jaiku if I wanted them to.

“And the point is what, exactly?”

That’s what I’ve been wondering for months, until just the other day. This is what occurred to me.

Futurists and technology pundits and sci-fi authors and fans have, for the past two decades or so, envisioned a highly-networked future—and we’ve mostly envisioned it as the “metaverse,” a virtual reality a la Snow Crash and Neuromancer. And each new lurch in technology in that direction gets examined in light of these fictional standard-bearers. Conversation? Check. A sense of place distinct from the real world? Check. Total immersion? Not so much. Yet Second Life is not only largely constructed by its inhabitants, it has a real economy, complete with currency exchange, property rights and rent; despite its crappy implementation, this is some serious virtual trailblazing. Futurists may have been mostly on the money with what Second Life represents; what Twitter represents, though, wasn’t even much on the radar.

Twitter—and understand that from this point on, I’m talking about the concepts it and Jaiku et. al. implement—is tying together the technologies that have been cascading down around us for the last decade. Ubiquitous computing is mostly here, and the aspect of that which I don’t think futurists who coined the phrase saw coming is ubiquitous presence. We are creating what amounts to opt-in telepathy: you can know what all your friends around the world are doing or thinking at any given time, and have a persistent (albeit not necessarily permanent) record: on this day at that time my friend told me this. And the records we’re creating can be automatically cross-referenced, hyperlinked, tagged and categorized.

When ideas like this have been written about in the past, it’s usually with a dystopic cast to them: your thoughts and actions and movements can be recorded and tracked without your consent, used for nefarious purposes by Big Government, Big Corporation, or whatever other Big Nasty you imagine. Britain’s proliferation of security cameras in public areas is the most oft-cited harbinger of this in the real world. (Out of all the tracking methods available to Big Siblings, those are actually among the least nefarious—but that’s another post.)

But Twitter is a completely different animal, one I don’t think any of us saw coming: millions and millions of people choosing to be tracked. Instead of bits of information about us that the observers choose to record, we are publishing as much information about ourselves as we choose to share. This is not journaling, pausing occasionally to share diary entries or mini-essays like this one. It’s immediate stream-of-consciousness, where am I and what am I thinking stuff. What’s John Gruber of Daring Fireball been thinking about? I can check. You can check. Hell, we can subscribe to an RSS feed of all of his friends’ tweets. And Leo Laporte, late of “The Screen Savers” and now running the TWiT podcasting empire, pretty much lives his life online.

The granularity of who can access that information is coarse: generally, either a white list (only those we designate as “friends”) or everyone. But many of us are, apparently, perfectly willing to share stuff with complete strangers as long as we’re the ones in control. We’re choosing what to share and what not to share. This can be weird stuff to people in my generation or older, but to people under, say, 20, this—not Twitter specifically, but the concept of ubiquitous presence—is just a part of life. You can choose to opt out, but it’d be a little weird, like admitting to your friends that you listen to classical music and don’t know any popular rock bands.

Again, this isn’t about the specific services and brands popular right now; it doesn’t matter if Twitter and Bebo and Facebook are also-rans in a year. This kind of interaction simply didn’t exist a decade ago, yet the foundational technologies—the Web, cell phones, and text messaging (IM or SMS)—are already deeply woven into our culture. All of these are fundamentally disruptive technologies. By blending them together, what’s being created is something new: the cyberpunk metaverse not as a separate entity, but as an overlay.

If this is a trend rather than a fad—and I’m pretty sure it’s a trend—there are far-reaching implications. Accessibility, privacy, and social interaction offline as well as online can be affected. To me, this is neither fantastic nor forbidding—but it’s fascinating. And, for all of the many jokes to be made about “Web 2.0,” I think it’s going to prove very important in the next decade or two.

Tags: internet, tech

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