Is Google Connect That Far Away?

Google has done it again: Google Maps Beta combines improved map graphics with their trademark user interface simplicity. It is a great first stab at a mapping service, including driving directions. And at the same time, it goes so far that it also leaves one asking: “If they can do this, then what about this, or this?” Not feature-creep add-ons, but rather extending the functionality that is already there.

For example, I suspect one day soon users will be able to click on business phone number listings produced by “nearby” searches and connect the call over a VoIP/PSTN gateway. That last mile has been sorely lacking in information and directory assistance services (both via wireline 411 and on the web). Google is just the company to fix it.

Long Tails, Exploding TVs, and Experience Goods

There has been a recent surge in web commentary on the growing transformation of video distribution and consumption, in particular network TV. The technology pundits will tell you that video is following in the footsteps of text, photos, and music into the maw of the Internet, driven by today’s on demand economics and digital lifestyles. The common theme in most of these discussions is the toppling of incumbent media houses: the old school networks and studios who have invested heavily and reaped great rewards from their monopolies. The long tail faithful suggest that audiences are fragmentary (specialized) by nature and how they consume and re-contextualize cultural artifacts is likewise a fragmentary and niche-driven process. The idea of a cohesive, unified work of art, long challenged among cultural theorists, is now seeing a quite literal disintegration.

As technologies continue to converge, and as the bit torrents challenge the perceived sanctity of the living room, we no doubt will see a shift from broadcast to narrowcast cultural production and consumption. As a lover of “foreign” and “independent” cinema, this should be a welcomed change for me since the collapse of traditional distribution channels means almost limitless access to everything and anything, anywhere at any time. However, in the face of this one-click immediacy, how will the experience of culture change? I am particularly interested in terms of audiences.

In 1948, Americans went to the local theater to see the latest Warner Bros. comedy and perhaps the latest Italian neorealist import. In 1966, they watched these films on their televisions, ‘81 on HBO. In all cases someone else decided the when, and less so the where. This is still true today, with the latest Hollywood release following a carefully rehearsed trajectory from must-see opening weekend to the 2 for 1 DVD bargain bin at your local box retailer of choice. Hollywood isn’t just selling the images on screen, but also the experience of those images, within a crucial window of time. This is what gets top dollar. And this is what has the studios so upset about leaked/ripped pre-release copies. The cat is out of the bag, they fear. Why go to the cinema if you can have it in your pocket? I suggest one answer is the pleasure in the sharing of experience — be it water cooler recaps of your favorite TV drama or reality TV show viewed the previous night on Fox, or sitting in a darkened theater with 200 strangers.

How might the long-tailers reconcile this pleasure of mass culture? Perhaps this isn’t their purview, preferring instead to praise the liberation of the catalog, pleased more in describing the inter-personal and social realignments shaped by recommendation and reputation engines outside the mainstream. Or maybe the point is simply that experience will still be shared, only in new, often impromptu and ephemeral settings. Perhaps. Until then, I think in the proposed slice-and-dice on demand world of video searching, downloading, and the like, shared cultural context is fundamentally negated. It is a void that will be filled one way or another.

Wisdom of Crowds and the IEM

I’ve been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which argues that crowds — that is, diverse, decentralized, independent groups of individuals (in the right circumstances) — aren’t as dumb as you might think.

One example that New Yorker regular Surowiecki provides are the Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM), which are futures markets that deal in political and economic events. The project is designed to be a learning tool about real-world markets, but is also attracting considerable non-academic interest given this year’s presidential race.

Check out Kerry vs. Bush on IEM.

Our Glass

Glass Engine

Having recently seen and enjoyed The Hours, including its Philip Glass score, I’ve been getting back into his music. And wouldn’t you know it, Mr. Glass has a website.

There you will find a java applet-based interface for listening to over 60 of his works, simultaneously sorted on sliding scales (e.g., Joy, Sorrow, Intensity and Density). One can also filter by type of work (e.g., Solo, Opera, Film). This “engine,” an IBM research project, is both a good overview of Glass’s work and an impressive example of interface design (though I find myself wanting more, like auto-shuffle and continuous playback).

While the mechanical nature of Glass’s work is obviously highlighted as one slides his or her way from one track to the next, the process also tends to short-circuit the sense of duration one typically experiences in listening to Glass, even with his shorter works. At the same time, the interface provides for juxtapositions between passages to create altogether new compositions. As such, the Glass Engine offers an interesting alternative to the ways we commonly think about organizing data.