I want to help people to ‘see better’. The reason I got into Augmented Reality wasn’t due to technical challenges (although there are many), and it wasn’t due to career rewards. It was largely to try and build tools to help make us smarter, to navigate space better, to use our embodied reasoning to make decisions just-in-time that were aligned with our peers and to help our entire civilization avoid steering itself off a cliff.
What frustrates me most isn’t that we make bad decisions collectively but that these decisions are not ratified. If at least we all actually chose the bad outcomes, reasoned about them, had models of them, and understood them, then if we failed that would be our own fault. But we don’t even have shared understanding — we don’t even all see the same world.
There are multiple parts to fixing this, but the first part is ‘seeing’.
I feel like if there is some way to activate the 579 million minds in North America — to tackle some of the challenges we face — we’d make short work of them. I ultimately want to build creative tools to let us play with the world, to annotate, edit and mark up reality — to have the kind of agency and control over this obdurate landscape that we sometimes fail to appreciate.
Perhaps such hopes are impractical. But I feel like it’s worth sharing at least a bit of what I hope to see happen. To communicate this I’ll have to break down this story into several pieces. Hopefully you’ll have the patience to bear with me.
1. Pokémon Go and the idea of brokerages.
Pokémon Go was released in early July 2016 and within a month became the top grossing mobile game ever. With $100 million in revenue in 20 days it blew past Snapchat, Tinder, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Google Maps in number of active users within just a month of being released. By getting people out of the house and into the streets it helped businesses attract customers, police catch criminals, brought people into places of worship.
On the surface Pokémon Go is an innocent kids game, an addictive geo experience offering a ranking system and collectables. A kind of glorified geocaching. Below the surface however Pokémon Go is a social signaling app. It may be the first software experience to successful physically move large groups of people around in the real world; something that has been a holy grail for the advertising industry. It knows where people are right now and it can make them go places right away. On the web the industry takes this for granted: cookies, user profiling, back end analytics — these are the norm. In the physical world we’re inundated with discount offers, special events, happenings — and nobody gets off their butt.
The ‘Go’ part of Pokémon Go is in fact something of a conceit; the real world is little more than as a kind of tablecloth that the game is played on. But it hints at a possibility. Similar businesses such as AirBNB, Uber, Lyft, Groupon, FourSquare, Swarm, Ushahidi, Upwork even Waze could only hope to have the powers that Pokémon Go flagrantly exhibits.
What Pokemon Go does right is it acts as a brokerage between players over the shared game experience.
There are many other geospatial game like apps but many of them miss the point of what being a brokerage means. In Foursquare for example there is no way to trivially “signal” to the people around you about an opportunity you have; it could be less lonely. In AirBNB it takes too long and the burden is on the party with the money, not the party who wants the patron. Lyft only tackles one narrow domain. Waze is too privacy focused to offer ride-share at all despite having spectacular awareness of where people are (I used to work at Waze and I begged them to add ride-share years before Uber and Lyft even existed). Groupon is like casting lightning down on your business; shattering it and destroying customer trust in you all for a quick jolt of attention.
In other domains there are no brokerages at all. If you stand in downtown San Francisco right now, with some kind of currency in your hand, and you are trusted by an extended peer group, and you want a slice of local organic pizza — you have to do the work to find that pizza. You can’t just stick your hand up in the digital air and let competing agents compete for your bitcoin. There is literally no service for brokering small consumer level transactions like this in a reliable way — even though each of us faces variations of this issue every single day. How often have you needed something specific at a specific time of day? A camera tripod, a bandaid, a bicycle tire pump, assistance with learning a piece of software?
Even though you have money, needs, urgency — there’s no service for brokering most transactions swiftly.
The energetic cost to go to craigslist or go to some other service is vastly in excess of the value of the task itself; the brokerage fees are higher than the service rendered.
While services like ‘Magic’ attempt to shift the burden away, the fact is there is no kind of inverse google, or inverse search where you specify what you want with constraints and the network begins to tackle it for you on your behalf.
An idealized brokerage matches complementary interests in real time. It brokers trust and provides discovery. You trust that the party you are introduced to is a real person, that they have a real offer, that their representation is accurate. The brokerage chaperones the transaction, establishing safeguards and remediation. Most importantly the brokerage introduces parties to each other in a timely manner. None of the place based services at the consumer-to-consumer level begin to approach what NASDAQ does every day. It’s surprising.
Futurists have long had a feverish and fervent vision of how cities will become smart, how “knowing our place” will enrich human lives, and how we all as stakeholders in this world can regain an ability to participate in meaningful ways. We have had this vision of people swarming problems, solving them like ants almost, we imagine peer-to-peer package delivery, we imagine a fluid almost nomadic lifestyle, doing jobs that appear just in time, calling out for needs such as food or shelter and having them solved without having to spend tedious hours finding and booking restaurants or reservations. This has not quite yet happened.
Having the power to move actual humans to actual real places makes all kinds of things possible, both good and bad. Imagine if you could attract people to a Saturday farmers market, or to a stream cleanup project, or to a take back the night march, or to a riot. An entire city becomes like an ant hill, the people like ants, and the attractants like sugar.
Many of the apps that do exist are already indispensable, have already changed our lives and are the beginning of a phenomena that will make our lives stranger, our cities sustainable and us more human. These are a first crop of domain-specific place based brokerages that connect humans to place and to each other. They are rudimentary, broken, clumsy social signaling fabric — but they are improving.
Notably much of this is accomplished through the power of small rewards. And the power of small rewards to motivate individuals is surprising. The implications vast. Imagine the power of a social network that could act as a single organism. The power to rewrite landscapes, to solve social ills, to address environmental problems en-masse. The terrifying ability to act in concert for good or ill. This has always been common in digital spaces, and now we see the inklings of the same frenetic energy in the real world.
The prominent evidence of human presence on earth is in our urban construction. Cities embody the concrete, physical and visible aspects of human aspiration. Our cities are complex organisms. A city has a brain, it has limbs, it has a nervous system. It consumes from farms, factories and rivers. It excretes waste back into the air, into rivers and landfill. It grows over time and experiences growing pains. Each of us acts like a cell in that city, pedestrians and cars flowing through its veins.
But our cities haven’t scaled very well. In particular the nervous system part of our cities is broken.
We have Facebook, classifieds, newspapers, NextDoor, bulletin boards, churches, voting and so on but there’s no easy, timely way to simply signal to people nearby that you want something or have something to offer. You can reach friends you trust, you can reach the police, but you can’t reach somebody across the street, you can’t reach somebody who is friend-like, or whom is even a trusted friend of a friend. You can’t put up you hand and ask for help. It’s like there is an entire missing sense or missing power. We can’t see it, but we sense a hole.
Our cities are literally missing a sensory capacity — to see each other.
In small towns of say 150 people or less it was always easy to know what everybody was doing and to gossip across that small social network about what was going on (again for better or worse). As our cities have grown we’ve individually lost awareness of the resources around us — we’ve atrophied. It’s difficult for individuals to cut through the noise and clearly signal urgent or important information to each other in a timely manner. Part of this is literally the concrete; we cannot see through walls, we cannot know that somebody nearby needs our help or wants something we have.
Projects like Ushahidi, which was a civic emergency crisis response tool, attempted to provide just-in-time information to connect people in crisis to local resources. It was used for “serious” crisis, earthquakes, floods, fires (not for the kinds of slowly moving issues of say gentrification or pollution that have equally disruptive impacts but act over a longer period of time).
Cities need rhizomatic grass-roots peer-to-peer nervous systems — networks that connect us to each other in a timely way, with trust. We are able to organize around crisis but everything is a crisis to somebody. Any truly successful social networking tool would be used not just for crisis but for everything — ideally having a significant impact on day to day human life.
We live in Disneyland. A fantastical, almost farcical built landscape that has less and less connection to reality. We tell ourselves these soothing stories about how things are going and how the future is going to turn out — but there’s no correlation with likely outcomes — it is a fantasy. The problem with Disneyland is that we live in a world where we never see Mickey and Minnie take off their heads.
Everything is aimed at selling us an experience, insulating us from the weather, and treating us as consumers not creators — not stakeholders or equal participants in a shared system. It’s not by the people for the people.
Advertisers signals counterfactually to reality in their desperation to sell us product. They actively squelch grass-roots voices and attempt to dominate the stage with their own voices. There is no business in helping people borrow their neighbors lawnmower.
Most of what we hear is what is being sold to us. We don’t hear about the little things, how local streams have changed, how blueberries grow in back alleys, how new friends have moved nearby. How we could collaborate to build something collectively.
As a result it is harder to see opportunities that are not consumption moments. It is harder to see when people around you can use your help, it is hard to see volunteer opportunities — even those that could later turn into employment. It is hard to tell people around you that you have things to sell or specific things you want to buy. It is hard to prove to people around you that you are trustworthy. It is hard to see the environmental health of your local watershed or ecosystem. It is hard to see the psychological or social or economic health of your neighborhood. In a new city it is hard to see friend-like places where you can go spend time.
Disneyland turns off the minds of its guests, it is not a consensual co-creation, it doesn’t ask us to invent, to be creative any more than we ask cattle to shape their reality. It asks us to consume. We go to our jobs, make our purchases and living out our brief days, and largely ignore the fabric of the land itself. Since there is less brainpower looking at the system, the system is starved for ideas, for solutions. And because of how laws and rules are structured, and because of a lack of transitive trust, it is hard to effect change on property anyway. So the system starts to fail.
For example why can’t street-repairs be flagged visibly for anybody to fix? There’s no trust that person doing the job can do the job, there’s no way to compensate the person doing the work, there’s no way to mark the work as something that needs doing. The priesthood of builders brings the experience to you. You clap. You pay money. You choose from the options you are given.
An ability of people is their problem solving ability. Often this ties closely in with creativity — problems by their definition are things which are unexpected. Creative solutions save money, energy and time. Creativity is not measured, does not show up as an index. There is no GDP of creativity. Predictive economic indexes don’t calculate inventiveness. There is only colloquial appreciation for the value of creative density.
We laud the creativity of Silicon Valley, and risk-takers flock there like moths to a flame. It’s become a brand such that every company has a small bay area outpost to signal that they are visionary. Yet this should be possible anywhere. Creativity is a response to territory; every city should be able to see its unique challenges at a granular level and respond intelligently.
More than this ideas and creativity are the primary industrial generators of growth; they are the primary currency of the realm. For a city to harvest the rewards — the stakeholders have to have agency. They have to be able to find each other, to align their work.
If our cities are an embodiment of our collective existence, a kind of systems level group summation of what we care about — then we need to be able to “see better” to help our our communities step through the future.
The natural outcome of better communication necessarily means the end of the pleasant facade.
Back in the dark ages of the Internet — a decade ago — one obstacle for stakeholders in both urban and rural landscapes to participate in the world around them was even being able to understand and share their places.
For many years the geekier among us had a lovely extended community of place-makers. We gathered every year at various events such as WhereCamp and contributed to projects such as OpenStreetMaps. There were many early attempts to find ways to share location, to document location for ourselves, and in some ways to make those locations more real; to make them “ours”.
During this dark period maps were owned by governments. To build them took empire. When we the community took maps back we were able to rebuild those maps much more quickly than they had originally been built. OpenStreetMaps showed that we could make our own maps. You didn’t need a few professionals inputting high quality data. Instead you could have millions of people inputting low quality data and correlate. It was a revolution in how we as a society derive meaning. Again small incentives to encouraged social change.
Back in this medieval period a term “geo tagging” was popular. Today Findery is the possibly the last company standing in this once populous field but for a while there were many. Technology improves and time moves forward. Each successive generation of mapping effort takes about half the time of the previous generation. When Waze, Google, Apple, Uber, Lyft and Tesla came to make maps they were re-generating their maps monthly. I expect in a few years we’ll be hourly generating voxel maps of the world — it will be annoying if your map is more than a few minutes old.
But marking places is just the beginning.
What humans need is signaling mechanisms — not just to share a place but to attract attention.
This was something none of the early apps understood, we were stuck solving a first problem of even keeping track of place. Connecting people to each other was felt to be too risky. There were few barriers to posting anything, and it was difficult to evaluate what was worth reading or not.
5. True Signals
Humans act in concert to solve problems that none of us could solve alone. We align on values by signaling clearly to each other that something is real and important. We build consensus and then we act.
Making true signals is hard. We live in a world that is noisy. It is hard to separate signal from noise, it is hard to evaluate what is true or false. It is hard to trust that the party at the other end will honor the energy one puts into meeting them.
Nature however has responses to these issues. For example forest birds call to each other, energetically and expensively. A bird signal is hard to fake, it is expensive, and it usually reveals the capabilities of the sender. In natural systems it is harder to spam.
Contra-wise human signaling is ineffective in some ways. We trust advertisers to be real (that there is indeed a product that we can buy) but we don’t trust each other. We are inundated with advertising and it is impossible to find the signal for the noise. The cost of signaling is *too cheap* and the signals therefore have *no meaning*. We can signal down the hierarchy, but we can’t signal at a peer-to-peer level effectively.
If our society is an organism then to build a better nervous system it needs to find a way to separate true signals from noise. True signals cost energy to make. Signals should cost money. This is why mining bitcoin will always cost money — we need to separate truth from fiction.
6. Rhizomatic civilization and the age of Signaling.
What would a mature city look like in the age of signaling?
It probably would not have top down hierarchical response systems. Much of that structure is deeply obsolete.
Instead people could offer services to each other at will. If they needed compensation then there would be a reasonable amount of trust they they’d be compensated for the energy they put out. This wouldn’t rely on brand in the traditional sense, but rather that both parties were known to each other indirectly through the network and had trust histories.
It would have clear signaling mechanism, energetically expensive to create, hard to forge. Hard for a wealthy party to abuse.
It would have ways of gauging trust. There would be extended trust networks that indicated if parties had historically been honorable and where their skills were.
It wouldn’t be primarily a wealth-extraction system with rewards flowing towards the top. It would be hard to silence peer to peer discourse.
It would allow dynamic just in time load balancing of resources. If a farmers market had lots of extra avocados then a signal could be sent out to encourage more people to come and collect them.
There would be an ecosystem of different kinds of participants and different scales. Large entities doing large jobs, smaller entities doing granular roles.
This would become an intimate landscape of regional understanding. In the way that a winery understands their soil, people in a region would know that region well. Individual expertise would be highly valuable.
(All of this would be a prelude to the age of modeling, moving beyond simply knowing place, and knowing each other and starting to predict the future behavior of complex whole systems. But that’s a separate story).