Social Sensing

Few would question the remarkable extent to which the two pillars of modern day business communication — cell phones and email — enable us to effortlessly stay in touch with people on the other side of the planet. The paradox lurking behind this revolution is that these same technologies are steadily eroding the time and attention we devote to communicating with people in our immediate vicinity. The cost to the sender of sending an email or placing a cellular call is rapidly approaching zero. Unchecked, the cost to the recipient may rapidly become unmanageable, not in terms of financial cost, but rather in terms of demands on our time and attention. Witness the now common scene in airports and other public spaces — hundreds of people milling around in what appears to be animated conversation; on closer inspection, it turns out that they are not with each other, but rather with people connected to them via the near-invisible ear bud microphones they are wearing. Similarly, it is common to observe business colleagues in offices sitting just a few feet away from each other engaged in passionate debate. But the debate is often not verbal; rather, the only sound is the click-clack of keyboards as email flies back and forth. In desperation, some companies have resorted to the draconian measure if banning emails on certain days of the week ("email-free Fridays") or certain core hours of the day as the only way to pry their employees away from the email inboxes to engage in face-to-face dialog.

Why is it that so many people seem to find communication through email or cell phone more compelling than face-to-face dialog? Many value the fact that email permits asynchronous communication, enabling the recipient to respond only when it is convenient for them. Email also enables people to reinvent their personalities in ways that would be difficult or impossible for them socially. Cell phone technology has conquered geographical separation — anytime, anywhere communication. Rather than pursuing a chance encounter with the stranger standing next to me, it seems easier to talk to someone I know over a cell phone.

In contrast, technology has done little or nothing to enhance face-to-face communication. As we move from the current era of computing (so-called "personal" computers) to the next era (described variously as ambient intelligence or ubiquitous computing), help for social dialog will arrive in the form of next-generation personal information managers (PIMs) connected via wireless Personal Area Networks (PANs). PANs operate over a distance of just a few feet, connecting an individual to just those people within their immediate vicinity — their dinner companions, for example. First-generation PAN devices will be based on Bluetooth wireless technology.

Next generation PIMs arriving on the market over the next 24-36 months will store their owner's personal profile that will contain whatever information the owner may wish to share with others in their immediate vicinity. The information a user may wish to exchange in this way will obviously depend on the social context that the user is in at any given moment. In contrast to today's PIMs (where a lot of fumbling around will eventually result in a digital business card being exchanged between two devices), rich personal information will flow automatically and transparently between devices. It is quite likely that these PIMs will evolve to look nothing like today's devices. They may be incorporated into a pair of eyeglasses, or even in the clothes that we wear.

Widespread use of such devices will, of course, require that issues of personal privacy be resolved. However, peer to peer ad hoc networks of this type are inherently more respectful of individual privacy than client server systems. Users of PAN devices can specify either the exact names or the profiles of the people whom they want their devices to communicate with. They may also choose to have any information about themselves that is sent to another device time-expire after a few hours. This seems relatively benign compared to the information that can be collected about us (usually without our knowledge or consent) every time we browse the Web.

Many of us attend conferences every year for the purpose of professional networking. At any given conference of a hundred people or more, it is likely that there are a handful of potentially life-transforming encounters that could happen within the group. But such encounters are reliant on a chain of chance meetings that likely will not happen, due to the inefficiencies of the social network. Personal Area Network devices could dramatically improve our ability to identify the people in a crowd whom we may wish to talk with. Of course, we will want sophisticated software agents acting on our behalf to match our interests with the profiles of the people standing around us. We could even imagine a peer-to-peer Ebay in which my profile indicates that I am in the market to buy a certain type of car and I am alerted if anyone around me is trying to sell such a car. In Japan, it is already possible to buy a clear plastic key chain device that can be programmed to glow brightly when I encounter someone at a party whose interests are similar to mine. A high tech icebreaker!

The most profound technologies are the ones that "disappear" with use. Personal Area Network devices may enable nothing fundamentally new — they may just simplify what we already do

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