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Anticipating Acceleration

As I noted a couple of days ago, I'm attending the Accelerating Change 2004 conference this weekend in Palo Alto. The schedule of presentations and breakout groups is available online, and I've been going over it trying to decide which topics are going to have good WorldChanging content. I've also been looking at the schedule with an eye towards what's not there that should be -- and I've found a few examples.

The theme of this year's conference is "Physical Space, Virtual Space, and Interface," and several of the talks seem to be right up WorldChanging's alley. I'm looking forward to seeing Microsoft's Gordon Bell talk about "MyLifeBits" (a draft version of what I've called a "personal memory assistant"), because such a system would be integral to a fully-developed participatory panopticon world. The ability for individuals to record what they see around them in a nearly-always-on fashion will be revolutionary, and the pieces are coming together far faster than most people realize. When I'm asked at a party what big surprise the next decade may hold, I almost always give "the participatory panopticon" as my answer.

Given the conference's theme, I'm surprised by some of the topic omissions. There really should be a discussion of "smart objects" or other such manifestations of digital capacity embedded in physical items. Increasingly, we have the ability to put sensors, displays and other digital devices into previously dumb materials, from walls to clothing to lamps. This commingling of the physical and virtual realm will be an important factor in how we live in the near future, as we'll be able to get feedback about our surroundings and behaviors, allowing us better-informed choices.

Even more surprising is the lack of scheduled discussion about the overlay of virtual information and physical spaces in an understanding-the-world context -- the "urban informatics" concept much discussed here and elsewhere over the past year. Urban informatics is the smart object concept writ large, with previously-dumb streets and buildings a source of useful, interesting or (at least) amusing information available to anyone with a wireless mobile device. The idea is still in the early stages, and many questions remain about how it should be manifest. Who (if anyone) controls the information? How should it be presented? Should you have to ask for it, or should it (virtually) tap you on the shoulder? Is it just for mobile phones, or just for mobile/hand-held computers, or just for something not yet widely available? What about suburban informatics? Or rural informatics? Does the presence of a passive, wait-until-you-ask system ruin the experience of being alone in nature? How can you tell tourists from locals in the city if everyone can know where and what everything is with minimal effort?

I have similar concerns about the lack of discussion of network-enabled physical systems, such as smart energy grids or even smart mobs. From the list of topics that are there -- virtual communities, virtual money, and the like -- the conference seems perhaps a bit too focused on the implementation of physical world concepts in the virtual world than on the entangling of the virtual and physical spaces. For me, this latter subject is much more interesting. It's definitely more worldchanging.


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