FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, September 30, 2004

SpaceShipOne Now 2 for 2

Although this is stale news to anyone following the efforts of SpaceShipOne to capture the X Prize for a successful commercial manned space flight, SpaceShipOne enjoyed a second successful flight yesterday. There were tense moments, however, when the ship began spinning erratically, and the flight was cut short... but not before ascending 67 miles.

SpaceShipOne made its first landmark flight back in July. The next flight is scheduled for next Monday, Oct. 4.

Woman Busted for Loud Cell Phone Call

Depending on your point of view, this story is bound to make you either cheer or cringe. On Sept. 9, a woman who was five months' pregnant was arrested at a Maryland bus depot for talking too loudly on her cell phone. She was forced to lie on her stomach, though a doctor later confirmed that her unborn child was not harmed in the incident. Police claim that she was initially asked by an officer to keep her voice down, whereupon she became "abusive and uncooperative," prompting the arrest.

Having just returned from a business trip and noting how ubiquitous cell phones have become, I can see how they will continue to be a source of friction when used in public places. In part, this is because we haven't yet agreed upon etiquette for using our cool new devices. Although it sounds quaint and hardly futuristic, etiquette is an important concept in any era.

When the telephone was first introduced in the 1870s, it took several years for basic telephone etiquette to emerge. For instance, people didn't know a proper way to answer a phone at first -- something that even small children today take for granted. People also didn't know when it was proper to initiate a phone call, or whether it was too "forward" for women to call men. The wealthy left the task of telephoning to their servants, believing that using the phone was vulgar. Of course, all this reflected the mores and manners of the time, but they illustrate the challenge that the telephone posed to long-established rules of personal interaction.

Cell phones, along with Caller ID, instant messaging, camera phones and text messaging, continue to change the way we communicate with one another. Cell phones in particular have, in part, instigated a loss in privacy as more folks converse out in the open (in the old days, making a public phone call meant going into a phone booth and closing a door). And along with those changes are bound to be conflicts.

Perhaps a resolution will be much like out approach to smoking, in that we divide our public spaces into "phone-friendly" and "phone-free" areas. Or, more locales may take extreme measures, as with Saudi Arabia, which is enforcing a ban on camera phones. The rise of text messaging (along with encryption standards) may permit a return to more discreet personal communication when one is in a public place. At least, one hopes not to be arrested for "texting" too loudly.

In Search of an Ebola Vaccine

Ebola infection is one of the deadliest, most contagious diseases in existence, with no known cure. A single viral particle (pictured below) can multiply and cause death within days. Making matters worse, the Ebola virus has the potential to be weaponized.

Because of this danger, the U.S. Government is making the development of an Ebola vaccine a priority, according to Scientific American. The vaccine appears to be effective in mice and monkeys, but there's currently no safe way to test it in humans. Another unknown is how long immunity will last; current vaccine batches protect for only about a month.

Even though a viable, commercial Ebola vaccine might not be available for years, the Department of Homeland Security may stockpile early versions nonetheless, bargaining that in a bioterror emergency, a questionable vaccine would be better than no vaccine at all.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Video Games: Advertising's New Frontier

Much has been made of ways for advertisers to capture that elusive young male demographic, as they appear to be shunning TV for video games and the Internet. As reported in Business 2.0, advertising agencies are viewing advertising within video games as an increasingly viable option. The "ads" appear mainly as product placements in the background... for instance, a sign on a cab or a side of a bus, or a billboard on a city street. Internet-based games could have ads that update on the fly and promote timely events, such as the premiere of a movie.

In-Game Advertising Spending (in millions)

Measuring the effectiveness of these ads, however, is difficult. Game players may react negatively, and game manufacturers must be persuaded to include the technology for "pushing" the ads in their games. There are no good studies on how impactful these ads are. Unlike advertising for other media, there's no upside for the audience; with radio and TV, at least, advertising subsidizes a "free" service. And, as with any Internet-based technology, there's always the risk for viruses. Game-based advertising, clearly, is in its infancy... but it's worth watching.

Technorati Down This Past Weekend

For all you fellow bloggers our there, if you noticed that traffic to your blogs was down somewhat this past weekend, it might have been because the Technorati blog indexing site was down due to an electrical fire near their host facility on Friday. As of this afternoon, the site was back up but still not at 100%.

Jay Leno to Retire in 2009; Conan Will Replace

Tonight Show host Jay Leno has announced that he will retire in 2009, handing the reins of the late-night legacy to Conan O'Brien. One has to wonder what the face of late-night TV will be like five years hence. On the one hand, Leno and his late-night kin play a large role in forming popular opinion, particularly in political matters. But on the other, network TV appears to be on the decline, under a full-scale assault from cable and broadband Internet.

What kind of media world will Conan inherit? It'll be one that he was a driving force in creating, yet it will also be shaped by uncontrollable outside elements. Will there even be a Tonight Show in 2009, or an NBC? Will the hot new late-night show be on cable, streamed through the Internet, or come to us through some other emerging medium?

More importantly, what will become of Carson Daly???

More X Prize News

As reported here today, the Virgin Group's Sir Richard Branson plans to leverage the technology of X Prize frontrunner SpaceShipOne for commercial suboribtal flights. However, there's more news on the X Prize front to report:
October is shaping up to be a busy month for commerical spaceflight. Hope we see more treats than tricks...

"Nanocarpet" Changes Color, Kills Bacteria

As reported in KurzweilAI.net and Technology Trends, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have created uniform nanotubes that can be woven into carpet. This "nanocarpet" can be made sensitive to outside agents, allowing it to sense and kill bacteria, and to change color when exposed to certain substances.

(Top) Magnified nanotubes. (Bottom) Nanotubes attacking an E. coli bacterium.
View more pictures here.

Such carpeting would be useful in environments that demand exceptional cleanliness, such as hospitals and homes of people with immune deficiencies, or high-security areas as an early-warning system for bioterrorist attack. It would also be interesting to couple nanocarpet with pressure-sensitive robotic "skin" that detects pressure through a grid of sensors. Could a nanocarpet be engineered to clean itself, to dry itself, to change colors along with decor, and even to repair itself?

Also, from Beverly Tang's reBlog, this same team is working to develop "nano-paint" with similar color-change and antiseptic properties.

Virgin to Pioneer Space Tourism

Virgin chief executive Sir Richard Branson has announced plans to expand into space tourism. Calling his new venture "Virgin Galactic," Branson says that passengers would fly into suborbital space aboard a modified version of SpaceShipOne, which is one of the leading contenders for the X Prize (to be given for the first commercial piloted craft to reach space).

Branson, a noted adventurer as well as an enterpreneur, says that the flights should debut within three years, and that seats will initially go for approximately $50,000 each. Passengers will receive a week's training prior to liftoff; flights will then last for roughly three hours (I know, I know... "A three-hour tour... a three-ho-ur tour...").

IBM, HP Commit to RFID

In a move that indicates the big IT players see radio frequency identification (RFID) as a major emerging technology, IBM and Hewlett-Packard are investing millions into RFID initiatives.

IBM is sinking $250 million and committing 1,000 employees to their initiative, which will help its customers leverage RFID technology more easily. For its part, HP is investing $150 million.

Speculation is that the moves are in response to Wal-Mart's headlong embrace of RFID technology, which is already forcing its suppliers to adopt it as well. Because of its size, Wal-Mart has the luxury of being able to set standards. If RFID proves to be a money-saver, it could open the floodgates for retailers of all sizes to leverage RFID, followed by anybody who needs to track anything electronically.

In addition to big players like IBM and HP getting involved, many smaller software and consulting firms will surely benefit as RFID catches on.

The New York Times Takes on Blogs

The New York Times has an interesting piece today on how bloggers are affecting politics (free registration required to view). Relatedly, Jeff Jarvis' BuzzMachine blog has a piece on how, between blogs and cable TV, he no longer watches network TV. As Jeff says, "I don't consume media anymore; I live it."

Sunday, September 26, 2004

An Approach to reBlogging

One of the strengths of the blogging movement is bloggers' habit of citing and even copying posts from other blogs, virally disseminating and strengthening stories that command attention. Called "reBlogging," it's practiced by many, if not all bloggers (including yours truly). What's called plagiarism in the mainstream media is not only approved of but encouraged by bloggers (including yours truly). ReBlogging is what sets blogs apart from other media... and what gives the blogosphere its unique and growing power.

Tom Moody, an accomplished reBlogger formerly of Eyebeam, has posted his philosophies on reBlogging on his personal blog. While I don't agree wholeheartedly with all his points, he does a very good job explaining what reBlogging is all about, and why it's important. If you're not familiar with reBlogging, reading this post -- along with the comments it's collected -- is an excellent starting point.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Terrorism Survival Guide

The RAND Corporation is making available, at no charge, a downloadable guide to preparing for and surviving a chemical, nuclear or biological terrorist attack. The guide comes in PDF and Palm OS versions.

And on that cheerful note, have a nice weekend! :)

Another One Bites the Dust

Interstate Baking Corp., the bakery responsible for Twinkies, Wonder Bread, and other confectionary delights, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Among the reasons stated for the move were declining sales, igniting speculation that Americans' move toward lower-carb diets was to blame at least in part.

If so, it wouldn't be the first time that the low-carb craze has hurt traditional food retailers. In May, New World Pasta, which makes San Giorgio and other pasta brands, also filed for Chapter 11. And the Krispy Kreme donut chain has been struggling for the past several months.

All these closures point to a fundamental shift in our eating habits. What foods are more American than Twinkies and Wonder Bread (except maybe for apple pie)? For the maker of these staples to go belly-up (pun only partially intended) suggests that the Atkins-inspired low-carb movement is no mere craze. In fact, we may be witnessing the most profound change in diet since processed foods, frozen foods and supermarkets arrived en masse after the end of World War II. Seems like we're finally starting to put our health -- or at least our physiques -- ahead of our taste buds.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Naked Yoga in San Francisco: Round 1?

CNN reports that a California court ruled that a nude yoga practitioner could do his thing in public in San Francisco... even in the tourist-crowded Fisherman's Wharf area. What's important here is not that San Franciscans can now practice yoga with nothing but their mats, but that California has essentially stated that public nudity in of itself is not a crime.

This could lead to even more interesting court cases on public nudity, followed by challenges from conservatives and moralists. The outcome in California may determine whether this is the start of a national trend and yet another battle in the culture wars.

If It Seems Too Good to be True...

When Oprah gave away cars this past week to members of her studio audience, it was lauded as an incredible act of generosity. Well, not so fast. Turns out that the media maven neglected to pay taxes on those cars... sticking some of those recipients with tax bills as high as $7,000. Some gift!

Seems like the biggest beneficiary of that stunt was Pontiac, whose website saw a spike in traffic after the Oprah episode (the cars she "gave away" were Pontiac G-Sixes). Meanwhile, MSNBC's Countdown has a video clip on the trend toward "extreme advertising" that takes increasingly creative -- and often bizarre -- approaches in grabbing our attention. I've written about this trend here before. Also, check out this piece from Money magazine on "ass-vertising," "bra-vertising" and "dog-vertising." Don't ask, just read the damn article...

(MSIE 6 and Microsoft Media Player required to view the video clip)

More on Bloggers as Scoop Journalists...

MSNBC has an interesting piece on its "Hardblogger" blog on the "why" and "how" of bloggers scooping the big news stories. A blog called My Due Dilligence has a piece claiming that the top political blogs have readerships that match or surpass that of the cable news websites.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The World's Most Dangerous Ideas

Foreign Policy, a website run by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has published an article outlining what some of their contributors feel are the world's most destructive ideas over the next few years. Some are obvious, while others are quite curious in the least. They are:
  • War on Evil (or rather, the concept of evil)
  • Business as Usual at the U.N.
  • Transhumanism (for more information, go here)
  • Free Money (i.e. deficits and debt)
  • Undermining Free Will
  • Spreading Democracy (through nondemocratic means such as war)
  • Religious Intolerance
  • Hating America (or, at least, hating American values such as freedom and individualism. Plus, people who really hate America tend to get bombs dropped on them...)
Exactly how dangerous these ideas really are will surely be fodder for debate for some time. Particularly interesting is the inclusion of transhumanism on the list... which shows that a concept of interest to many futurists is showing up on other people's radar screens.

Death Becomes Them...

A little over a month to go before Halloween, and already we have two unorthodox ways of remembering loved ones in the heareafter. Both were reported by Bevery Tang's ReBlog:

Back in August, I reported on Costco's move to sell caskets, which is a startling yet rational response to the high cost of funerals these days, as well as the wisdom of preplanning. But the above-mentioned procedures were hardly cheap... and suggest new and creative ways in which we honor our dead. Perhaps in 10 years, people will read these stories and be surprised that they were once categorized under "weird news."

Just a Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Milky Way Go 'Round...

Astronomers have found, of all things, a cloud of simple sugars near the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The cloud of glycoladehyde (a.k.a. two-carbon sugar) molecules is about 26,000 light years away, and is frozen to just a few degrees above absolute zero. Aside from the weirdness factor, astronomers are interested in this cloud because it suggests that the basic building blocks of life may have originated in interstellar space. Two-carbon sugar, after all, is one of the building blocks of DNA. Theoretically, comets and other interplanetary wanderers could pick up these sugars and "seed" planets with life-generating compounds.

But the truly important question is, does this mean the Milky Way isn't low-carb???

Researchers Create Robotic "Skin"

When imagining robots, we give them many human attributes. Skin is not usually one of them. That's because we tend to take our skin for granted, though it constantly provides us with important feedback -- from pain, heat, cold, and touch -- that helps us function.

Now, scientists at the University of Tokyo have created a flexibile film filled with pressure-sensitive arrays that would provide a robot or some other device with a sense of touch. Such "robot skin" would help robotic arms manipulate with greater precision, and could be used in other applications such as "smart" flooring and furniture.

The uses of such skin are endless. As part of a pervasive computing environment in hospitals, for instance, the skin could be incorporated in flooring (to detect if a patient has fallen) or bedding (to monitor vital signs). Skin could also be added to gym equipment to provide a rich array of feedback, and to car seats to determine whether a driver is fit to take to the road.

The University of Tokyo researchers hope to have a commercially viable version of their robotic skin ready within four to five years.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Voter Tools and Resources Page

Regular readers of this blog know that during this campaign season, I've been posting Internet-based resources for voters. For handy references, I've collected some of the best resources on a single page, at http://www.futurewire.net/articles/voter_tools.htm
Suggestions for new tools and resources are appreciated; you can e-mail them to me at info@futurewire.net


With fall approaching, now is not the time of the year most folks are thinking about grass. But Monsanto and Scott are... they're developing what's being called the world's first bioengineered grass.

The strain of creeping bentgrass is resistant to herbicides such as Roundup (which, as anyone who has ever used it knows, is incredibly deadly to any form of plant life). The idea is that groundskeepers could spray lawns with very harsh pesticides to kill all weeds, and leave the grass unscathed. Version 1.0, as it were, would be designed for golf courses, but Monsanto and Scott are developing versions for home lawns as well.

However, environmental groups, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are quick to point out the downside of "franken-grass," claiming that it could become a "superweed" that could spread uncontrollably and crowd out other plantlife. An article set for publication in the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences points out that the grass has unusually light pollen, allowing it to spread more widely than regular grass pollen.

Monsanto and Scott counter that bentgrass is not known to spread uncontrolled, though no studies have conclusively proved or disproved that such grass can spread unchecked. Biologists note that bentgrass can cross-pollenate with other strains, though Monsanto and Scott say that this particular strain does not.

The next step is more thorough Dept. of Agriculture testing, which could take a year or more. In that time, expect to hear lots of arguments for and against genetically modified grasses.

Are Cell Phones Screwing Up Polls?

You've surely heard about the wide discrepancy in some of the recent surveys for the Presidential campaign, with some showing a dead heat between Bush and Kerry, while others give Bush a comfortable lead. One intersting explanation is that pollsters are missing out on a significant bloc of voters: those who have cell phones but no land line. FCC rules prohibit pollsters from making unsolicited calls to mobile phones. However, the number of people--young adults, mostly--who opt for a mobile phone instead of a land line is growing. New rules allowing cell phone customers to keep their numbers will likely exacerbate this trend, making phone-based random surveys less and less reliable.

This issue confounds pollsters in another way. Because they must omit any number that might be a cell phone, pollsters are less able to use automated dialing systems, returning to manual dialing. This was my first job out of college... and believe me, it was no fun!

So what's the solution? Some have proposed a national opt-in list that would give pollsters permission to call cell phones. Others are suggesting a return to door-to-door and "man on the street" polling. I can't imagine any of these solutions being successful this day and age.

Pollsters, by the way, are exempt from restrictions imposed by the federal Do Not Call Registry.

[NEW FEATURE] Link-Worthy Sites

Visitors to the Web version of this blog can see, when scrolling down the right-hand column, a list of "link-worthy" futurist and/or emerging technology websites and blogs. Since I began this project this past summer, I've been collecting a list of these "best of the best" resources, and thought it only proper that I share them. Suggestions for new resources are always welcome; just drop me an e-mail.

Monday, September 20, 2004

[BREAKING NEWS] CBS To Retract Bush Memos

CBS News reportedly plans to issue a statement today claiming it was "misled" on the memos that supposedly showed that President Bush received special treatment while in the National Guard. Not yet clear, however, is whether CBS will actually apologize for insisting the memos were authentic, or precisely where the memos came from. MSNBC has a story on the retraction here.

As we mentioned earlier, bloggers were among those who first suggested that the provocative memos may be fake.

Friday, September 17, 2004

"Digital Divide" Narrows for Kids

Good news for kids using the Internet: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation has released a study saying that nearly all U.S. kids (96%) have gone online at least once. The report also notes the growing number of low-income children who have been able to log on. It's especially positive when compared with a 2001 U.S. Department of Education study finding that only 60% of students had been online.

However, the report found disparities remaining. Income was the deciding factor in how often kids used the Net: 70% of children from families earning more than $50,000 annually went online regularly, while only 54% of children from households earning less than $35,000 were regular surfers. This is likely because children from lower-income households were dependent on school and library terminals, where access times are limited, for their Internet access, whereas wealthier children benefitted from having computers in the home.

Reverse Auctions for Jobs

Could we be approaching a workplace future where we apply for jobs by bidding on them on eBay?

Maybe not... but online auction markets for jobs is a distinct possibility, and is already being used in certain areas. One Massachusetts hospital has implemented an online system allowing nurses to reverse-bid on extra overtime hours. The hospital posts the shift and the top rate it's willing to pay, and the lowest bidder wins. So far, the system seems to be working out well; the hospital is filling open shifts in a cost-effective manner, and the nurses are able to pick up overtime at a decent rate and at times convenient to them.

Web-based job-matching systems for consultants and freelancers, such as Guru.com and eLance.com, have been around for some time, and of course we're all familiar with job search sites such as Monster.com. But perhaps this is a sign that market-based job systems are finding their way into the mainstream. If, as many economists and management experts believe, we're becoming a "freelance nation" in which we all move from job to job as we complete individual projects, systems such as these will become essential.

In Search of Political Truth

For those who feel "political truth" is an oxymoron, bear with me...

In our continued coverage of how the Net is changing the political landscape, FactCheck.org deserves special mention. Supported by the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center, FactCheck seeks to clear up the disinformation contained in much of today's political advertising and candidate statements. A free newsletter containing the latest updates is also available.

Neither political party is immune from FactCheck's watchful eye. FactCheck even seeks to debunk political rumors and urban legends swirling around the Internet. Journalists and political scientists are finding FactCheck to be an invaulable tool -- a fact that speaks volumes about the lack of objectivity in the current political sphere.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

More on Smart Phones as the Killer App

In my last post I noted that cell phone users are now able to use their phones to store music and image files. An article in the New Scientist elaborates on this theme, describing how Nokia is developing a file-sharing network that would allow phone users to swap files. Nokia is working on the assumption that these files could be in the gigabyte range, to accommodate videos. And, as you might expect, the music and film industries are not pleased. Nokia remains confident that it can overcome any opposition they pose.

There's Gold in Them Thar Ringtones!

Business 2.0 has an insightful article about the growing business of ringtone sales for cell phones. The article notes that customers spent $3.5 billion last year on ringtones, most of which cost under a dollar each. Perhaps having learned their lesson from Napster, the major music labels are rushing to partner with phone manufactuers to license songs for ringtones.

What's generating all the spending? A representative for Sprint interviewed for the article suggested that cell phones are becoming an increasingly large part of people's identities, and they use ringtones to advertise their personalities just as they would a logo on a sweatshirt. Or maybe they just want to annoy everybody around them...

It was only a matter of time before a digital-rights fly would land in the ointment. A company called Xingtone has developed software allowing cell phone owners to sample portions of their favorite songs (or any sound file, for that matter) to create customized ringtones free of charge. Exactly how the music and ringtone industries will respond to this is unclear, but odds are they won't be happy, even though Xingtone claims its software is legal.

The growth in the ringtones business comes at a time when cell phones are morphing into "smart phones," and emerging as the new killer app. Samsung's newest model comes complete with a respectably large 1.5 GB hard drive, allowing users to store MP3 and other files. Advanced calendaring and address book features, combined with the ability to synch with PC-based tools such as MS Outlook, are letting cell phones give PDAs a run for their money. The Samsung i500 even runs the Palm OS. Combine this capability with camera capability, the growth in wireless hot spots, and the fact that the average cell phone customer upgrades every 18 months, and the stage is set for a smart phone revolution.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Why We Love Paris Hilton

Anyone not living on Mars for the past year knows who Paris Hilton is. If you don't love (or give a hoot) about the blonde heiress, then you have my apologies for the title of this post. By "we" I mean the collective "we" of society, of course...

Nonetheless, you've probably wondered why in the world people seem so taken with her. She's young, attractive and rich. But then, so are a lot of people in the world, most with vastly higher intellect and aspirations. Keith Gumery, an English professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, has an interesting explanation. He believes that Paris Hilton appeared at precisely the right time to be in synch with our cultural frame of mind:

"People eat this up. Watching rich people [on TV]...[people] think that this is something that they can aspire to. But the people they aspire to be have never done a day's work in their lives. Americans are working more hours with fewer vacation days. And here's Paris, whose life is about preparing to go to that night's party. That's her job.

"It's an escape from people's normal, humdrum living-from-hand-to-mouth existence... It's a form of escapism to see people with no financial worries." (Quote from the Philadelphia Daily News)

In other words, Paris Hilton is a meme, a concept. She's never done anything of note, never contributed to society in any real way. Yet the idea of her -- being young, sexy and unaccountable -- is very powerful. In fact, her unwitting appearance in a sex video -- something that would be personally devastating to most people -- only enhanced her celebrity.

So our fascination with this girl says much more about our society than it does about Paris herself. Perhaps it also explains the runaway success of Donald Trump's reality show The Apprentice. We live in uncertain times, and we're scared. We're constantly confronted with change, much of it not in our best interest. We're at the mercy of the economy, politicians and terrorists. Where, oh where, is our billion-dollar trust fund? Or, at the very least, where is that sugar daddy who will offer us that dream job?

Dr. Gumery believes that Paris Hilton is a flash in the pan. And unless she suddenly reveals some hidden talent or discovers a cure for cancer, he's probably right. But the idea of her is not. That's because the conditions that support that idea are, sadly, here to stay.

With Energy, Size Doesn't Matter

According to Red Herring's latest Innovation, Capitalization and Commercialization (ICC) Report, the hottest new business startups will be in the "small power" segment of the energy industry. As alternative energy technology improves and the costs of traditional energy sources remain high, micro fuel cells and solar panels are increasingly attractive. Efficient, clean and portable, these energy systems can be used to power small buildings and vehicles; they are also immune to the type of grid failure that darkened the Northeast U.S. in August 2003. In developing countries, where traditional electric service is unavailable or intermittent, small power devices could play a large role in improving the standard of living. ICC estimates that many of these energy solutions could reach the market by 2008.

Where the Candidates Stand on Tech

A group at MIT called Student Pugwash has begin assembling an online guide to the presidential candidates' positions on science and technology issues. The guide -- incomplete as of this posting -- is quite comprehensive so far, complete with links and references.

How to Evaluate RFID Applications

Rajat Paharia of the legendary IDEO design firm has posted on his personal blog a framework for evaluating consumer RFID tag applications. It's an interesting and intuitive way of looking at the RFID issue. Paharia balances each application between three points: consumer benefit, consumer privacy, and consumer choice. The lower and less in balance these three points are, the less successful an application is likely to be. Analyzing applications in this manner, one can see why consumers would resist some and accept others.

The framework itself is published as a MS PowerPoint (.ppt) presentation.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Blame Technology, Continued

Following up on my post from a couple of weeks back citing the tendency to blame technology for much of society's ills, some more examples have recently come to light. An article in the Japan Times (in English) accuses the rise of mobile phones and the Internet in that country of causing a near-meltdown of the economy. Because Japanese citizens are so preoccupied with their technology, the article argues, movie attendance, TV viewing and book sales are on the decline. It even suggests that the phone industry is undermining Japan's high-profit heavy industries such as auto manufacturing. The article concludes with a rather typical assessment of how mobile phones are rotting the minds of Japan's youth:

"Many young people addicted to cell-phone communications buy few books or even comics. They waste hours each day in text-message communications and Internet games with little time left over for other forms of enjoyment. The cell phone is the cause of the business slowdown as well as the erosion in young people's intelligence and scholastic abilities."

Sound familiar?

Nearly half a world away, the British have their own technology critics. The Techdirt blog cites studies from a children's charity called NCH alleging that the Internet is to blame for child pornography and a rise in underage gambling. Although there is, sadly, truth in this, saying the Internet or other technology is the sole cause is overly simplistic. The role of the Net in child pornography is well understood... especially by law enforcement, which has made great strides recently in busting online pedophile rings.

As we've discussed, people blame technology for complex problems because it's easy to do. The Romans had a phrase for it 2,000 years ago: Damnant quod non intellegunt (They condemn what they do not understand). When people feel they do not understand how something works, they're automatically suspicious of it, maybe even afraid of it, and they are easily swayed by arguments against it. Plus, technology in Western culture enjoys a high profile: lots of people know about high tech, even if they remain ignorant about it. The truth is that, unless we all decide to become Amish, technology is inevitable. Like the weather, technological changes comeon their own schedule, so we need to prepare for them, learn about them in a rational way, and make the most of them.

I am sure that the issues in Japan's youth culture run much deeper than mobile phone usage. And as for child porn and underage gambling, these were around long before cyberspace. One of the most important roles a futurist can fill is to understand problems and unintended consequences of technological and social change. The issues these writers cite are indeed real. But these writers also illustrate the fine line between responsible caution and hysteria. Simply blaming the Net and mobile phones is not the solution, and does us all a disservice.

2004: Year of the Blog

No matter which way it turns, the 2004 election will go down in history as the one in which the blog emerged as a pivotal player. Bloggers were busy working both party conventions this summer, and blogs have become the go-to places for spirited debate. Even the major news services have decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em... and have launched blogs of their own.

Now, in what might be blogging's finest hour (or lowest point, depending on your political convictions), bloggers have succeeded in challenging an assertion made by one of our nation's most highly respected news institutions. After 60 Minutes II released documents that it claimed showed that President Bush had been suspended from the National Guard and even disobeyed direct orders, bloggers countered that those documents were forgeries. Among other things, they pointed out that the typefaces were more likely to have been generated by modern-day computer printers than 1960s-era typewriters. Not surprisingly, most of the hoax accusations came from conservative-minded sites such as the PowerLine blog and the message board of FreeRepublic.

Suddenly, CBS was on the defensive, and a host of questions arose. If these documents did constitute a hoax, who was behind it, and why? If the documents were forged, why was the attempt so lame? Did someone want the forgery to be caught? If nothing else, these documents will be forever suspect, and news organizations will always have someone attempting to call their bluff, especially in political matters.

We've been heading down this road for some time. The world first found out about the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton administration courtesy of Matt Drudge, who scooped the mainstream media. Now, with the power of blogging, stating one's case and arguing with conventional wisdom is easier than ever. Even those who aren't active bloggers have access to more facts and opinions than ever before. At the same time, the credibility of the mainstream media has been on a steady decline (and will plummet if the Bush documents prove fake). Never again will people simply say, "If it appears in _______, it must be true."

Yes, months before the first vote is cast, the 2004 election has already proven that blogging is power. As Americans, we have not only the right but a duty to question authority. But, as the cliche goes, with power comes responsibility. Those of us who blog have must be as factual and careful as possible when posting, and to respect our readers. With my degree in journalism, that comes second-nature to me. But most bloggers are not trained in the ways of libel and fact-checking, and some lessons will come hard. Those lessons, though, will make the difference between knowledge and noise.

POSTSCRIPTS: Unmediated is a blog devoted to this very discussion: documenting the power of blogging and other emerging technology in deconstructing the mainstream media. Also, Tech Central Station has posted a piece further detailing how bloggers deconstructed the 60 Minutes report.

The Smart Houses Down Under

It sounds like something from an old world's fair exhibit, but the the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, has come up with a self-cleaning, self-maintaining house. Called the "Nanohouse," this abode features nanotech windows that clean themselves (with a film that breaks down organic particles) and that can be made opaque for privacy. The same nanotechnology can be used to create stain-resistant fabrics.

More information is available at the Nanohouse website (unfortunately, much of it is in the form of very large downloads).

Over in Melbourne, software company Majitek is building a rival house, the MajikHouse, which is fully networked. Lights, entertainment devices and the security system can all be controlled by a single remote. The lights automatically brighten when someone enters a room, and dim when the room is empty. A mobile phone can be used to open doors and gates, and light outside lights, for safe entry at night. Sun Microsystems is supporting the project, and Majitek is using open source software wherever possible.

Perhaps most significant, all the technology used in the Nanohouse and MajikHouse is commercially available.

Looks like George Jetson will want to move Down Under pretty soon...

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Rising from the Ashes

On the eve of the third anniversary of 9/11, Project Rebirth has launched a website to document the redevelopment efforts at Ground Zero. Watch time-lapse films of the cleanup and rebuilding effort, view a live webcam (see below), see artists' renditions of the planned memorials and the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower and -- most movingly -- read stories of 10 individuals whose lives were profoundly changed by the travesty of September 11, 2001.

Live webcam view of Ground Zero from
NYFD Engine 10/Ladder 10 headquarters (124 Liberty St.),

updated every five minutes

Friday, September 10, 2004

Twentysomethings Go Retro

The New York Times has an amusing article about how young people are snapping up old technology on eBay and other venues. Early brick-sized cell phones, 45 RPM records, old radios and Atari videogames are very much in vogue in some circles. The reasons for this fascination vary, from a simple "everything old is new again" effect, to a sense of irony, an interest in history, and even shock value (the article profiles one young man convinced that the ladies will be "wowed" by his early-'80s Motorola DynaTac cell phone... even though he can't find a provider who will support it).

Just goes to show that today's antiques were yesterday's junk... and were state-of-the-art the day before. It's also curious that much of the technology mentioned in the article predated the young people who are buying it today. There seems to be a sense of "proto nostalgia" at work here, a longing for a past that one is too young to remember, and that probably never was.

IM Nation

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has released a report titled "How Americans Use Instant Messaging." The findings, putting it mildly, are startling. Among them:
  • 24% of the 53 million Americans who IM swap instant messages more frequently than e-mails.
  • Of Americans who IM, 21% do so at work. Of those, half believe IM helps them save time and be more productive, though nearly a third believe that IM promotes gossip, and 11% feel IM causes stress.
  • The younger you are, the more likely you are to IM. Nearly half of Gen-Y (18-24 year olds) IM, while only 18% of Gen-X (28-39 year olds) IM. For older age groups, the numbers steadily decline.
  • AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) is the leading IM client, followed closely by services from Yahoo! and MSN. These "big three" dominate IM market share.
  • Most IMers have relatively limited "buddy lists," with the number of people they regularly IM less than five.
  • Many IM users leverage their clients' advanced features to swap photos and files, and perform other tasks.
  • Only 15% said they use wireless devices, such as phones or laptops, to IM.
A similar survey conducted by The Radicati Group corroborates many of these findings, stating that:
  • 85% of all North American enterprises use IM in some capacity.
  • The number of enterprises worldwide using IM is expected to rise from 20% today to 80% by the end of 2008.
  • "Spim" (IM-based spam) and data security will be the top concerns of enterprises as they continue to deploy commercial grade IM applications.
The bottom line: IM is here to stay, and is a major element of both Internet and corporate life. As the Gen-Y's move into the workplace, they will expect IM to be used as a productivity tool, just as Gen-Xers and Boomers expected e-mail to be. And as younger workers move into management positions, they'll have the power to implement IM at work where it doesn't already exist.

We Already Know If You Want Fries With That...

According to a USA Today article, McDonald's is experimenting with predictive technology in its drive-thru lanes. Working with a company called HyperActive Technologies, Mickey D's has launched "HyperActive Bob" on a trial basis in seven restaurants. Burger King and Taco Bell are also evaluating the technology.

HyperActive Bob evaluates incoming drive-thru traffic with rooftop cameras, and attempts to predict what kinds of food customers will be ordering before they place their order. For fast-food restaurants that live and die on split-second timing, this provides crucial advantages as they can accurately judge how much of what kinds of foods to prepare, thereby eliminating waste and improving service. For example, a minivan loaded with passengers is going to place a much larger order than a small car with a driver and no passengers. And if that minivan is loaded with kids, they'll likely be wanting Happy Meals.

Perhaps the most impressive (and spooky) feature of HyperActive Bob is its ability to "memorize" customer preferences and map trends. If customers driving pickup trucks consistently order Big Macs and those driving SUVs like Filets-o-Fish, that's significant. If this kind of predictive technology works as advertised -- and early indications are that fast-food restaurants are very pleased -- it could change the way services of all kinds are delivered.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

How Does the Class of 2007 See the World?

Each year, Beloit College in Wisconsin releases its "Mindset List" for the incoming freshman college class of 2007. If you were born before 1986, you'll find the list amusing... and then realize how old you are. The list illustrates how young people see the world, how much the world has changed from their elders' perspective, and how their reality is shaped by the fact that they were born the year of the Challenger shuttle explosion and the Chernobyl meltdown.

Among the more interesting (and sobering) observations are:

  • “Ctrl + Alt + Del” is as basic as “ABC.”
  • Paul Newman has always made salad dressing.
  • An automatic is a weapon, not a transmission.
  • Gas has always been unleaded.
  • They never heard Howard Cosell call a game on ABC.
  • Computers have always fit in their backpacks.
  • They have never gotten excited over a telegram, a long distance call, or a fax.
  • Test tube babies are now having their own babies.
  • They have always had a PIN number.
  • There have never been dress codes in restaurants.
  • Yuppies are almost as old as hippies.
  • Peeps are not a candy, they are your friends.
  • They can still sing the rap chorus to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the theme song from Duck Tales.

Click here for an archive of Mindset Lists, going back to the class of 2002.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

World's Worst Top-10 List

Earlier this year, Parade magazine published a list of the top ten world's worst dictators, complied by Dave Wallechinsky of Book of Lists fame. Anyone who follows world events will see familiar names, though there are some surprises. North Korea's Kim Jong Il is Number One. However, the previous holder of the top slot -- Saddam Hussein -- is conspicuously absent from the list.

What does this have to do with the future? Plenty, when you consider that these individuals are often the greatest obstacles to progress and world peace.

Group Defines World's Top Challenges

In May of this year, according to CIO magazine, a group of top economists met in Copenhagen, Denmark, to discuss the top problems facing the world in the coming years and ways to address them. Calling itself the Copenhagen Consensus, the group identified the following challenges as the most pressing in the world:
  1. Controlling HIV/AIDS
  2. Fighting malnutrition
  3. Trade liberalization
  4. Controlling malaria
  5. Bringing agricultural technologies to poor countries
Clearly, the group sees health and nutrition as the world's biggest problems. It's also interesting to note how out of alignment these concerns are with U.S. priorities (though President Bush has mentioned the need to fight HIV/AIDS on many occasions).

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Are You Insperienced?

Trendwatching.com, which is always way out in front of consumer and marketing trends, has spotted yet another emerging trend that is already affecting consuming habits. Called Insperience, this phenomenon reflects the desire of consumers to create upscale "experiences" in their homes. Examples of insperiences are home-based theatres, gyms, and offices, as well as the current trend toward commercial-grade kitchen appliances.

Trendwatching believes that people exposed to luxury accomodations when they go out will want those same amenities in their homes. They note the continued "cocooning" movement that began in the '80s and that accellerated after 9/11. Telecommuting is also a factor. Furthermore, the price of such items is rapidly falling, so one no longer has to be wealthy to afford stylish, well-designed things (a separate phenomenon, familiar to anyone who shops at Target, that Trendwatching calls Mass Class.)

A case in point occurred with me a week ago, when I received as a gift a new coffee maker. My old faithful Mr. Coffee had finally reached the end of its useful life at age 15, and as a replacement I received yet another Mr. Coffee. It has the same basic features -- it makes coffee, with an automatic start delay and all that -- but the styling is radically different. Unlike the old coffee makers of white or beige plastic, this model is decked out in black, chrome and stainless steel. The reason for this was immediately clear: it's designed to evoke the coffee machines at Starbuck's and other fashionable cafes. So I can sit in my kitchen and pretend I paid $4 for the cup of coffee I just made for a few pennies! And as a confirmed Starbuck's fan, I appreciate that. Now, if I could just get a wireless hotspot in my kitchen, I'd be set...

Texting at RNC in NYC

CNN has posted a comprehensive article about the use of Ruckus, TxtMob and other group texting tools being used at this week's Republican National Convention in New York.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Philadelphia Considering Universal Wireless Access

The City of Brotherly Love is reportedly considering making the entire city a wireless hotspot. The ambitious $10 million project would blanket the city with a "wireless mesh;" access would either be free or very low-cost. If it can pull this off, Philadelphia would become the largest city to offer universal wireless access, and would have an edge in attracting high-tech residents and businesses. Observers agree that if the cost could be held to $10 million, the network would also be a relative bargain. New York City is considering a similar initiative for $21 million.

The project, however, remains in the early stages and faces many obstacles... not the least of which are Philadelphia's budget woes, inevitable political infighting, and the city's notorious union conflicts.

Read an ongoing discussion of the project on Slashdot.

Technology is the Root of All Evil!

Techdirt has an insightful post today on the social ills that are being blamed on the Internet, text messaging and other emergent communication technologies. Among them:

With almost every emerging or emergent technology is a corresponding fear of its consequences, particularly for young people. Fears about the Internet are nothing new; in fact, online porn, infidelity and crime date back at least to the mid-'80s and the BBS era. In fact, I'm old enough to remember parental concerns about the first generation of video games (Pong, Space Invaders, Pac Man). Going back farther, one can find reactions against nearly all forms of new technology: television, the telephone, motion pictures.

The Techdirt post takes the angle that many of these latest concerns border on urban legend, or are at least propagated by those who could profit from them (such as therapists). That may be true, though there will always be those who abuse a technology, or at least use it for something other than its intended purpose. But these fears also illustrates the powerful effects of emerging technologies in general -- especially communication technologies -- on society's psyche.

Why is that? Possibly because communication offers freedom, which to many is a far more frightening concept than any technology. Freedom to learn, freedom to reach out, freedom to interact and organize without someone else's permission or control. It's little wonder that countries governed by dictatorships keep a tight reign on Internet use, if it's allowed at all. Freedom and chaos are really the same thing... it just depends on your perspective.

Five New Marketing Trends

The current issue of CMO magazine has an article forecasting five emerging tools for market research. They are:

  1. Internet Data Mining -- Using Google, BlogPulse and other search tools to "mine" websites, lists, discussion forms and blogs for insights into new trends
  2. Virtual Focus Groups -- Bringing focus groups into cyberspace, creating virtual malls, stores and clubs to see how people behave in them... and what they buy
  3. Decision Markets -- "Investors" can buy or sell "shares" in products or concepts to test their popularity
  4. Neuromarketing -- Perhaps the most farsighted technique, neuromarketing takes subliminal marketing to the extreme by using MRIs and other neuroscience technologies to gauge subjects' reaction to marketing approaches
  5. Automated Behavior Recognition -- Observing how shoppers behave in stores, using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to track shopping carts, for instance

Many of these tools are in place now, and may or may not affect how marketers choose and sell products in the future. The last two are clearly intrusive, and may prove too controversial to use on a wide scale.