New York Times contributing writer and Wired columnist Clive Thompson discussed changing technology and its implications on everyday life on Wednesday night at the Hilton Fort Collins.
Thompson shed important insight on four trends that he has seen develop with the progression of modern technology, including public thinking, ambient awareness, new literacies and collaborative thought. He also briefly touched on topics such as instant gratification and the pros and cons of internet identity obscurity.
“[Public thinking] is the idea that … in the age of the internet, people are able to talk out loud about the things they are wondering about or thinking about, and get responses from other people,” Thompson said.
In regards to how far public thinking can help us to reach, Thompson recounted a story about a Kenyan woman named Ory Okolloh, who kept up with a blog during a rigged 2007 election in Africa that led to the government shutting down public media access. She asked her followers to email her regarding attacks on protestors and other outrageous acts, and then posted a blog entry about finding an easier way to map out the violence using crowd sourcing. Within 48 hours, using online collaboration based off of Okolloh’s public thinking, Ushahidi was born.
“It’s a little piece of software that rides on top of Google Maps, and anytime there is a crisis in the world now … they put up a map and they say [to the public] ‘please contribute the knowledge you have'”, Thompson explained. “This quickly became so rich with information that the United Nations and the U.S. Military stopped using their own intelligence and just used [Ushahidi].”
This is the idea, according to Thompson, that the collection of a few short messages or posts like someone’s Twitter feed, is a small number of “ambient signals” clueing readers into a glimpse of that person’s life environment.
“Months or years of these posts creates a much richer picture, in the same way a thousand individual, pointless dots make up a large picture,” Thompson said.
He credits this idea as the reason people prefer shorter posts.
“It’s this almost ESP-like sense of being able to know what’s going on in peoples’ lives, and even inside their minds, by paying attention to a lot of very small things,” he noted.
“People are doing a lot more communicating in new forms that we didn’t really use a lot before; photo, video, audio,” Thompson explained. “These became the new literacies, the new ways of formalizing thoughts.”
Thompson discussed how people within the online community have started utilizing multiple forms of communication in order to broadcast their ideas or insights, and then generate community conversations and debates. People are able to manipulate photos in artistic, professional and deceptive ways, and YouTube provides a platform to share videos that relay all kinds of information from how-to tutorials, to vlogs, to revealing things within popular movies and TV shows that typically go unnoticed when watched the first time around.
Computers are smaller and have gone more mobile, photo and video editing is cheaper and more accessible, and there are thousands of apps available to enhance everyday lives. Thompson believes these aspects of modern technology have a positive impact on the way ideas are formulated.
“People do new things and think in new ways,” he said.
To exemplify the power of collaborative thinking using today’s technology, Thompson shared the story of a man named David Baker, an American biochemist who was searching for a quicker, more efficient way to fold proteins in order to study diseases. It started as an automatic screensaver that people could simply download and the data would be sent to Baker, but when errors in the folding occurred, he turned it into a challenging online game called “Folding”.
“[Players] realized they had to do this collectively,” Thompson explained. “They started doing all kinds of public thinking … and used new literacies … to show how they [folded the proteins].”
According to Thompson, those involved in the game became so good at it that Baker presented them with his biggest challenge: HIV protein folding.
“He gave it to them, and three weeks later [the players] figured it out,” Thompson revealed. “In three weeks, they had done what scientists around the world with super computers in ten years had been unable to do.”
To close the evening, Thompson read a quote from his book, Smarter Than You Think, that sums up the relationship with the aforementioned trends and changing technology in general.
“In order to reap the benefits of the online world requires social work,” Thompson said.
Collegian Reporter Haleigh McGill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @HaleighMcGill.