Monthly Archives: February 2010

Virtual Nightclubs, mainstream SciFi and digital legacies

Last night saw the airing on Sky 1 here in the UK of the Battlestar Gallactica prequel Caprica. BSG was a fantastic series, and was seemingly accessible science fiction throwing in a hint of West Wing.
The first 2 episodes really set up the story as you would expect but I was not expecting the subject matter to resonate quite so much with some of the real world virtual work that we are all doing.

Caprica is set fifty or so years before BSG on a distant resembling earth in many ways. In the first programme a group of teens are engaging in attending v-clubs. Virtual night clubs. These clubs are an underground movement and accessed using a headset “holoband” to inject the photo realistic images into the users head. The places themselves are portrayed as a wild noisy and dangerous night clubs, hidden from parents knowledge.
One of the teens is the daughter of the richest man on the planet who happened to invent and create lots of the tech. She has created a clone of herself inside the virtual environment. Everyone has a physical clone, they showed the use of body scanning in a booth to get physical parameters, but this avatar (and they us that word a lot) is an artificial intelligence construct.
When the real teen is killed her AI lives on in the virtual world. We get to learn that she did not simply download here brain data to a computer core (an often used idea), but instead the AI learned who it was to be the girl through the digital trails that she had left during her life on the world. In this environment indicating that the algorithms to search and learn were clever enough to reconstruct and then move forward as a person.
The father then seeks to perform what can only be described as a Frankenstein manoeuvre, and attempts to place the AI data into a physical manifestation of a robot, or Cylon. The digital is made real.
Clearly this mainstream science fiction is informed and extrapolates todays science fact. The digital trail we leave today may not yet be enough to reconstruct our personality, but those of us who choose too are certainly leaving lots more clues as to who we are and what drives us than ever before. There are also clearly times when people’s echoes are placed out in the public domain when they did not intend them or want them to be.
I was also reminded of a interesting question I was asked when presenting at a recent conference. “What happens to your virtual presence when you die”.
OK, so we don’t quite inject virtual worlds into our brains matrix style, we don’t have fully functioning AI’s or autonomous robots to download into, but we do have ways to interact online and share who we are and what we think and do. When we no longer participate in the online experiences we still have left a legacy and digital echoes, it’s not just photos and memories anymore.
Of course just as with the film Avatar we may find a large number of people not exposed to current virtual world technology may be a little disappointed but equally many may see these parallels and start to understand the deeper significance to our online presence and why so many of us are so passionate about them.

Performance bell curves don’t work!

Towards the end of each year and start of the next many people in “serious businesses'” seem to have to suffer the torture that is the annual performance review. Not having to deal with this ridiculous set of processes this year has not kept me away from it. I still see the unfortunate side effects that the various systems used have on people, their morale and their sense of belonging to an organization.
What tends to happen in most large companies is that they have decided that everyone should be measured against some set of targets. (That sort of makes sense). They then decide that clearly some people will be better at things that others. (Another correct assumption). They then decide that a bell curve should be applied to the performance of people. i.e. lots in the middle of the road and some great people at one end and no so great at the other. (This also makes some sense).
Then the logic goes out of the window in favour of process.
The bell curve is not applies across the entire population at once. Instead it is broken up into bell curve copies with equal weighting and applied to nominal collections of individuals, such as a department. As each department and individuals actual objectives are probably different the relative performance and the bell curve are in effect blown to pieces, like for like is not easily applied.
Various groups of individuals may have champions in the political systems who fight for a greater share of the bell curve, but many will instead try and fit the bell curve onto their people then attempt to justify their decisions.

A whole heap of time and money is wasted in many large corporations in order to ensure that the status quo is maintained.
I have experience all ends of the spectrum in these evaluations. If you get an outstanding result you feel great, but also slightly guilty. Very few people will take people to the pub to celebrate their “outstanding” performance rating.
Those that get the next level down (typically there are only 4 or 5 ratings) feel sort of happy, but annoyed at being so close yet so far form being told they are great.
The next rating is really “yep you are just about doing you job” thanks very much for that!
The other ratings are typically supposed to be a wake up call of some sort, or a threat, or “well its just your turn”. The slightest reason can be used to reduce someone to a low performer. I have heard and experienced enough aberrations in the process such as the particular dichotomy of receiving some of these ratings dressed up as business but knowing they were personal and possibly bullying, to know that the systems used are damaging in so many ways.
So what does a company achieve by attempting to centralise and control the distribution of performance?
Well they force most people to be mediocre, and hence the company to be mediocre.
Once thing social media has taught us is that even the most mediocre employee in a company can have a huge impact on the direction of the business. So surely it is time for the HR departments to find some innovation somewhere?
This is not to hide from competition and merit, but to actually put that back onto a footing where it means something.
I have to consider these things even more deeply in how the companies I am helping create, that I work with and possibly for deal with people.

The virtual revolution has started

This weekend on prime time BBC2 TV saw the first part of the four part documentary “The Virtual Revolution”. It is hosted by Dr Aleks Krotoski know to many of the metarati out there for studies into Social Influence in places like Second Life, and also the living the rock and roll with Jim “Babbage Linden” Purbrick and Max Williams in the band 100 Robots. Many people will have followed the #phdhell that Aleks has been tweeting about too. Also the twitter stream has been full of the production of this programme.
All this leads to the fact that it was a much watch piece of TV. I tweeted early on “This is what we have the BBC for” because it was a very well made, not too geeky and well thought out exploration of “The Great Levelling”. Many notable shapers of the web we know today featured in interviews. It will hopefully be seen by many people who seem to assume the web and social interaction and sharing of information is some how a bad thing. It isn’t. It has arrived and we have changed many of the the things we do and enhanced others by engaging with one another.

I should add that whilst the programme covers the past 20 years it should be clear to us all that we have come a long way and still have a long way to go in human communication online. It starts by embracing what we have now, to engage and explore all the possibilities. (Yes that includes virtual worlds like Second Life!). However don’t assume we have the perfect solutions yet. There is more to come than avatars, islands, Facebook friends, blogs and twitter. An underlying social change is happening though.

To quote Stephen Fry in one of the many pieces of video available on the Virtual Revolution website “we are, constantly in need of, of connecting with people for, friendship, love, sex, knowledge, growth, enmity, territoriality all the, all the imperatives that drive us as human beings. Erm we’ve created villages and towns to help us do that and roads and now we’ve created something else that allows us to do it, us to do it even more. ”

For a slightly more reactionary piece there is always John Perry Barlow on freedom of expression (who I nodded in agreement a lot with)
“I wrote a piece for Wired Magazine in, in ’93 which they called The Economy of Ideas. And I recognised that the only reason that copyright had worked was because it was hard to make a book. And that suddenly anything that a human being could do with his or her mind would be infinitely reproducible at zero cost and infinitely distributable. And given that there is a fundamental quality in human nature that likes to share information. I mean if you think something is, is cool or interesting what’s the first thing you want to do with it? Tell everybody you like. You know, and if, and if it’s not just simply saying I read this great book you should go out and buy it but you can just sort of zap the book right in to the other persons mind practically, you’re gong to do that. And you’re not going to have much regard for, for copyright. Er, and so the powers that had been suddenly saw copyright as being a splendid way to control this scary new liberty. Er, that exerting powerful controls on owned word would be the, would be the real method of clamping down on this, this thing.”

One interesting thing that happened on the starting titles, and helped the twitter buzz was seeing on screen the hash tag for #bbcrevolution. It was just placed bottom right of the screen. For many people this will seem alien, “thats not a URL”. Whilst the general public, non tech geeks, have got very used (in the past few years) to seeing a web site URL they will not have seen the meta URL that is a hashtag. The #andsometext notation is used to lift a tag or label a piece of conversation as being relevant to a subject. It is platform agnostic, you can hashtag anywhere, its just text. It means searches can find threads of conversation across disparate sources. It is not organised, controlled nor policed. It just is. To see it on a documentary that has been create through many online collaborative efforts, putting its money where it mouth is is another indication of the validity of the programme.