Finger Painting, Angling and Tuning the Cello: the New Computing

I’m not overwhelmed by Nokia’s new appstore, Ovi, but using it does help remind one of what the real revolution in computing is (I have been talking a lot about revolutions lately, but there are basically three: the information revolution, the computing revolution, and the mobile revolution, which I’ll address later.)

The computing revolution is this: a small device, about the size of your hand, which is called a phone, but isn’t, really. It’s what Nokia can only dream of: a device so smart that even ordinary people can use it. It’s called the iPhone, and listening to some friends talk about it the other night brought home just how great an impact it has wrought, and will have.

One was talking about working with someone who, during a long car drive, would take his iPhone and look like he was about to throw it away. Then he would stop, his hand mid air, and then he would look at the screen. And then do it again. At first my friend thought he was having some sort of seizure, or was just really upset about something.

Then he realized he was angling. With his iPhone. (I can’t find the app right now.)

My other friend has a tuner in his, so he can tune his cello. “It’s geeky I know, but when I come home at the end of the day I can be up and playing quickly,” he said. Just point the device at the cello, hit a string and the iPhone display will indicate whether it’s in tune.

Both of these are great examples of how computing fulfills its promise by giving the user something they actually want, when they want it and in a form that fits their environment. What’s more, it’s easy enough for them to buy, install and use that they’re actually using it.

Which gives you some idea of how far behind the likes of Nokia are, and how long users have been waiting for this revolution to happen.

Then there’s the New Yorker cover, all drawn on the iPhone:

Colombo’s phone drawing is very much in the tradition of a certain kind of New Yorker cover, and he doesn’t see the fact that it’s a virtual finger painting as such a big deal. “Imagine twenty years ago, writing about these people who are sending these letters on their computer.” But watching the video playback has made him aware that how he draws a picture can tell a story, and he’s hoping to build suspense as he builds up layers of color and shape.

What I like about his story is that a) he has all the tools he needs in his pocket, just like the angler and the cello guy and b) he talked about not feeling too exposed—the painter, painting in a public place–because everyone assumed he was just checking email. This is a significant mini revolution in itself; a few years back, pre-Palm, someone poking around on a small screen in a public place might have seemed weird, but now the idea of what we do in social spaces has changed entirely.

(Now someone standing on a corner reading a paper or watching the world go by is viewed with suspicion.)

I’m no shill for Apple, but I think there’s a compound shift taking place here: by keeping the design elegant, making it easy for developers and users, the iPhone has captured the imagination of both. These guys may not be angling and tuning in a few years’ time, but already significant rivers have been crossed.

Now users have access to functions and features that they may not have considered the terrain of computing, but which now are part of their lives.

Computing will never be the same.

Into the Light

Part of my job is explaining the world of new/social media to old media veterans. It’s not easy, either because they’re very resistant to change, or because they tend to see the changes  being wrought on their industry as somehow different to the much bigger changes taking place.

It’s not a bunch of separate revolutions—it’s one revolution. For want of a better description, it’s not unlike the transition from the Dark Ages to the High Middle Ages. That’s perhaps overstating it, but compare, if you will, this small vignette.

I was chatting with a friend on Skype just now; he had returned to Canada to be with his ailing dad. I enquired more, and he told me his father had been at the Battle of Ortona, and still suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I know something of PTSD, but I was ignorant of Ortona, so I looked it up while we chatted. There’s a great Wikipedia page on it, so I quickly got a sense of what his father had been through, back in 1943.

Then my friend sent me links—to a book written about it, which I could thumb through on Amazon and search for his name.

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I was able to quickly learn a bit about the battle, about my friend’s father, and about his wounds, both external and internal. Then my friend sent me another link, this time to a YouTube page that showcased a movie about the battle.

Within a few clicks I was much, much more knowledgeable about what this man had gone through, made more personal by my friend’s messages that dropped through Skype:

All of the officers he trained with were killed. He was the only one left.

He has one pal left who is still alive from those days.

It’s easy to dismiss this all as just bite-sized knowledge, without depth or perspective. But nevertheless what we have at our finger tips is so much more than was possible a few years ago—so much so that it’s no exaggeration to say that the Internet offers wisdom over darkness to those who came before it.

And for the media? Well, it’s not really about news anymore. It’s about wisdom. Information grabbed when needed to assemble an insight. The dividing line now is not between those who have access to information—everyone, more or less, has access—but between those who have the skill and interest to be able to know what they’re looking for and to find it. And then, of course, digest it.

That has huge implications for media because it transforms the market for information. It doesn’t remove it—it transforms it. We haven’t figured out how.

But we have already reached, without really making a big fuss about it, a great point of leveling, where we all can claw our way out of ignorance, topic by topic, surprisingly quickly. Whether we want to is something else entirely.

Image from SDCinematografica.it

Telling the Story in the Third Dimension

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The bitter end of the Tamil Tigers has been fought away from the news crews, but not the satellites.

But did we make the most of this technology to tell the story of human suffering and the end of a 35-year guerrilla movement?

A month ago the U.S. government released satellite images apparently showing how tens of thousands of Sri Lankan civilians had been squeezed into the last tract land held by the LTTE, a story covered somewhat cursorily by the media. This three paragraph piece from The Guardian, for example:

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A week ago (May 12) Human Rights Watch issued its own report based on images it had commissioned from commercial satellites. The photos, the organisation said, “contradict Sri Lankan government claims that its armed forces are no longer using heavy weapons in the densely populated conflict area.”

The full report was available as a preliminary analysis, downloadable in PDF.

The report was carried by the BBC and others.

But I could find no one who had dug into the report to find a way to bring this remote tragedy closer to home.

For example, it could be as simple as double checking the images and coordinates given against Google Earth (easy enough; just enter the lat/long digits into Google Earth and see where they take you. HRW could have done a better job of providing the full coordinates here, to the full six decimal places–9.317999, for example—rather than the meager two they gave: 9.32.)

But a much better way of presenting the data lurks in a link on page four. Click on the link, and, if you’ve got Google Earth installed, the KML file (a KML file is a XML-based way of expressing geographic information that can be read by programs like Google Earth) will load a layer that tells the grim story in a different way.

The first is the most recent picture from Google Earth, dated 2005. As you can see, very little human habitation (click on each image to enlarge).

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The one below is from May 6. A dense city has appeared in the meantime, with its own streets:

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Four days later, most of it is gone:

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Toggling between these images in Google Earth is a sobering experience. Of course, such imagery does not explain what exactly happened to these people, but it asks tougher questions than any talking head can. And yet CNN chose to focus on that, and on familiar footage of the war.

My point is this: we’re now in a world of three dimensions. We journalists can see things our predecessors couldn’t.

If I was an editor I would have mined that HRW report until I’d found a way to use their imagery to tell the story. Buried in that single, 50 KB KML file is a wealth of detail:

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Which could have been used as time lapse, or juxtaposed over a map like the one the BBC used for its report:

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The bottom line: We as journalists need to understand this kind of thing better so we know what is possible, what is doable, and, if nothing else, to be able to know that when we see a link to a KML file, we may be on the way to a treasure trove of information to help us tell the story.