Thursday, January 17, 2008

Secrets From the Future

Today I started playing with Jott, a free (for now) application that allows users to employ their mobile phones to leave themselves or other people 30-second messages. What's kind of cool about Jott is its ability to email or text (an odd verb, that) written transcriptions of those voice messages.

Then it gets interesting.

Phoning Jott, I can interact with other applications such as Blogger or Twitter or Google Calendar. As a result, I can be walking to Starbucks when I receive an inspiration about Ethiopian Yergacheffe. I speed dial Jott and my mini-missive is quickly posted onto my blog. Of course the correctness of the text depends upon the ability of Jott's computer- and human-based speech transcription skills, but the experiments I've attempted are promising.

I'm particularly excited about Jott's ability to update my Google Calendar. Supposedly Google already allows that function, but I've had no luck synching my Verizon phone to Google. Jott, however, successfully transcribes my event information (date, activity, length of time) and migrates that information to my online calendar without a hitch.

What intrigues me most about Jott is the role that human transcribers play in transforming content from voice to text. I imagine a tight or loose array of people (based in India, I hear) pouring through messages and making snap decisions about whether a speaker meant the word "yes" or "blessed" when the software gets confused. Privacy issues, of course, arise, but not so much in our emerging post-privacy era when people (like Todd Davis, below) increasingly presume that their words, actions, purchases, and behaviors are viewable by others.

So, what does a post-private world look like? If you haven't heard MC Frontalot yet, I recommend that you download his song Secrets From the Future [MP3]. The Nerdcore artist convincingly outlines a near imminent age in which our most complex encryption techniques will be hacked by the children's toys of tomorrow, rendering our current privacy paranoia charmingly laughable. In this future, only the most cleverly encoded messages will warrant the software equivalent of an archeological dig.
They’ll glance you over, I guess, and then for a bare moment
you’ll persist to exist; almost seems like you’re there, don’t it?
But you’re not. You’re here. Your name will fade as Front’s will,
‘less in the future they don’t know our cryptovariables still.
All that content won't be lost though. Somewhere among the myriad server farms of the world every Jott and Twitter, every Flickered pic and Facebooked poke, all of our data detritus, will be saved and mined. Frontalot sings of alien technologies that will crack today's codes "like a crème brûlée." Not necessary, I think. The infinite parsing and sifting of all the world's ideas will themselves generate plenty of innovation. That word, "themselves," is where the future may lie.

Right now we depend upon people to ask the right questions, to form the correct queries, and to transcribe ideas into action. Jott illustrates this human-centered conceit. But the rising Mine Mind, the collective content of every choice we make to drill down and across and between pieces of data, may constitute a new, profound, and potentially frightening concept of consciousness. Visualize that world for a second. Think about the next decade when human transcribers become obsolete, when we speak to some future iteration of Jott, knowing that our content flows into a deluge of other words and images.

Right now we know that only mere people can navigate some of that ocean. But as humankind arose from the slime of some primeval sea, a new form of life may yet grow from our hurricane waves of content. It's exciting to contemplate, but scary too. Blame the fact that I grew up on 2001: A Space Odyssey and those danged Terminator films. I just cannot help but wonder at the possibility that our algorithms will surpass our ambitions.

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