Vanguard Conference on E-Commerce

May 17, 1999

MIT Media Laboratory


Expectations of the I-Community

Walter Bender


When I was first asked to speak with you today, I was assigned the topic of I-Advertising. I am often asked about the future of advertising as it impacts the news industry. As long as there is news, there will be a news industry. As long as the industry is able to offer value, there will be an audience and hence there will be the potential for advertising. What has changed in light of technology is that there is no longer a monopoly of the press. There is more competition out there and effort has to be made in order to compete. To sum up, my thoughts on advertising and technology are simply expressed as Eye-Advertising. Advertising following the eyes.


So what am I going to talk about today? I titled my talk: Expectations of the I-Community. I will begin by reviewing what in retrospect is quite obvious. Industry will adopt technologies that make them more efficient. It is as inevitable that the news industry utilizes the Internet as it was that they utilized the telegraph. In fact, for a quick and entertaining read, pick up a copy of The Victorian Internet. I may as well get to the rest of my book recommendations now: David Brin's Transparent Society is quite though provoking and I am reading Max Frankel's autobiography, which is fascinating.


My second theme regards context. I'll recall a few harbingers of how the "I" in I-Community adds value to both the community and industry. Then I will talk about the changing expectations of the I-Community and try to project the impending impact of these changing expectations. Finally, time permitting, I will talk about some technologies and approaches to technology that will facilitate these changes.


The early repercussion of the Internet was media convergence. The mantra of Internet gurus was "bits are bits;" the representation of content in digital form made it possible to separate the "medium from the message;" and content became independent of its delivery mechanism. Filtering of content to suit the needs of individuals and communities of special interests was emphasized. This is reflected today in the plethora of sites such as MyYahoo, MyExcite, MyLycos, etc. The expectations of the Internet consumer were closely aligned to those of the traditional media consumer.


As an example of how we were thinking about content, I want you to meet "Tillie the Toiler."


At the spring 1993 News in the Future sponsor meeting, Jerome Rubin introduced us to Tillie the Toiler and Harry the Homemaker who, along with their two children, one dog, and five digital television sets, represented the demographic medium (Jerry said mean but I think he meant medium) of the future.


Harry, a great fan of our then national pastime, was able to call up statistics on any of the players— "lifetime, this season, this series, this game, whatever," while watching television on a wall-sized flat-panel television in the breakfast nook.


Tillie meanwhile browsed her personalized newspaper, printed on re-usable paper, with stories that her autonomous agents had selected as being of special interest—while the headlines "undulated fetching." Editorial and advertising content included "full-motion video clips." Tillie watched a "series of tasteful advertisements" that were selected for her based upon her mood and her computational agents assessment of situational and personal interests. If she were "tempted" by any of the advertised products, she was able to order them "simply by communicating her wishes" to the device.


A scenario that is little too familiar.


Ironically, even after the advent of technologies like Java, little if any of the content on the Internet takes advantage of a fundamental fact: everyone who accesses the Internet is using a computer! This leads to the second topic.


As industry continues to leverage the growing availability of both computation and connectivity, in order to remain competitive, one needs to add value. Today's mantra is "content is a commodity—context is the value added."


By way of example, I will wind the clock back another 5 years and talk about "context as the value added."


I used to quip that my car would tell my TV when to start watching tire ads. It seemed to make perfect sense. As long ago as the mid-80's Goodyear was silicon in their tires. And the initial penetration of cellular was in car phones. So the car knew when the tires were worn and had the means to communicate this knowledge.


A more concrete harbinger of things to come was a prototype of Popular Photography that we build. Every month, the editors would review three new cameras. We modified the routine in the electronic version by adding a fourth camera each month, your camera. Suddenly you had a point of reference, the context in which to better make use of the story.


In the mid-90's, we built PLUM, the Peace, Love, and Understanding Machine. As with the Popular Photography example we utilized local context in order to engage the reader in the content and facilitate its use. In this case we took the Reuter wire and built an automated augmentation. Reuter writes the news for everyone but each of us is an anyone. The facts are all there, but they are impenetrable. First we taught PLUM to distinguish between a hurricane in Miami and the Miami Hurricanes (the latter being a football club). Then we taught PLUM to identify the actors and actions being described in the article. Finally PLUM used its analysis to generate analogies. 250,000 acres of farmland, what ever that means, became AS IF everything inside of Route 128 was under water. The news became tangible.


We've continued to develop a number of services of this sort—services delivered to the consumer that include targeting, auditing, verifying, and expressing information of importance and localizing this information through augmentation. The Internet consumer now expects efficiency, access, and utility.


Now on to changing expectations. Before I tell you about them, let me reiterate: I-Communities, communities of geography or shared interests, are reshaping the goals of "being digital" from improving the consumption of services to improving the quality and quantity of discourse and redefining the role of the consumer as one who is more critical, more demanding, and more committed. Tools of information description, collaboration, and design are facilitating this change. The expectations of the I-Community are that its members will be more engaged, not just as consumers, but as active producers of content. Leveraging this expectation of engagement is the new challenge and opportunity on the Internet.


There is a very active program at the lab on embedded computing. The goal is to put intelligence into "things." My colleague, Neil Gershenfeld, has described the why and how in his recent book, When Things Start to Think. While I am enthusiastic about embedded computing, I have a different goal. I am interested in "when people start to think." Technology is about giving people tools and models to think with.


I gave a talk at the University of Southampton a few years back where another of the speakers suggested that the reason for the rapid growth of the Internet was due to the fact that it is transparent. He was referring to the fiber that carries so much of the data (Southampton is one of the places that pioneered the field of fiber optics). I had to concur that the reason for the rapid growth of the net was (and is) its transparent nature. But I am referring to a different characteristic. The Internet lets you look under the hood in a way that no previous medium did. Every web browser has a menu item labeled "View Source." Thus any piece of content on the web reveals itself and its inner structure. This means that reading and authoring become to a greater extent than ever before synonymous. It is this transparent nature of the Internet that I want to dwell on for the remainder of my talk.


Mr. Rubin was incomplete in that he failed to tell us about Tillie's mother, Sally the Storyteller, age 86, and about her two children, Edward the Editor, age 12, and Lisa the Learner, age 14.


Sally is a member of an organization known as the Silver Stringers. This group of 60, 70, and 80 year olds formed three years ago in order to publish a newspaper on the Internet. The goal of the group was not and is not to master the foibles of computer (Two members of the group had some computer experience before joining but neither knew whether they had used a PC or a Macintosh). The thing that drives them is a passion for telling their stories. They convene face to face three times a week and hold a "budget" meeting, arguing about content and process, and critiquing each others words and works. They have found that the available tools for expression are inadequate, so some of them are learning to program in order to exercise further control. The Silver Stringers are an example of an I-Community that has discovered the power of self-expression and social construction. They have changed in their relationships with each other and the traditional media. They have very high expectations regarding storytelling, accountability, and process. They are hooked on discourse, design, and debate.


Edward is also involved in another journalism project, The Junior Journal. Along with 20 other children from as many time zones, Edward is publishing a monthly newspaper that is dedicated to the discussion of issues of import to children. Edward and his peers don’t have a luxury of face-to-face meetings, so they exchange on the order of 100 email messages a day, ranging in topic from debates about the war in Kosovo to the proper etiquette for conducting an interview. Like his grandmother, Edward has become a practitioner of the investigative, critical-thinking, and expressive skills that are usually acquired in J-School. He too has very different expectations about media.


Lisa, too, has taken a Constructionist stance regarding her learning. When she was eleven, she designed and built a bird feeder out of Lego-Logo that took pictures of the birds as they came to feed (She had been frustrated by the habit of the birds to feed when she was at school). More recently, she has been experimenting with Image Maps. This camera, built by Brian Smith’s explanation architecture group, juxtaposes the pictures she takes with those taken by others, including historical images. Thus each exposure becomes an opportunity for engagement and perspective.


We have seen (even before the expanse of the Internet) that "those attributes of the physical world that influence and diminish the flow of ideas, e.g., distance, barriers, and time, are themselves being diminished by the numerous technologies of dissemination." The I-Community is expecting that this flow of ideas will lead to coherent thinking and learning. For the I-Community, this is a time for doing, a time to harness "bits" into useful information. Not willing to be spoon-fed and willing to wrestle with clumsy technological tools, the I-Community expects to be self-expressive and engaged as thinkers.