John McCann

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Participation Architecture

In Architecture, Internet, Technology on March 19, 2007 at 1:25 pm

An article in the RosenblumTV blog gave a very succinct description of the problem established industries have when presented with a new technology. It is the mismatch between a technology and the appropriate architecture for deploying that technology.

“That is, a specific technology demands a specific architecture. Not the architecture of a building, but rather the architecture for the implementation of that technology. As lazy humans, however, we get the technology first; the architecture takes us time.”

When I first read the article, I was reminded of a story I read 50 years ago about how a very primitive tribe reacted to the arrival of a Coke bottle, which was a new “technology” to the tribe. A plane crashed in the jungle and the natives found coke bottles among the wreckage. Having never seen such an object, they wondered what to do with it. One person put a bottle onto a stick and created a club that could be used for hunting and battle, which were the very activities that consumed the time of the men in the tribe. They were hunters and warriors and they used their hunting and war architecture to implement the new technology of the Coke bottle.

Back to the blog entry. Rosenblum, a participant in the videojournalist revolution, tells the story of how AT&T bought the patents to the first wireless radio technology because the company thought that radio would compete with its wired telephony business. AT&T did not implement the radio technology and used the patents to prevent others from doing so. They only allowed Marconi to use the technology for communicating with and between ships. But then a strange thing happened: the Titanic sank while sending hours of messages from its wireless transmitter. Sixteen year old David Sarnoff heard those messages while working for Marconi and communicated to a crowd outside his building by yelling out a window.

Alas, broadcasting was invented. More broadly, the “architecture of radio” was invented. AT&T saw the world through the telephony architecture and thus totally missed the role that radio would play in the broader communication ecosystem. It took a kid to recognize the potential, and that kid went on to be a pioneer of the broadcast industry.

Rosenblum applies this story to today’s world.

“All too often, we also take new technologies and plug them into an architecture that we already understand. All too often we take the Internet and see it as an alternative platform for broadcasting. Take a look at What do you see? A newspaper. A newspaper put on the web. That is because that is what newspapers understand. That is the architecture they understand. As video comes to the web, broadcasters will also see it as a way to do what they do now – one signal to many people, but on-line. This will be a classic mistake.”

This is so true in all walks of life. Librarians see the world through their library architecture and thus see the Internet as a massive, global library. Educators use an education architecture when approaching the Internet. Microsoft seems to have seen it through the desktop computing architecture.

As was the case with wireless technology, it is people who operate outside traditional architectures who see the possibilities of a new technology and thus invent new architectures. Perhaps we should think of the Internet and associated technologies as forming an Architecture of Participation.


3.5 billion participants

In Technology on March 6, 2007 at 2:30 pm

Kevin Maney’s USA Today column tells us about efforts to develop low cost laptop computers such as the $100 laptop being developed by the One Laptop per Child project. Intel has entered the fray with its Classmate laptop

“The Classmate features a 7-inch color screen, Wi-Fi and a full keyboard. It runs Windows XP, has four hours of battery life and uses solid-state flash drives of 1 gigabyte to 2 gigabytes, instead of your typical hard drive.”

The cost of the Classmate is expected to drop to $200 by the end of the year.

And these are only two of several other projects aimed at dramtically expanding the market for networked computers.

“It’s all part of a trend. A swarm of tech companies is moving to sell lower-cost products to people in developing nations. AMD has a program called 50×15 — an attempt to spur development of products that would help get 50% of the world on the Net by 2015.”

According to an article in Wikipedia, the world’s population in 2015 is expected to be around 7 billion, up from 6.6 billion this year. If 50% of those folks are on the net, then we will have about 3.5 billion potential participants.

The dawn will be over by then and the Participation Age will be in full bloom.

Participation Age Perestroika

In Content workers, Early Predictions, Technology on April 18, 2006 at 4:16 pm

The Participation Age is a new age for the planet, in general, and the United States in particular. As is the case in any new age, we must have a restructuring of our economy so that we can move from old practices into new ones. Such a reconstruction has been called a perestroika in the context of the restructuring of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

In the 1990 book Bionomics, Michael Rothschild provides an analysis and forecast of the perestroika associated with the emergence of the Participation Age.

"Most technical advances lead to only minor improvement in products and slight changes in the organization of work. A modified condenser might boost the power of a steam locomotive, but it wouldn't radically affect the work of the train's crew or fundamentally alter the economic role of railroads. But, in rare cases, an especially potent new technology will trigger a restructuring that ripples throughout the entire economy — from the lowliest work cells to the largest organizations. Today, as the twentieth century draws to a close, we are in the midst of precisely this kind of massive structural transformation. Because we lack the benefit of hindsight, we cannot fully appreciate the magnitude of the economic restructuring we are now experiencing. But our descendants will almost certainly judge the 'computer-on-a-chip' to be the most economically significant technical achievement of the previous 500 years. The microprocessor will rank at the very pinnacle of human invention because — like the printing press — it slashed the cost of encoding, copying, and communicating information. And, by doing so, it has brought vast areas of previously unattainable knowledge within human grasp and has made possible a staggering array of new products. Today these products are profoundly altering the capabilities of millions of work cells in every niche of the global economy. … By delivering on the promise of computer technology, the microprocessor thrust the world's capitalist economies into a new economic era — the Information Age. Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the integrated circuit and a founder of Intel Corporation, wrote: 'Just as the Industrial Revolution enabled man to apply and control greater physical power than his own muscle could provide, so electronics has extended his intellectual power. … As millions of microprocessors flooded into the economy, it was as if the information-processing power of each work cell's nucleus was abruptly and immensely multiplied. With their newly acquired personal computers, front-line managers began exercising a level of control that was previously unimaginable. Production cells that had always depended upon instructions from remote headquarters cells suddenly were empowered with enough information-processing capacity to make fast, rational decisions on their own. In short, microprocessor technology radically boosted the productive potential of every work cell in the economy. In a turbulent decade, with little conscious awareness of the fundamental forces at play, and without any plan, the economy spontaneously restructured itself in what amounted to an unsung American perestroika."

The key phrase: "microprocessor technology radically boosted the productive potential of every work cell in the economy." Every work cell, be it a person, group, department, remote location or team, could now use this new productive potential to participate independently. This is the very nature of the Participation Age.

Content tools

In Content workers, Technology on April 12, 2006 at 11:48 am

In an earlier post titled "You are in the Content Business," I concluded that all white collar workers are Content Workers (CWs). As Content Workers they locate, combine, create, refine, store, protect, communicate and display content. In this work, they use Content Tools (CTs) such as computers, networks, software, hard drives, DVDs, phones, mp3 players, video devices, cameras, camcorders, PDAs and other digital technologies.

When we look at the world in this way, we can see that the digital technology industry is all about conceiving, designing, manufacturing and marketing CTs. That's what the digital technology industry does, year in and year out. In the 60s, the industry focused on large computer systems for office automation. In the 70s, the focus shifted to the medium-sized, time-sharing systems for use in factories, process control, etc. The 80s was the decade of the personal computer and its empowerment of the individual through productivity software. The 90s brought us two new networks: 1) the Internet for connecting all of those computers into a global universe, along with email, instant messages and the World Wide Web, and 2) mobile phone networks. So far, the 00s is the gadget decade with digital devices that connect to these networks and enable mobile content creation and management.

The Participation Age is enabled by these digital technologies. Each new generation of CTs allows non-experts to participate in the content world in ways that were previously reserved for the highly trained professional.

Terabytes in your home

In Technology on March 28, 2006 at 2:00 pm

In Terabytes and petabytes, I wrote about the coming explosion in the amount of storage that will be available to us. A recent USA Today article contains a forecast for the amount of digital data stored on various devices in the typical U.S. household. After estimating that the typical household had about 40 gigabytes in 2004, the forecast for 2010 is 4,430 gigabytes, or 4.43 terabytes. Only a few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine having this amount of storage in our homes.

The article indicated that this storage would be in our cell phones, MP3 players, portable video players, computers, game machines, and digital video players (DVR). DVR ownership is expected to explode. A Forrester Research vice president was quoted in a New York Times article to say that DVRs will be in 43 million homes by 2010. I imagine that these devices will account for a large fraction of the 4.43 terabytes of storage in our homes.

Lifebits project

In Technology on March 22, 2006 at 3:09 pm

Gordon Bell, a 71 year old legend of the computer world, heads a small Microsoft research center in San Francisco where he is inventing a new way for us to use our computer and gadgets. Total Recall, an article in IEEE Spectrum summarizes his work.

His project, MyLifeBits, is the digital distillation of, almost literally, his every waking minute. It started out as an offhand experiment, but today its goal is nothing short of changing the way we use computers, and by extension, the way we live. At its heart, MyLifeBits is a big database on a personal computer, into which go the correspondence, keyboard-based chores, and even the sights and sounds of everyday life. It automatically swallows up and indexes e-mails, keystrokes, recorded phone calls, images, video, and every Web page that graces its user’s computer’s screen.

One of the ways he captures his daily life is via a small camera that he wears around his neck. Sensors tell the software in the camera when to snap a picture. At the end of the day, the camera contents and the sensor data (e.g., GPS data) are transferred to a database.

Every electronic device he touches seems to generate data for database:

Today, every keystroke on his computer is captured as it is tapped. Office phone calls are not only logged but also digitally recorded in their entirety. Every Web page is stored when it’s viewed—not just the URL, but the entire image is jammed in there.

The database is also populated by everything that Bell has collected in his life: the contents of his file cabinets, photo albums, video tapes, books, academic papers, correspondences, medical records, etc. The result: a terabyte repository of his lifebits.

The article ends with a nice summary of where this research is going.

We’ll find out, soon enough. By 2015, all your life bits will fit into two or three matchboxes, about 50 bucks’ worth of data. Your smartphone-sensecam will dangle casually around your neck, snapping away. Want to know what you wore on that blind date you went on last month? How many glasses of chardonnay you drank, which Web pages you viewed the next morning, whom you called on the phone and what you talked about? Where you were for every minute that weekend? Let’s take a look.

A Powerpoint presentation about LifeBits opens with this slide:


I love this slide because it depicts what most of us have in common: cabinets, boxes and digital devices stuffed with things we have collected during our lives. Gordon Moore has shown us that we can put all of this information into digital form so that it can be indexed, cross-referenced and searched, thus making it much more valuable to us and those who follow us.

Terabytes and petabytes

In Technology on March 17, 2006 at 3:18 pm

An interview in USA Today with SanDisk CEO Eli Haran ends with Haran’s 20-year projection of the capacity of memory chips on small cards:

We believe that in 20 years time, we will be able to fit 10 terabytes of information into a card that’s as small as a quarter. Ten terabytes is the amount of memory we have in the human brain. Ten terabytes could fit 5,000 movies. When you have that kind of memory, you could store a human lifetime’s worth of memory into one of these cards. You could implant a device like this in your head to restore memory.

Ten terabytes is 10,000 gigabytes, which is 10,000,000 megabytes … which is a lot of capacity.

Another interesting part of the article is that prices are dropping very rapidly. Today, a memory card costs $0-50 per gigabyte (GB) of memory. With the newer chips that are becoming available, this price will drop to $10 per GB within the next two years.

So, before long we are going to have practically unlimited storage capacity in our hands. And that is only in the memory chip space. By 2026, what will we have in terms of hard drive space? Whatever it is, it will likely be measured in petabytes (a petabyte is 1 million gigabytes). Joseph Mercola gives us a way to think about a petabyte:

The one kind of content that might possibly overflow a petabyte disk is video. In the format used on DVDs, the data rate is about two gigabytes per hour. Thus the petabyte disk will hold some 500,000 hours worth of movies; if you want to watch them all day and all night without a break for popcorn, they will actually fill up your petabyte drive if you have a lifetime of video on it as it will give you 57 years of video.

He also tells us that you could have 50 Library of Congresses on your drive

One researcher indicates that we might have such a drive in five years, and that it will cost less than $1,000.


In Technology on March 15, 2006 at 5:09 pm

I was contacted via email by a local newspaper reporter who was working on an article about what our area will be like in 2030, particularly in terms of commuting and the workplace. He wanted to know what computing and communications technologies will allow us to do in 2030.

I sent him the following email and then spoke with him on the telephone about the future.

Going out to the year 2030 is challenging unless you think exponentially. I suggest you read stuff by Ray Kurweil, perhaps the first few chapters of his new book The Singularity Is Near.

You mentioned wireless Internet and cell phones … two technologies that we have only used for about 5 and 15 years, respectively. What new things will the digital revolution bring us 24 years from now? Neither of these are innovations by the telephone companies, and I expect that today’s telcos (Verizon and the new AT&T, in particular) will be bankrupt by then. As may Microsoft. We may be living and working in a world of fiber and wireless that does not have centers (e.g. no telephone switch in the middle; nor a cable front-end). The devices that hang on the ends of this communication cloud will be many, many times more powerful than today’s supercomputers. Some of us may have chips embedded in our brains that augment our intelligence, and other chips that better regulate other parts of our bodies.

Other things will change very little, particularly mechanical things (I used to be a mechanical engineer and saw a long time ago that I should have been an EE). We’ll likely still have the sound barrier to limit air travel, and the bow wave to limit ships. But digital things and optical things will change a lot and the key to getting a glimpse is to understand the nature of exponential change.

I should explain my bankruptcy comment. Microsoft has a profit model that is based upon selling software that people install on their computers. Technology developments during the past few years are pointing to an alternative computing model in which we use software that runs in our browser, instead of installing similar software on our computers. Google’s Gmail and Writely are examples of the former; Microsoft’s Outlook and Word are examples of the latter. If this new model prevails, then it is unclear how Microsoft can sustain its present profitability and perhaps even its viability as a corporation.

Verizon and AT&T are facing a similar problem: old technology with an old business model. Kevin Maney recently wrote about this situation in a column about the Bell South purchase by AT&T:

The local phone companies’ biggest tribulation — and this includes AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon and Qwest — is that their main business is built on an expensive infrastructure that’s quickly becoming obsolete. They are like railroads at the dawn of the jet age. They send calls around using circuit-switched networks when the world is moving to Internet-style networks. They have millions of miles of skinny copper wire underground and on telephone poles at a time when whole cities are starting to build wireless broadband Internet systems that are better and cheaper.

The year 2030 is very far away in terms of the speed at which digital technologies evolve and business models fail. So it is not a stretch to think that some of the very big and very profitable firms may not exist in 24 years. Twenty four years in this digital technology world may be similar to 100 years in the business world that firms like Procter & Gamble operate.

I occasionally get intrigued by such long-range predictions about technologies, and writing this email has piqued my interest once again. So I will likely be posting several pieces about this topic over the next few weeks.

Amateur revolution

In Culture & society, Technology on March 4, 2006 at 2:32 pm

In the October 2004 issue of Fast Company, Charles Leadbeater wrote about the Amateur Revolution. I mentioned this article today in my course Technology and Life but did not get a chance to cover it in a meaningful way. Here is a key passage from that article:

“Passionate amateurs, empowered by technology and linked to one another, are reshaping business, politics, science, and culture. Pro-Am activity will continue to expand. Longer healthy life spans will allow people in their forties and fifties to start taking up Pro-Am activities as second careers. Rising participation in education will give people skills to pursue those activities. New media and technology enable Pro-Ams to organize. Pro-Ams could fuel mass participation in formal politics and in social entrepreneurship. They will play important economic roles as co-producers of services and sources of ideas. Democracy will be livelier, innovation more vibrant, social capital stronger and individual well-being more securely grounded. After a century in decline, amateurs will rise again. And they will change the world.”

Digital technologies are enabling people without extensive formal training to participate in all forms of occupations that were previously reserved for professionals. As Leadbeater tells us, this was a 20th century phenomenon that is under attack on many fronts, be it rap music, computer operating systems or astronomy.

“These far-flung developments have all been driven by Pro-Ams — committed, networked amateurs working to professional standards. Pro-Am workers, their networks and movements, will help reshape society in the next two decades.”

I thought about this movement as I was upgrading to iLife 6 on my Mac. iMovie, GarageBand, and iPhoto are just three of the thousands of available tools that one can use to create near-professional quality video, music and photo books. It’s pretty amazing what a dedicated amateur can do with such tools.

Vlogging software

In Technology, Television, Vlogging on February 16, 2006 at 1:42 pm

I used to teach a module that I called Revolution in Television Entertainment that focused on a new product named the Video Toaster, a hardware product that purported to put a broadcast studio into your PC. In researching the product, I found the September, 1997 column by Jerry Pournelle in Byte magazine that focused on the Video Toaster:

With the $5000 Trinity box and a decent Pentium system, you can have your own TV studio and produce professional-quality video. Add the new digital camcorders and writable digital videodiscs (DVD), and the result will be a spate of innovative TV documentaries, dramas, and odd-ball entertainments. Most of those will be silly or useless, but not all. I expect some real revolutions in television entertainment over the next few years, and the cost to get in on it is about the same as a year’s tuition at a major university. Graphic art is one of the fastest-growing fronts in the computer revolution. Affordable digital camcorders, Play’s Trinity, and DVDs form one synergy.”

I used to visit a Trinity dealer in Chapel Hill, NC and was always blown away by the demos. The company even started a magazine about the Trinity and I still have the first, and alas only, issue. The product got a lot of positive press and won awards at national conferences but the box was delayed and then seemed to be plagued by bugs. Eventually the firm’s assets were sold and the Video Trinity disappeared.

Today I was surprised to read a post in Terri Heaton’s blog about a new piece of software that seems to be based upon the original Trinity.

“The brilliant minds at Serious Magic have officially released Vlog It, a $49 piece of software that’ll turn your computer into a TV station. These are the same folks who brought us the higher end “Visual Communicator” and that staple yesterday, Video Toaster (remember Garth’s T-shirt from “Wayne’s World?”). I predict this simple product will revolutionize Vlogs by making it easy for anybody to create real time production for television. Go to the Vlog It site and play the demo. You’ll be absolutely amazed. I am, and I’m an old TV guy!”

My mind reels with thoughts about the videos that people can make with this product, if it’s even close to the Video Toaster in capabilities and performance. The dawn just got a little brighter. I would love to see dozens and dozens of Rocketboom-inspired vlogs.