Wearable Hub: Getting the Ball Rolling

Statement

After years of hype, wearable devices are happening. What wearable computing lacks is a way to integrate devices into a broader system.

Disclaimer/Disclosure/Warning

  • For the past two months or so, I’ve been taking notes about this “wearable hub” idea (started around CES’s time, as wearable devices like the Pebble and Google Glass were discussed with more intensity). At this point, I have over 3000 words in notes, which probably means that I’d have enough material for a long essay. This post is just a way to release a few ideas and to “think aloud” about what wearables may mean.
  • Some of these notes have to do with the fact that I started using a few wearable devices to monitor my activities, after a health issue pushed me to start doing some exercise.
  • I’m not a technologist nor do I play one on this blog. I’m primarily an ethnographer, with diverse interests in technology and its implications for human beings. I do research on technological appropriation and some of the course I teach relate to the social dimensions of technology. Some of the approaches to technology that I discuss in those courses relate to constructionism and Actor-Network Theory.
  • I consider myself a “geek ethnographer” in the sense that I take part in geek culture (and have come out as a geek) but I’m also an outsider to geekdom.
  • Contrary to the likes of McLuhan, Carr, and Morozov, my perspective on technology and society is non-deterministic. The way I use them, “implication” and “affordance” aren’t about causal effects or, even, about direct connections. I’m not saying that society is causing technology to appear nor am I proposing a line from tools to social impacts. Technology and society are in a complex system.
  • Further, my approach isn’t predictive. I’m not saying what will happen based on technological advances nor am I saying what technology will appear. I’m thinking about the meaning of technology in an intersubjective way.
  • My personal attitude on tools and gadgets is rather ambivalent. This becomes clear as I go back and forth between techno-enthusiastic contexts (where I can almost appear like a Luddite) and techno-skeptical contexts (where some might label me as a gadget freak). I integrate a number of tools in my life but I can be quite wary about them.
  • I’m not wedded to the ideas I’m putting forth, here. They’re just broad musings of what might be. More than anything, I hope to generate thoughtful discussion. That’s why I start this post with a broad statement (not my usual style).
  • Of course, I know that other people have had similar ideas and I know that a concept of “wearable hub” already exists. It’s obvious enough that it’s one of these things which can be invented independently.

From Wearables to Hubs

Back in the 1990s, “wearable computing” became something of a futuristic buzzword, often having to do with articles of clothing. There have been many experiments and prototypes converging on an idea that we would, one day, be able to wear something resembling a full computer. Meanwhile, “personal digital assistants” became something of a niche product and embedded systems became an important dimension of car manufacturing.

Fast-forward to 2007, when a significant shift in the use of smartphones occurred. Smartphones existed before that time, but their usages, meanings, and positions in the public discourse changed quite radically around the time of the iPhone’s release. Not that the iPhone itself “caused a smartphone revolution” or that smartphone adoption suddenly reached a “tipping point”. I conceive of this shift as a complex interplay between society and tools. Not only more Kuhn than Popper, but more Latour than Kurzweil.

Smartphones, it may be argued, “happened”.

Without being described as “wearable devices”, smartphones started playing some of the functions people might have assigned to wearable devices. The move was subtle enough that Limor Fried recently described it as a realization she’s been having. Some tech enthusiasts may be designing location-aware purses and heads-up displays in the form of glasses. Smartphones are already doing a lot of the things wearables were supposed to do. Many people “wear” smartphones at most times during their waking lives and these Internet-connected devices are full of sensors. With the proliferation of cases, one might even perceive some of them as fashion accessories, like watches and sunglasses.

Where smartphones become more interesting, in terms of wearable computing, is as de facto wearable hubs.

My Wearable Devices

Which brings me to mention the four sensors I’ve been using more extensively during the past two months:

Yes, these all have to do with fitness (and there’s quite a bit of overlap between them). And, yes, I started using them a few days after the New Year. But it’s not about holiday gifts or New Year’s resolutions. I’ve had some of these devices for a while and decided to use them after consulting with a physician about hypertension. Not only have they helped me quite a bit in solving some health issues, but these devices got me to think.

(I carry several other things with me at most times. Some of my favourites include Tenqa REMXD Bluetooth headphones and the LiveScribe echo smartpen.)

One aspect is that they’re all about the so-called “quantified self”. As a qualitative researcher, I tend to be skeptical of quants. In this case, though, the stats I’m collecting about myself fit with my qualitative approach. Along with quantitative data from these devices, I’ve started collecting qualitative data about my life. The next step is to integrate all those data points automatically.

These sensors are also connected to “gamification”, a tendency I find worrisome, preferring playfulness. Though game mechanics are applied to the use of these sensors, I choose to rely on my intrinsic motivation, not paying much attention to scores and badges.

But the part which pushed me to start taking the most notes was that all these sensors connect with my iOS ()and Android) devices. And this is where the “wearable hub” comes into play. None of these devices is autonomous. They’re all part of my personal “arsenal”, the equipment I have on my me on most occasions. Though there are many similarities between them, they still serve different purposes, which are much more limited than those “wearable computers” might have been expected to serve. Without a central device serving as a type of “hub”, these sensors wouldn’t be very useful. This “hub” needs not be a smartphone, despite the fact that, by default, smartphones are taken to be the key piece in this kind of setup.

In my personal scenario, I do use a smartphone as a hub. But I also use tablets. And I could easily use an existing device of another type (say, an iPod touch), or even a new type of device meant to serve as a wearable hub. Smartphones’ “hub” affordances aren’t exclusive.

From Digital Hub to Wearable Hub

Most of the devices which would likely serve as hubs for wearable sensors can be described as “Post-PC”. They’re clearly “personal” and they’re arguably “computers”. Yet they’re significantly different from the “Personal Computers” which have been so important at the end of last century (desktop and laptop computers not used as servers, regardless of the OS they run).

Wearability is a key point, here. But it’s not just a matter of weight or form factor. A wearable hub needs to be wireless in at least two important ways: independent from a power source and connected to other devices through radio waves. The fact that they’re worn at all times also implies a certain degree of integration with other things carried throughout the day (wallets, purses, backpacks, pockets…). These devices may also be more “personal” than PCs because they may be more apparent and more amenable to customization than PCs.

Smartphones fit the bill as wearable hubs. Their form factors and battery life make them wearable enough. Bluetooth (or ANT+, Nike+, etc.) has been used to pair them wirelessly with sensors. Their connectivity to GPS and cellular networking as well as their audio and visual i/o can have interesting uses (mapping a walk, data updates during a commute, voice feedback…). And though they’re far from ubiquitous, smartphones have become quite common in key markets.

Part of the reason I keep thinking about “hubs” has to do with comments made in 2001 by then Apple CEO Steve Jobs about the “digital lifestyle” age in “PC evolution” (video of Jobs’s presentation; as an anthropologist, I’ll refrain from commenting on the evolutionary analogies):

We believe the PC, or more… importantly, the Mac can become the “digital hub” of our emerging digital lifestyle, with the ability to add tremendous value to … other digital devices.

… like camcorders, portable media players, cellphones, digital cameras, handheld organizers, etc. (Though they weren’t mentioned, other peripherals like printers and webcams also connect to PCs.)

The PC was thus going to serve as a hub, “not only adding value to these devices but interconnecting them, as well”.

At the time, key PC affordances which distinguished them from those other digital devices:

  • Big screen affording more complex user interfaces
  • Large, inexpensive hard disk storage
  • Burning DVDs and CDs
  • Internet connectivity, especially broadband
  • Running complex applications (including media processing software like the iLife suite)

Though Jobs pinpointed iLife applications as the basis for this “digital hub” vision, it sounds like FireWire was meant to be an even more important part of this vision. Of course, USB has supplanted FireWire in most use cases. It’s interesting, then, to notice that Apple only recently started shipping Macs with USB 3. In fact, DVD burning is absent from recent Macs. In 2001, the Mac might have been at the forefront of this “digital lifestyle” age. In 2013, the Mac has moved away from its role as “digital hub”.

In the meantime, the iPhone has become one of the best known examples of what I’m calling “wearable hubs”. It has a small screen and small, expensive storage (by today’s standards). It also can’t burn DVDs. But it does have nearly-ubiquitous Internet connectivity and can run fairly complex applications, some of which are adapted from the iLife suite. And though it does have wired connectivity (through Lightning or the “dock connector”), its main hub affordances have to do with Bluetooth.

It’s interesting to note that the same Steve Jobs, who used the “digital hub” concept to explain that the PC wasn’t dead in 2001, is partly responsible for popularizing the concept of “post-PC devices” six years later. One might perceive hypocrisy in this much delayed apparent flip-flop. On the other hand, Steve Jobs’s 2007 comments (video) were somewhat nuanced, as to the role of post-PC devices. What’s more interesting, though, is to think about the implications of the shift between two views of digital devices, regardless of Apple’s position through that shift.

Some post-PC devices (including the iPhone, until quite recently) do require a connection to a PC. In this sense, a smartphone might maintain its position with regards to the PC as digital hub. Yet, some of those devices are used independently of PCs, including by some people who never owned PCs.

Post-Smartphone Hubs

It’s possible to imagine a wearable hub outside of the smartphone (and tablet) paradigm. While smartphones are a convenient way to interconnect wearables, their hub-related affordances still sound limited: they lack large displays and their storage space is quite expensive. Their battery life may also be something to consider in terms of serving as hubs. Their form factors make some sense, when functioning as phones. Yet they have little to do with their use as hubs.

Part of the realization, for me, came from the fact that I’ve been using a tablet as something of an untethered hub. Since I use Bluetooth headphones, I can listen to podcasts and music while my tablet is in my backpack without being entangled in a cable. Sounds trivial but it’s one of these affordances I find quite significant. Delegating music playing functions to my tablet relates in part to battery life and use of storage. The tablet’s display has no importance in this scenario. In fact, given some communication between devices, my smartphone could serve as a display for my tablet. So could a “smartwatch” or “smartglasses”.

The Body Hub

Which led me to think about other devices which would work as wearable hubs. I originally thought about backpackable and pocketable devices.

But a friend had a more striking idea:

Under Armour’s Recharge Energy Suit may be an extreme version of this, one which would fit nicely among things Cathi Bond likes to discuss with Nora Young on The Sniffer. Nora herself has been discussing wearables on her blog as well as on her radio show. Sure, part of this concept is quite futuristic. But a sensor mesh undershirt is a neat idea for several reasons.

  • It’s easy to think of various sensors it may contain.
  • Given its surface area, it could hold enough battery power to supplement other devices.
  • It can be quite comfortable in cold weather and might even help diffuse heat in warmer climates.
  • Though wearable, it needs not be visible.
  • Thieves would probably have a hard time stealing it.
  • Vibration and haptic feedback on the body can open interesting possibilities.

Not that it’s the perfect digital hub and I’m sure there are multiple objections to a connected undershirt (including issues with radio signals). But I find the idea rather fun to think, partly because it’s so far away from the use of phones, glasses, and watches as smart devices.

Another thing I find neat, and it may partly be a coincidence, is the very notion of a “mesh”.

The Wearable Mesh

Mesh networking is a neat concept, which generates more hype than practical uses. As an alternative to WiFi access points and cellular connectivity, it’s unclear that it may “take the world by storm”. But as a way to connect personal devices, it might have some potential. After all, as Bernard Benhamou recently pointed out on France Culture’s Place de la toile, the Internet of Things may not require always-on full-bandwith connectivity. Typically, wearable sensors use fairly little bandwidth or only use it for limited amounts of time. A wearable mesh could connect wearable devices to one another while also exchanging data through the Internet itself.

Or with local devices. Smart cities, near field communication, and digital appliances occupy interesting positions among widely-discussed tendencies in the tech world. They may all have something to do with wearable devices. For instance, data exchanged between transit systems and their users could go through wearable devices. And while mobile payment systems can work through smartphones and other cellphones, wallet functions can also be fulfilled by other wearable devices.

Alternative Futures

Which might provide an appropriate segue into the ambivalence I feel toward the “wearable hub” concept I’m describing. Though I propose these ideas as if I were enthusiastic about them, they all give me pause. As a big fan of critical thinking, I like to think about “what might be” to generate questions and discussions exposing a diversity of viewpoints about the future.

Mass media discussions about these issues tend to focus on such things as privacy, availability, norms, and usefulness. Google Glass has generated quite a bit of buzz about all four. Other wearables may mainly raise issues for one or two of these broad dimensions. But the broad domain of wearable computing raises a lot more issues.

Technology enthusiasts enjoy discussing issues through the dualism between dystopia and utopia. An obvious issue with this dualism is that humans disagree about the two categories. Simply put, one person’s dystopia can be another person’s utopia, not to mention the nuanced views of people who see complex relationships between values and social change.

In such a context, a sociologist’s reflex may be to ask about the implications of these diverse values and opinions. For instance:

  • How do people construct these values?
  • Who decides which values are more important?
  • How might social groups cope with changes in values?

Discussing these issues and more, in a broad frame, might be quite useful. Some of the trickiest issues are raised after some changes in technology have already happened. From writing to cars, any technological context has unexpected implications. An ecological view of these implications could broaden the discussion.

I tend to like the concept of the “drift-off moment”, during which listeners (or readers) start thinking about the possibilities afforded a new tool (or concept). In the context of a sales pitch, the idea is that these possibilities are positive, a potential buyer is thinking about the ways she might use a newfangled device. But I also like the deeper process of thinking about all sorts of implications, regardless of their value.

So…

What might be the implications of a wearable hub?

Bean Counters and Ecologists

[So many things in my drafts, but this one should be quick.]

Recently met someone who started describing their restaurant after calling it a “café”. The “pitch” revolved around ethical practices, using local products, etc. As both a coffee geek and ethnographer, my simple question was: “Which coffee do you use?” Turns out, they’re importing coffee from a multinational corporation. “Oh, but, they’re lending us an expensive espresso machine for free! And they have fair-trade coffee!”

Luckily, we didn’t start talking about “fair trade”. And this person was willing to reflect upon the practices involved, including about the analogy with Anheuser-Busch or Coca-Cola. We didn’t get further into the deeper consequences of the resto’s actions, but the “seed” has been planted.

Sure, it’s important to focus on your financials and there’s nothing preventing a business from being both socially responsible and profitable. It just requires a shift in mindset. Small, lean, nimble businesses are more likely to do it than big, multinational corporate empires…

…which leads me to Google.

Over the years since its IPO, Google has attracted its share of praise and criticism. Like any big, multinational corporate empire. In any sector.

Within the tech sector, the Goog‘ is often compared with Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple. All of these corporate entities have been associated in some people’s minds with some specific issue, from child labour and failure to protect users’ privacy to anticompetitive practices (the tech equivalent of free fridges and espresso machines). The issues are distinct and tech enthusiast spend a large amount of time discussing which one is worse. Meanwhile, we’re forgetting a number of larger issues.

Twitter is an interesting example, here. The service took its value from being at the centre of an ecosystem. As with any ecosystem, numerous interactions among many different members produce unexpected and often remarkable results. As the story goes, elements like hashtags and “@-replies” were invented by users and became an important part of the system. Third-party developers were instrumental in Twitter’s reach outside of its original confines. Though most of the original actors have since left the company, the ecosystem has maintained itself over the years.

When Twitter started changing the rules concerning its API, it shook the ecosystem. Sure, the ecosystem will maintain itself, in the end. But it’s nearly impossible to predict how it will change. For people at Twitter, it must have been obvious that the first changes was a warning shot to scare away those they didn’t want in their ecosystem. But, to this day, there are people who depend on Twitter, one way or another.

Google Reader offers an interesting case. The decision to kill it might have been myopic and its death might have a domino effect.

The warning shot was ambiguous, but the “writing was on the wall”. Among potential consequences of the move, the death of RSS readers was to be expected. One might also expect users of feedreaders to be displeased. In the end, the ecosystem will maintain itself.

Chances are, feedreading will be even more marginalized than it’s been and something else might replace it. Already, many people have been switching from feedreading to using Twitter as a way to gather news items.

What’s not so well-understood is the set of indirect consequences, further down the line. Again, domino effect. Some dominoes are falling in the direction of news outlets which have been slow to adapt to the ways people create and “consume” news items. Though their ad-driven models may sound similar to Google’s, and though feedreading might not be a significant source of direct revenue, the death of feedreaders may give way to the birth of new models for news production and “consumption” which might destabilize them even further. Among the things I tag as #FoJ (“Future of Journalism”) are several pieces of a big puzzle which seems misunderstood by news organizations.

There are other big dominoes which might fall from the death of Google Reader. Partly because RSS itself is part of a whole ecosystem. Dave Winer and Aaron Swartz have been major actors in the technical specifications of RSS. But Chris Lydon and people building on calendar syndication are also part of the ecosystem. In business-speak, you might call them “stakeholders”. But thinking about the ecosystem itself leads to a deeper set of thoughts, beyond the individuals involved. In the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s premature death, it may be appropriate to point out that the ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts.

As I said on a service owned by another widely-criticized corporate empire:

Many of us keep saying that Google needs to listen to its social scientists. It also needs to understand ecology.

Retour à Facebook?

Maintenant que Twitter commence à franchement m’énerver, je risque d’utiliser Facebook plus activement.

D’ailleurs, ça fait longtemps que je pense à repenser mes activités dans les médias sociaux. J’ai eu une passe un peu trop “broadcast”. J’aimerais être plus «interactif».

Faut dire que, comme la plupart des gens que je connais, je blogue presque plus. Twitter avait pris le relai, d’une certaine façon, mais seulement dans une direction. Finalement, après plusieurs années, je me rends compte que j’ai peu d’interactions sur Twitter. Sur mon compte principal, du moins.

Ce qui m’a fait remarquer tout ça, en fait, c’est d’être presque forcé de me concentrer sur une plateforme à la fois. Jusqu’à tout récemment, j’avais l’habitude d’envoyer les mêmes trucs sur plusieurs plateformes (Facebook, StatusNet, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn…). Je sais bien que plusieurs personnes détestent le “crossposting”, mais c’était permis et ça me convenait.

J’utilisais le service Ping.fm, qui rendait la tâche très facile. Entre autres, il me permettait de distinguer entre des «mises à jour de statut» (“status updates”) d’envois de «microblogue». La différence était subtile et n’apparaissait pas sur toutes les plateformes, mais je la trouvais utile. Comme plusieurs le savent, mes «statuts» sont généralement bilingues, accordant une valeur particulière à la version française. C’était tout bête, comme truc, mais ça fonctionnait pour moi.

Malheureusement, Ping.fm a été acheté par Seesmic qui a été acheté par HootSuite. Par ces rachats, certaines limites ont été imposées et certaines fonctionnalités ont disparu. J’avais l’habitude d’envoyer mes trucs à plusieurs endroits à la fois, mais ça devient plus difficile à faire. Ceux qui détestent le “crossposting” seront peut-être satisfaits, mais ça m’embête un peu.

En même temps, c’est devenu plus facile de partager sur une plateforme donnée à la fois. Entre autres grâce au support natif dans OS X comme dans iOS et Android. Plusieurs «contenus» (liens et images, surtout) peuvent être envoyés directement à Facebook ou Twitter sans quitter l’application en cours d’utilisation. Pas mal. Mais ça ne facilite pas l’envoi simultané à Twitter et Facebook. Ou l’envoi sur StatusNet, Tumblr, LinkedIn, etc.

Je pensais donc à me réinvestir sur une autre plateforme.

Pourquoi Facebook? En fait, c’est pour une raison très simple: c’est sur Facebook que j’ai le plus d’interaction. Au-delà de tous les principes et de toutes les questions techniques, c’est ce qui compte le plus, pour moi. Si je suis honnête avec moi-même.

Pendant des années, j’ai essayé d’avoir le plus d’interactions possibles sur diverses plateformes. On peut dire que ma méthode était moins qu’adéquate pour toutes sortes de raisons, mais j’essayais quand même, à ma façon. La leçon que j’aurais peut-être dû apprendre, en envoyant les mêmes choses sur différentes plateformes, c’est qu’une seule d’entre ces plateformes devrait me suffire. Et c’est peut-être dommage mais cette plateforme semble être Facebook.

Pas que je vais abandonner les autres plateformes. Mais elles auront probablement un rôle différent, pour moi. Honnêtement, je suis pas certain quel rôle jouera chacune de ces plateformes. On verra à l’usage.

D’ailleurs, ç’a toujours été ma philosophie, avec mes comptes personnels: j’expérimente, je m’amuse et je vois ce qui reste. Assez différent avec des comptes organisationnels ou professionnels. Mais l’idée de base est que mon usage personnel me donne une expérience qui est utile dans le reste de ma vie.

D’ailleurs, mon compte @iethnographer sur Twitter remplit bien sa fonction. Je l’utilise peu mais, quand je l’utilise, ça «fonctionne». Pas que ça démarre des longues discussions, mais ça me permet d’avoir des interactions ciblées. C’est tout ce que je veux. D’ailleurs, les abonnés de ce compte sont généralement des gens ou des groupes avec qui j’ai des intérêts en commun. Sur mon compte perso, j’ai accumulé pas mal d’abonnés qui ont surtout un intérêt pour les médias sociaux, souvent pour des buts un peu douteux. J’ai moins de nouveaux abonnés de ce type, mais je peux pas dire que j’ai réseau bien ciblé, sur mon principal compte Twitter. Évidemment, j’aurais pu éviter cette situation, si j’avais dédié mon compte à un sujet spécifique ou si j’avais pris soin de suivre des gens avec qui j’ai des intérêts communs. J’ai fait un peu de ça de 2007 à 2008 mais, depuis, c’est devenu plus difficile.

Qu’en est-il des autres plateformes? Je vais probablement continuer à les utiliser, à l’occasion, mais je crois que c’est le moment pour moi de me «regrouper». À une certaine époque (jusqu’en 2010, disons), j’accumulais des comptes sur toutes les plateformes possibles et imaginables. Pas que je m’investissais outremesure, mais j’essayais un peu tout, je sautais dans le «chariot» (le “bandwagon”). En présentation (à PodCamp, par exemple), j’avais tendance à dire qu’on pouvait me trouver sur n’importe quelle plateforme et j’invitais les gens à me faire signe s’ils étaient sur une plateforme où je n’avais pas de présence.

Depuis environ deux ans, j’ai cessé d’ouvrir des compte sur chaque nouvelle plateforme. Pas que c’était une décision consciente de me concentrer sur celles que j’utilisais déjà. Mais j’ai arrêté de «sauter dans le train en marche». Ainsi, je n’ai pas de compte sur Pinterest, Path, App.net ou Instagram. Et je sous-utilise certains des comptes que j’ai ouverts (Branch, Diaspora, Academia.edu, Quora…). Dans le fond, j’ai pas besoin de grand-chose, pour mon usage personnel. Même pour expérimenter.

Certaines des plateformes que j’utilisais ont disparu. D’ailleurs, ce qui s’est passé avec Google Wave a eu un drôle d’effet sur moi. J’avais espoir que ça puisse devenir quelque-chose de formidable. J’ai été si amèrement déçu que ma perception de Google a pris une nouvelle tournure. D’ailleurs, parlant de Google, leur acquisition et destruction d’Aardvark (vark.com) m’a aussi perturbé. Dans toute sa simplicité, ‘Vark était devenu une super plateforme, pour moi. Si ça peut paraître bête pour certains (surtout ceux qui croient que Quora et Stack Overflow peuvent remplir les mêmes fonctions), j’ai perdu quelque-chose quand Google a étouffé l’Aardvark dans l’œuf.

Et ne parlons pas de Google Buzz.

Mais un mot quand même au sujet de Google+, qui peut être ou devenir la principale plateforme de médias sociaux, pour certains…

En fait, ces derniers temps, j’ai pensé à me concentrer sur Google+ plutôt que sur Facebook ou d’autres plateformes. Un avantage, c’est que c’est une plateforme assez polyvalente, puisqu’on peut y partager toutes sortes de choses. Puisque je dispose d’un Nexus 7, ça pourrait devenir ma plateforme privilégiée. C’est peut-être même ce qui va se passer, après un certain temps. Mais probablement pas pour le moment.

Le principal problème que j’ai, avec Google+, c’est que j’aurais besoin de m’y investir à fond pour en retirer quelque-chose d’intéressant. Pas que j’y ai pas de contacts. En fait, je suis dans plus de cercles G+ que je n’ai d’«amis» sur Facebook. Mais ces contacts G+ demandent un autre type d’attention que ce que je suis disposé à accorder. Et, j’insiste, c’est une question qualitative, pas quantitative. Je parle pas d’un effort accru mais d’un effort distinct.

Parce qu’utiliser G+, pour moi, ça entre pas dans ma routine.

Pas que ce que j’y envoie tombe dans le vide. Proportionnellement, j’y reçois presqu’autant de retours que sur mon compte Twitter personnel. Et ces interactions sont tout-à-fait valables, dans le contexte. Mais elles sont d’un certain type, lié à ceux de mes contacts qui participent à une certaine sphère technologique. Pour rendre la plateforme vraiment satisfaisante, ça me demanderait un boulot de fond. Je devrais changer ma façon de procéder, provoquer de nouveaux types d’interactions, me lier à des gens qui partagent d’autres types d’intérêts, «produire du contenu» d’un certain type, etc.

Faut dire qu’il manque certains trucs, à Google+ (qui a pourtant fait son apparition il y a un an et demi). Par exemple, je peux pas envoyer des trucs sur G+ à partir d’autres plateformes, y compris WordPress et Foursquare. Je peux archiver mes envois grâce à ThinkUp, mais ça demeure bien limité. Pas vraiment de façon d’explorer les recoins de mon réseau social au-delà du premier degré. Pas vraiment de «groupes de discussion», non plus. Et les profils sont aussi limités que ceux de Google Profiles.

En disant tout ça, je continue à réfléchir (c’est un peu pour ça que j’écris). Peut-être que G+ deviendra bientôt ma plateforme de choix, surtout si j’arrive à me convaincre que les obstacles sont «dans ma tête». Un peu comme ma décision de «donner une chance à Android» (plutôt insatisfaisant), j’essaie non seulement de garder l’esprit ouvert mais de faire quelques efforts vers d’autres façons de fonctionner.

Un problème particulier, c’est que Google+ m’inspire pas. Je vois mal ce que ça peut devenir. J’y vois pas d’avantage majeur par rapport à Twitter et Facebook, malgré la réputation de Google dans certains de mes cercles d’amis. Bien que je sois sensible au discours sur l’ouverture et que le comportement corporatif de Facebook et Twitter puisse laisser à désirer, j’ai encore rien vu dans Google+ qui peut ouvrir des nouvelles possibilités, pour moi. Et les beaux principes qui semblent avantager Google dans les yeux de certains n’ont que peu de valeur à mes yeux quand ils sont associés à une entreprise qui, à la fois, accorde si peu d’importance à l’être humain et se concentre tellement sur la publicité.

En passant, je comprends bien que G+ est bien plus qu’une plateforme de média social. Mais je pense ici à mes activités dans les médias sociaux, pas aux objectifs que Google s’est fixé. Je trouve que l’engin de recherche Google continue à se détériorer et G+ n’a pas eu d’effet bien positif de ce côté. Je pense même qu’il y a une méprise fondamentale sur le type d’activité qui rend les médias sociaux si intéressants.

Ce qui me pousse à concentrer certaines de mes activités de médias sociaux sur Facebook.

Depuis sept ans que je suis sur Facebook, j’ai pu observer beaucoup de changements. Plusieurs de ces changements ont un effet négatif sur l’expérience générale de la plateforme. Mais certains sont assez utiles, pour moi.

En 2005, mes seuls contacts Facebook étaient quelques-uns des étudiants avec lesquels j’étais en contact, aux États-Unis, y compris certains de ceux qui suivaient mes cours, à Bridgewater. Par la suite, j’ai eu quelques contacts Facebook dans des universités canadiennes. Mais c’est seulement  au moment où la plateforme a été ouverte à tout le monde que mon réseau sur Facebook a pris son sens.

Il y a aussi eu la période des applications. Plusieurs d’entre elles causaient plus de frustration que de nouveaux usages, mais elles ont poussé les gens à investir plus de temps sur Facebook, ce qui a eu certains effets intéressants sur l’utilisation de la plateforme. Ce que plusieurs ont bien compris, c’est qu’une fois que les gens sont sur une plateforme, ils risquent d’y passer plus de temps. Même avant les jeux sur Facebook (Spymaster, d’abord, puis FarmVille et autres phénomènes de masse), les applications ont eu pour effet d’asseoir la plateforme sur une base plus solide.

Dans les autres développements plutôt utiles, il y a eu l’ajout de «flux d’actualités» (“newsfeeds”) et l’amélioration du système de messagerie. J’ai jamais été très fort sur le clavardage alors le système hybride que Facebook propose tend à me convenir relativement bien.

Évidemment, il y a des tas de trucs qui me fatiguent, avec Facebook. Mais, finalement, c’est moins problématique que ça l’était, à une certaine époque.

Donc, on verra bien ce qui va se passer. Disons simplement que je vais retourner à Facebook avec un esprit ouvert.

 

Energized by Bret Victor

Just watched Bret Victor’s powerful video:

Inventing on Principle | CUSEC

Simply put, watching it was a lifechanging moment, for me.

In some ways, Victor’s talk was deeply philosophical, though it’s easy to assess it as a demonstration about software engineering. It was delivered (here in Montreal) at a software engineering conference and Victor masterfully adapted his talk to a software engineering audience.

But, more than Hofstadter “philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction” (that I consider to be a computer science book disguised as semi-academic nonfiction), Victor’s talk is a call to action disguised as a talk on software engineering. It makes a profound philosophical statement using software engineering as a launching point. In other words, it may have had more of an impact on me (as an ethnographer and a teacher, but also as a human being) than it may have had on software engineers who were present.

Quite a feat for something which seems to have had a significant impact on some software engineers.

This impact relates to how I got to Bret Victor’s presentation…

I follow John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog. On Monday, he had a short link post about Bret Victor:

Astoundingly insightful and inspiring essay by Bret Victor. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time.

That insightful essay is on Learnable Programming.

Its starting point is a response to Khan Academy’s use of his work. In that sense, it’s a levelheaded but rather negative review of what the Khan folks did. As such, I associate it with critiques from science teachers. For instance:

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction

Started reading that post but context was missing, for me. Wasn’t able to really hang on to it. I then decided to look at that post in which Victor was cited.

John Resig – Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science

Victor’s impact on software engineering is clear in that post, as Resig describes a shift in his thinking after watching Victor’s thought. But the shift was based on a few elements of Victor’s talk, not on the main ideas behind it. At least, that’s what I get after watching Victor’s presentation.

Of course, I may be wrong. In fact, my reaction to Victor’s talk may be based on all sorts of other things. Maybe I’m putting into it all sorts of things which weren’t there originally. If so, that’s a sign of something powerful.

And, again, watching it was a powerful moment.

I know… that sounds big. But it’s one of those triggering moments, I feel, when things are connecting in interesting ways. In fact, I’m comparing it to another lifechanging moment I had four years ago and which became the basis of my “Happiness Anniversary”.

What happened that time is a larger set of things, but one specific point connects that date with Victor’s presentation. Four years ago, I participated in a CTLS workshop by Janette Barrington called “Writing a Personally Meaningful Teaching Philosophy Statement”. That workshop was based in part on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), which is where the connection with Bret Victor starts.

Here are the five perspectives identified by Daniel D. Pratt and John B. Collins (summary):

  • Transmission: Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.
  • Apprenticeship: Effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working.
  • Developmental: Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”.
  • Nurturing: Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, as well as the head.
  • Social Reform: Effective teaching seeks to change society in substantive ways.

(Unsurprisingly, my highest scores were for developmental and nurturing, followed by social reform. Transmission and apprenticeship were quite low, for me.)

During the workshop, participants were teamed up according to these results. I don’t remember the exact details, but the mix of perspectives in our four-person team was optimal. We were so compatible with each other that we went to the “performing” stage of Tuckman’s classical model in no time. Haven’t heard from any of the three women with whom I was working, but it was a powerful moment for me.

Something I’ve noticed within our team is the importance of “social reform”. Though I teach social sciences, I’m no activist, but I find myself to be quite compatible with activists. In a way, my nurturing/developmental perspective is in complementarity with activism. I do wish to enable people, regardless of their goals. And these goals are often guided by deep principles that I tend to associate with activism.

Something else I’ve noticed had to do with engineers. If I remember correctly, there was a team made up of engineering teachers. They also appeared to be quite effective in their approach. But they were also quite distinct from our team. This has nothing to do with stereotypes and I fully realize that these same individuals may be quite different from one another in other contexts. But, at least in this context, they had a common perspective which, I would say, was furthest away from social reform and much closer to transmission.

Victor’s talk is doing the reverse, with software engineering. Through his presentation, Bret Victor encouraged engineers to think about the worldchanging potential of their work instead of emphasizing mere transmission of information (e.g., how to do a binary search). Given the talk’s influence on some software engineers, I’d say that it was quite effective. Not on everyone, and I’m sure there are engineers who dismiss Bret Victor in whichever way. But I find something there.

And much of it has to do with complementarity. Victor insists in his talk that it’s not about forcing people to “follow his lead”. It’s about allowing these people to understand that their lives and work can have a strong basis in deep principles. Having spent a bit of time with RMS, a few years ago, I can feel the effects of such lives and work.

So, how did Bret Victor change my life? In some ways, it’s too early to tell. I’ve watched this video and started reaching out about it, including in a long email to people I think might be interested. That email served as a basis for this post.

But there are some things I’m noticing already, which is why I call the experience lifechanging:

  • I’m finding ways to connect different parts of my life. I teach social science to people with diverse orientations to learning, often with an emphasis on problem-solving. Victor gives me a way to link problem-solving and social reform, making it easier for me to accomplish my goals of enabling people’s own goals.
  • While I’m no activist, my goals probably do relate to a core principle, which I haven’t really articulated, yet. Enabling others to action, or tummeling, gets very close to it.
  • For quite a while, now, I’ve been thinking about the role of public intellectuals. It’s something of a common theme on this blog, and I’ve been thinking about it in new ways, lately. Victor’s presentation is an exquisite (!) example of what I think a public intellectual can do.
  • More personally, this talk made me realize that I’m not so blasé after all. Lately, I’ve had times during which I couldn’t get stimulation. In fact, watching Apple’s iPad mini keynote left me with a definitive meh feeling, as if the “reality distortion field” had been turned off. Bret Victor’s CUSEC talk had more of an effect on me than did any Apple keynote, including celebrated ones by Steve Jobs.

I now feel a sense of purpose.

What else can I ask from 54″ of my time?

The Magazine and Social Media

Megaphone red
Megaphone red by Adamantios (via Wikimedia Commons, (GFDL, CC-BY-SA)

The following is my App Store review of The Magazine, a Newsstand offering by Instapaper developer Marco Arment.

Though I like Marco Arment’s work and there’s nothing specifically wrong about this implementation of the magazine model, I don’t find the magazine model particularly useful, at this point. And, make no mistake. The Magazine is indeed a magazine.

Oh, sure, this format overcomes several of the limitations set by advertising-based models and hierarchical boards. But it maintains something of the magazine logic: a tight bundle of a few articles authored by people connected through the same “editorial intent”. It’s not a conversation with the public. In this first issue, it’s not even a conversation among co-authors.

The “linked list” aspect of the “Fireball Format” (from John Gruber’s Daring Fireball media property) is described in one of the pieces in this first issue. Other distinguishing factors of the “Fireball Format” aren’t discussed in that same piece. They include a “no comment” policy which has become rather common among high-profile blogs. Unlike most blogs of the pioneer era in social media, these blogs don’t allow readers to comment directly.

A justification for this policy is that comments can be posted elsewhere. And since most of these bloggers are active on microblogging platforms like App.net and Twitter, there’s a chance that a comment might be noticed by those authors. What’s missing, though, is the sense of belonging which bloggers created among themselves before MySpace.

In other words, now that there are large social networking services online, the social aspects of blogging have been deemphasized and authorial dimensions have come to prominence. Though Arment dislikes the word, blog authors have become “brands”. It still works when these authors are in conversation with one another, when there’s a likelihood of a “followup” (FU in 5by5 parlance), when authors are responsive.

None of that interaction potential seems to be part of the core model for The Magazine. You can scream at your iOS device all you want, Jason Snell will probably not respond to you in a future edition of The Magazine. You can attempt dialogue on Twitter, but any conversation you may succeed in starting there is unlikely to have any impact on The Magazine. You’re talking with authors, now, not with members of a community.

With The Magazine, the transition from social to authorial is almost complete. Not only are posts set apart from the conversation but the editorial act of bundling posts together brings back all the problems media scholars have been pointing out for the past several decades. The issue at stake isn’t merely the move to online delivery. It’s the structure of authority and the one-to-many broadcast-style transmission. We’ve taken a step back.

So, while The Magazine has certain technical advantages over old school magazines like The Daily and Wired, it represents a step away from social media and towards mass media. Less critical thinking, more pedestals.

A new model could emerge using the infrastructure and business model that Arment built. But it’d require significant work outside of the application. The Feature might contribute something to this new model, especially if the way posts are bundled together became more flexible.

So, all in all, I consider The Magazine to be a step in the wrong direction by someone whose work I respect.

Good thing we still have podcasts.

Font Change

First time I change fonts in an existing theme. We’ll see how that works.

Just learnt about Adobe’s Source Sans Pro and thought it was particularly neat. I’m no “type geek” but I’m getting something from this font which I don’t get from other fonts. Been switching different desktop apps to it and it’s now the default font in my default browser. Now that Adobe has released the monospace Source Code Pro, I’m using that in text editors.

Using Google Web Fonts with WordPress

As these fonts are among Google Web Fonts, it’s particularly easy to use them with Web content.

There are plenty of methods to change fonts in a WordPress theme. The best one, most likely, is to create a child theme and change fonts there. Looks like the “@import” method isn’t recommended, but it probably works.

In my case, I’m using a simple plugin. There are plenty of Web fonts plugins available but this one seems to do the job and I don’t need the features other plugins are boasting. One thing I might want to change is the font for blockquotes.

Blockquotes can look quite different from the rest…

But that’s not really an issue, for now. Same thing with switching fixed-width to Source Code Pro.

This probably looks weird…

Given the popularity of Source Sans Pro, I’m assuming some WP themes will start adopting it as a font choice. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll probably switch to Source Sans Pro on other sites as well.

Some samples…

  1. Il était une fois…
  2. Affinités pour les ligatures subtiles, pour les afters.
  3. Dans le gras du vide.
  4. Ça marche comme à Çingleton, ça madame!
  5. À moins de 0ºC, Orville se les gèle.

Timeline of Apple’s Online Services

[I’d like people’s help in completing a timeline of Apple’s online services.]

[Update: deleted the WordPress shortcode, which seems not to be working.]

As kind of a followup to yesterday’s post about some early rumours and speculations about the iPhone, I thought about posting some info about Apple’s online services. Part of the reason is that Asymco’s Horace Dediu has frequently talked about what we could call “Apple’s data play”, for instance in this post about the iCloud data centre in North Carolina. I was also thinking about Mike Davidson’s comments about Apple’s presence (and “dominance”) in such diverse fields as hardware, software, licensing, and commerce. The trigger for this post, though, was from this Steve Jobs comment, which appeared in a recent NYT piece about the Apple Maps fiasco:

The MobileMe launch clearly demonstrates that we have more to learn about Internet services

The overall context for this quote as well as a number of discussions about Apple is the consensus that Apple does a poor job with online services. MobileMe and iTunes Ping are often used in these discussions and it seems clear to most people (including Apple executives and insiders, it sounds like) that the “computer company turned consumer electronics vendor” has a lot to learn about online services.

The reason I find this so interesting is that Apple seems insistent on pushing at least some of its online services. A bit less of a “betting the farm” strategy as Google’s “Emerald Sea” initiative, but an intriguing strategy for such a large and still-successful company. Dediu’s frequent reference to Clay Christensen’s concept of “Disruptive Innovation” might apply, here. Apple might be “disrupting itself into” an online services company, at least in part.

There are several things I find intriguing about this strategy.

As opposed to most other enterprises’ “online plays”, Apple’s model tends not to be based on ad revenues. The divide between Google and Apple couldn’t be stronger when we talk about ad-supported free/freemium services as opposed to paid services or services attached to other purposes. It’s likely an irreconcilable difference between fans of  both teams.

Online services are clearly not Apple’s strong suit. It often sounds like Apple is missing a “magic touch” with online services, the same way other companies are said to lack Apple’s design sense. This is more similar to Google+ given the consensus that “Google doesn’t know how to do ‘social’”. But it’s still surprising.

Though Apple may not have a “knack” for online services, it’s been trying to do it for quite a while. I keep thinking about eWorld as a precursor to the whole thing. It’s one thing for a company to try its hand at something new or to pivot into a strong business. It’s another thing entirely to shift more energies into something which has so far proven to be mostly a lost cause.

Adding to my thoughts on this was a podcast conversation (I think between John Siracusa and Dan Benjamin, though it might have been between Marco Arment and John Gruber) during which comments were made about those Apple employees working on online services.

So, basically, Apple’s online services have been on my mind. But I couldn’t find an exhaustive list. Tried Wikipedia but it doesn’t really separate online services from other things Apple does. And I ended up thinking about what would define “online services” in Apple’s case. Everything Apple does which incurs some bandwidth costs would be my working definition. Basically, it’s something to do with Apple investing in data centres and such. Some of these seem like very small costs (hosting data about podcasts, instead of the podcasts themselves, for instance). Given Apple’s size, these costs and the infrastructure behind all of this can be quite big.

So I started listing some of these services and organizing them in a sort of timeline, first in MultiMarkdown format in nvAlt, then in a Google Spreadsheet. I then discovered Vérité.CO’s Timeline.JS which takes a Google Spreadsheet and makes it into a visual timeline.

A few notes:

  • It’s a quick draft and I didn’t really check any of the data points.
  • In most cases, I only added months and, in the case of “AppleLink”, I only put years.
  • I took most dates from diverse Wikipedia pages, not necessarily backtracking on the whole process.
  • On at least one occasion, there was a discrepancy between two dates.
  • Sometimes, I took the date of the service’s announcement while I used an actual launch date for other services.
  • I only added a couple of pictures to show that it can be done. Many of the relevant pix are likely to be under copyright or to constitute a trademark.
  • I tried to be as exhaustive as I could be, but I’m sure I forgot stuff.
  • Some things may not sound like they qualify as part of “Apple’s online offering” but I think they’re still relevant. My rule of thumb is that if it goes to Apple’s servers, it’s an online service.
  • I separated some services from “suites” like iCloud or iTools, partly because some of those services haven’t been kept, which is important to see in a timeline. There are several services missing, here.
  • None of this timeline is meant to be editorial. I was just curious about what Apple has been doing online since the 1980s. The reason I care can be found in my earlier notes. I consider myself neither an “Apple fanboi” nor an “Apple hater”. I just find the situation revealing of something happening in the tech world, which has an impact on the Geek Niche.

So, here goes.

Here’s the Google Spreadsheet (editable by anyone):

Apple Online Services

Here’s the timeline through an embed code:

Here’s the embed code:

<iframe src='http://embed.verite.co/timeline/?source=0AjnWdp-FPwEKdHVqOXhWVlZuZjZYajN5QnExcExuVmc&font=Bevan-PotanoSans&maptype=toner&lang=en&hash_bookmark=true&height=650' width='100%' height='650' frameborder='0'>

 

A bilingual blog on disparate subjects. / Un blogue disparate bilingue.