This is an article I did for a session at MIPTV this year. I've been thinking a lot about this conversation lately in the context of how data visualisation can change the way we see, and how game mechanics are (finally!) being exploited by marketers.
"Maps are very simple," began Orange labs researcher Christophe Aguiton. "They are practical things. But at the same time a map is a dream engine ... people dream on maps."
Once upon a time, ordinary maps were given depth with topographical tricks. Today you can layer maps with data - examples of which we see in plenty, like how criminal acts, bars or schools can be mapped for the BBC's The Truth About Crime project.
And as an example, Aguiton showed us a map of France, seen from above, layered with the frequency of real-time SMSes in a given area on new years. SMS concentrations were illustrated to look like flames, burning calmly over the country and culminating in a gleaming ball of fire in Paris. When midnight hit, the lights suddenly exploded upward and outward, indicating the immediate rise in text messages - a fireworks show composed by data.
It's a beautiful thing that illustrates our connectedness in a way we could never have imagined in a non-digital world.
SMS data is gathered automatically, meaning big companies can play with that information in equally compelling ways. Doesn't seem bad, and it's the direction we're moving in anyway, so the idea of availing more data more quickly has staunch proponents. Tim Berners-Lee is lobbying governments to have all data made public.
"It's a very good thing on one hand, but I [wanted to show] it can also be a problematic issue," Aguiton said.
The truth is, you don't know how data will be used, or how it will change relationships. To introduce this idea he talked about the notion of Big Brother and Little Brother. Big Brother is your government or companies, neither of which necessarily care about everything you do. But Little Brother are your parents, friends, or lover - people with whom you share information voluntarily.
It's great for parents to able to use a data visualising map to see where their child is 24/7, but is that something the child - who may be 17 years old and brimming with desires of his own - wants? What are the implications of mobile apps that tell you where all the sex offenders live? And what happens when your husband knows you didn't leave for work exactly when you said you did, that maybe you didn't go to work at all...?
"All these things we discuss create a new generation of map, a possibility of maps," said Aguiton. "When you make things visible, you open a lot of new problems."
Andrew Bullen of Creative Cooperative talked about the digital city of the future. With Paris-based Cap Digital, Creative Cooperative holds a yearly festival where attendees speculate what such a city would be like, and what its inhabitants would want: self-fulfillment, identity, sustainability, transparency, connectivity, identity, empowerment, fellowship.
You can imagine the long-term social and governmental applications, but Bullen focused on the touristy and the charming: users can use augmented reality technology on phones to see how the ruins of a historical building appeared at its height of glory. And in Paris, participants tagged virtual data onto people: strangers on the métro were unwittingly littered with hundreds of little notes from those too timid to approach them in person.
Imagine that: a walking, talking love letter who doesn't even know he's a message.
Layar co-founder Claire Boonstra emphasised how AR can be used to create e-cards of the future. With Layar, you can serruptitiously leave snowmen or Easter eggs in the yards of neighbours or friends, who later get the option to see what you left them. People are even experimenting with "leaving memories" in places of meaning: walk up to a couch in a bar, scan it with your phone, and maybe it'll "show" you a video of what its last users got up to.
This led to a discussion about what it means when a message no longer has an obvious interface. How do you know to collect it?
"The interface has always presented itself" - it is always obvious, with a screen or with printed text, that something is a medium - "in our understanding of media. If anything can be anywhere at any time ... what is our interface? Would we have an alert, which means we'd be alerted all the time? Would we use QR codes, which means we'd see these little stickers everywhere?" wondered Area/Code Entertainment co-founder Kevin Slavin.
What would be the affordances, the cues, by which we know media is tied to places?
Boonstra posits the solution will be smart filtering, which would draw your attention to certain media, but not others, based on personal context. Your phone, that most intimate of devices, will filter content as it gets smarter and smarter.
Like gameplay, all this needs rules, Bullen observed. And like gameplay, this will go into a wider democratic system. As this idea becomes more mainstream, you'll also know where to find the rules.
This talk of rules compelled moderator Ferhan Cook of All Screen Productions to incredulously demand, "So who will be the lawmakers of the future? Game developers?!"
"Well ... it's important to keep in mind that the lawmakers of the past were also game developers," replied Slavin dryly. Game theory is incorporated into US military thinking. It "determines what happens on Wall Street, explicitly, and what happens in insurance industries, explicitly." The principles of game design have all been applied to everything from policy to traffic lights.
"The difference now is there is a far greater literacy in the popular sensibility of what games are. As with all forms of literacy, it has moved from those who just can write the code to those who can read it."
People who are fluent in games are going to have an urban literacy that is opaque to previous generations, "like my mother," Slavin quipped. The game systems that play out in everyday life will bifurcate into two types of literacy.
Said literacy, Slavin went on, is not a question of digital divide or access to tools; it's the understanding that you're in a living system invested with ideology, rules and constraints.
This leaves us in a curious position. In generations to come, will the obvious limits of our society - laws, country borders, smoking zones - be things we don't see but merely become aware of based on context? Will they move and change with us, and will we be able to manipulate them?
What great things could we invent, and what new sins will we commit?