Eliminating the Space Between

A couple months ago, my friend Jake shared a video that fundamentally changed the way I viewed the world, or at least where it is going. (OK Carine, stop being dramatic).

Although I am definitely susceptible to indulging in exaggeration and hyperbole — this is the BEST book I’ve ever read! This movie was the most touching thing I’ve ever seen — this video was and still is mindblowing. Flood gates opening. Outer space launching. Topsy turveying. You get the point.

Before watching Pattie Maes of MIT Media Labs demonstrate their futuristic “Sixth Sense” technology at Ted Talks, I was only able to understand technology and social media in a one-dimensional manner, namely as a device, a platform, a new channel for communication, etc.

Now, it is increasingly clear that something larger is brewing: New and old technology is enabling the convergence of the physical and digital worlds, creating an hyper-linked, hyper-connected reality.

Universal devices like the iPhone, with improved mapping technology and real time inputs from the masses — both conscious (i.e. Twitter updates, photos linked to geographical locations) and unconscious (sensors, purchasing behavior inputs, utility usage, etc) — will fundamentally change the way we make decisions and interact with one another. Information, which in the past was siloed in the physical or digital worlds, will seamlessly overlay so that one will view a pack of paper towels and be able to determine its environmental impact, whether you can buy it cheaper elsewhere, and maybe even how many are in stock.

Aside from applications in how we consume, this convergence will change how we interact, communicate and socialize. Information about individuals will be readily available: Google Latitude hinted at a social application of linking friends according to the real-time geographical location. Microsoft Vine similarly helps families and loved ones coordinate during a crisis (natural or otherwise) — it could also help government agencies help manage those affected in real time, especially if traditional lines of communication (phone, internet etc) are unavailable. And while this is only a thought, imagine if a nonprofit like Witness equipped individuals GPS-enabled camera phones instead of just cameras, the organization would effectively have visual and location-based evidence at its disposal to combat crimes against humanity.

As O Reilly’s Web Squared explains, technology becomes more intelligent as we provide more inputs (e.g. search, voice recognition). Further, the more distinct inputs a device receives, from different individuals in different locations etc., the more worldly can the technology become. This hints at exponential network effects leading to an ever-expanding collective intelligence that we are only beginning to figure out how to utilize. As the growing shadow of data overload creeps upon us, solutions from the data visualization front offer key insights into how we can turn an overwhelming web of information into something useful.

Take improved mapping technology, for example. As outlined by the Economist, geomapping is not only an input into connecting the digital and physical worlds, it helps us interpret how the two interact. The article explains, “Maps help you take complex information and portray it in a clear, intuitive manner. You can show segregation in a way that talking about it doesn’t do.” Maps allows us to visualize data and measure impact over time, turning graphs and charts into dynamic, relatable images. A stark example:

Obesity and Parks (Economist)

A chart mapping obesity against park density would be helpful, but it would not have the same emotional yet accurate impact as this image (the “Woah, this is so obvious” reaction). Maps also help solve the stumbling question of how to determine the correct measurement — obesity/child v parks/child, obesity/child v parks/sq ft, rate of obesity growth v rate of green space decline? (Of course, we don’t want to confuse correlation with causation by that’s another issue…) Further, measurements used to assess problems are then easily turned into metrics for measuring impact. Imagine looking at a dynamic version of this map over 10 years versus a trend line on a chart. Data visualization using maps hones in on the tangible, actionable and meaningful.

Exactly how the physical and digital will converge is only beginning to emerge, but it is quite clear that within the next couple years the groundwork will be developed. Further, whereas in the past “global is the new local” was the mantra of choice, we will likely see a bifurcation into two realms that are simultaneously inhabited: the hyper-local and the uber-global. Mapping technology and real-time updates will make our immediate locale a far more dynamic reality, while image-enhanced information sharing across platforms across the globe will attempt to ground one another in these local realities.


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