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the power of social networks
Chapter ten discussed the potential of connecting hardware and software modules to support human collaboration. This chapter looks at the potential of connecting humans to support the use of simulations in ways that promote understanding across cultures.
I never felt the pulse of being at the center of a social network more than the aftermath of my first published book (a collaborative effort with Chris Marin). The book instructed its audience on the potential of shared 3-D models being hosted on the Web for experience and interaction by multiple people. Thanks to a fantastic publisher, the book was released around the world and piqued the fancy of a wide range of inquisitive and quirky thinkers. Being the author of record for answering questions from readers, at the time electronic mail was taking off for anyone working in a technical field, I was privy to hundreds of points of view as to the significance of the knowledge base reflected in the book. During one of the high volume weeks, questions came in from readers in India, China, Kenya, Nigeria, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and nine different European countries. For some reason, my brain treated them naturally as a community of people that shared insights into a new opportunity that changed their worldview. Those readers were my first social network — before the days when it would become easy to actually create a network among those readers and have them easily communicate with each other as we all lurked with interest. They were a social network in my mind, but only my mind, and the latter would have frustrated me if I had not been so engaged with the former.
At the same time, Howard Reingold was creating his great Electronic Frontiers experiment that looked to create virtual chats around interesting topics of which each would have a community. The general idea was not new as the USENET phenomenon was doing well with its hierarchical naming conventions of which sci.virtual.worlds was a group I participated in. The interesting idea was that the topics would be quirky and brought up by thoughtful people who would provide a quirky subject for a community to ponder. To me, the process of how people interacted with quirky, atypical ideas was going to be of great interest. I looked forward to the service at the same time I was building a community of book readers in my head. The two seemed important in their overlap to support how I best wanted to explore social relationships.
Thanks to the work being done to bring advanced two-dimensional and three-dimensional presentation technology into the realm of compliance discussion, visual simulation might just be the next approach worth pursuing in the hopes of building communities of people sharing insights into quirky phenomena. We can read all about quirky phenomena today on-line but we don't experience it as an interactive simulation. The by-product of solid social networking among people in society through technology companies will provide reliable simulation interfaces sooner rather than later.
With those 2-D and 3-D technologies in the browser, those fascinated in how the geyser fields of the Yellowstone National Park behave can come together to iterate upon an interactive simulation that represents the complexity of a geyser field system well. One or two people can start the simulation as a project, invite those interested to participate, and iterate upon a meaningful learning experience through simulation for the duration. Those who visit the geysers can be observers of the natural process and can ground-truth the simulation by measuring the natural phenomena and comparing it to the simulated. If the simulation is done well, each new contributor can help provide insight into flaws in the simulation's logic and new models for understanding can emerge for the next iteration. The simulation lives on as something everyone can interact with to experience the world from a simulaton life perspective. Other geyser fields, in New Zealand or Iceland for example, can be simulated using the same basic principles adopted for the Yellowstone version. Imaginary geyser fields can be created by imaginative learners who prefer their own play-space to one modeled on a physical place.
The models can evolve to further provide value to science — the more the project initiator has been trained in science and spent time studying the phenomenon being simulated, the more the project can move along scientifically-sound principles. For some, the opportunity to think about a natural phenomenon while playing with it in software inputs, processes, and interactive visual outputs will be enough to satisfy their participation. For others, scientific-based authenticity as to the inputs, processes, and outputs will be necessary in order to enjoy the process. The beauty lies along the spectrum of varying interests that a social network provides — and the opportunity for those in the network to move along the continuum in either direction as they participate. Eventually, a well-iterated simulation that follows scientific principles supports the scientific community by drawing interest to their subject of focus while at the same time naturally generating curiosity and hypotheses that participants are willing to support scientific testing to investigate for the benefit of the simulation. A feedback loop between science and simulation forms within the social network.
Social networks formed to support learning and understanding through simulation projects can arise in a variety of ways. One path to take of high interest to me is the one I've been wondering about for years. In the overlapping world of science and governance, I see social networks arise out of the interest in a community-based issue. People identify an issue, threat, or opportunity in their community and look to experts to help provide reasonable action towards understanding, combating, or taking advantage of current conditions. Often trained scientists are the most obvious experts a community turns to for help in understanding. Local politicians are the most obvious experts a community turns to for coordinating action — especially if money will help facilitate the process of investigation and action. In situations I've been privy to, the scientists are able to convince the politicians that a simulation would help understand the process better. Through intermediary organizations like science foundations and non-profit community groups, a social network grows to support the idea a simulation should be created to answer specific questions such as:
- Are the fish coming back to our recently cleaned river waters viable as long-term residents?
- Is the recent rainy trend each December a short-term or long-term phenomenon?
- Will a new sewer line alleviate the sewage problems we are experiencing?
If pursued well, a simulation is created via scientific principles that verify inputs, processes, and outputs along the way. Simplifications are made in the complexity of the simulation to hone in on realistic answers to the questions that have been posed. Much effort and community learning occurs through the social network of supporters (and even those questioning the value) until the political entity makes the decision that action can be supported (or none can be supported) and funding should (or should not) be allocated to actions. Perhaps, for a short period of time, the community jells around the awareness and action coordinated by the political process.
That community's focus may or may not have a long-tail. The simulation is more apt to have a short-life since the model has been created with a funding stream that's ended. The political client has received the answer they sought. The scientists move on to other foci within their domains where expertise is valued. There is no one to keep the simulation work going (let alone keep the model running), as the critical mass of participants in the local community is not available. But that isn't to say that the critical mass is not available in larger circles. Whatever question the simulation pursued, if truly meaningful to a community, is likely to be at least relevant to other communities elsewhere. The expert knowledge embodied in the simulation is likely relevant to other questions as well.
The social network of interested individuals can grow through the promotion of the ideals of the simulaton life.
The more people who appreciate expanding their minds through understanding by interacting with simulations, the more a valuable community simulation resource need not die at the end of it's political useful life. There's a valuable road to building a social network around an online visual simulation here. Take a simulation that has already been made to support a community decision somewhere and generalize it to become the base for future simulations on that theme online. Make an inventory of such opportunities and see what social networks arise out of interest in the possibility to get involved learning through what has been developed. That's a bit of a top-down approach to building social networks around simulations, but it's one that effectively takes advantage of existing efforts and invested funding.
The bottom-up approach is feasible as well. Imagine a well-trained cadre of simulation proponents who scour the Web for pockets of people interested in a phenomenon that could be simulated in software. They could become adept at following a flowchart of successful activities that turn a group of interested people into a social network of supporters of a simulation for learning. The process would include steps to identify the inputs, processes, and outputs associated with learning about the phenomenon of interest. The process would include building trust within the social network and supporting a creative commons that allocated interests and skills to sub-tasks associated with creating and maintaining the simulation.
[note to author: remind of the case studies to tie back to tangible examples here]
Much of the vision of social networks supporting simulation for understanding can be interpolated from what's already in place when it comes to social networks supporting video game play and competition. The goal at the outset is to get a critical mass of people who want to play a specific game title that has been developed or at least has been through a few iterations of development to the point of needed game players. An organization that is respected for creating multi-player games gains a following of people who naturally socially interact around the topic of past games, current games, and future games to be released by the organization. Of course, the organization can incorporate phenomena from the physical world as part of interesting and fun game play. The organizations skill at anticipating, designing, and developing games to meet the requirements of the social network dictates how long the social network will stay active in support of the organization's activities. Educators are coming around to realizing that members of the social network can learn through game play even if it's not a conscious objective of individual participants to do so. The interaction with others in figuring out phenomena as the understanding becomes critical to game play success naturally leads to learning and peer-to-peer education. The only question is what the learning entails in the game.
The simulation approach might seem to come from a different point-of-view at first. The social network might arise out of wanting to understand some phenomena out of curiosity or perceived need (threat, issue, opportunity, etc.). Or, the understanding might come from an intrinsic beauty to the phenomena (the regularity or amount of apparent randomness of geyser steam venting, for example). However the interest comes, it might be enough to support the simulation without adding fun and competition as necessary motivators to a simulation project. There is no intrinsic law that suggests adding fun and competition to the simulation effort diminishes the opportunity to satisfy all other goals. Instead, it would seem, building in fun and competition into the process might only help reach all other goals.
There's a bridge that needs to be built perhaps to build the ideal social network for supporting the simulaton life. The closest label that exists for an ideal social network to support simulation development is serious gamers. The term has been around a while but still tends to put off a lot of the funders who agree to support simulation work. Can their bias be just be a generational thing that will naturally erode as the younger generation grows up with games that teach them skills they find significant to success in their lives? Certainly there is a sense of losing control among elders when a social network makes game play a valuable component. But, eventually, that's what life is about. We all lose control of our mind and body as a new mass consciousness replaces the old and the aging process naturally makes room for the next generation. Or, we prolong life through new inventions and find a way to provide all the resources life on the planet needs to sustain that basic life support — something that likely should be simulated really well before being attempted.
In the meantime, while we wait to see where anti-aging research heads, we can benefit by incorporating the skills of video game players into the greater community of simulation developers who build tools to support a simulaton life. The gamers have instincts as to how best to map simulation inputs and outputs to interactive visual components in simulation software. They have seen many different attempts at such mappings in different game products — some which facilitated game success and some that retarded game success. They are willing to spend hours developing a new base map for a game that could just as well be a simulation input. They are willing to learn processes of game play that could just as well be processes of simulation. Some even create visual artifacts of the results of multiple game sessions that could be visual artifacts to support insight into simulated phenomena.
Simulations provide an opportunity for game play to bring people out into the community where the simulated phenomenon can be observed or experienced in nature. A greater bird social network can include those who are traditional bird watchers (where field glasses are their only tool) and those who simulate migration patterns in software to support bird conservation. Those who support a simulation that predicts bird locations are likely to find the same satisfaction in seeing the bird pass through a community that the bird lover gets when spending time in the same proximity. The simulation can spur on interest to a larger social network. Seeing the bird awakes the senses in a way that supports thinking about the bird in the simulation — another perhaps less obvious form of motivation.
The social network that bridges generations supports a better understanding in the local community. The social network that bridges cultures supports a better understanding in the world. Simulation development is facilitated by time zones as simulation activities are broken down into manageable tasks that can be pursued around the clock. Each member of a social network that supports a simulation project can work core hours that need not include the 10:00pm to 4:00am nighttime shift that humans have a harder time experiencing. With a worldwide participation, core hours are always occurring somewhere. As we see language barriers dissolving thanks to real-time translation services and the willingness for young people to learn English, a simulation project can be very effective running at all hours. Today's Web software supports asynchronous social networks extremely well once the network learns how to facilitate consensus-based discussions. And, perhaps serendipitously, the simulation is a knowledge-embedded asynchronous artifact in its own right.
As globalization provides a force that tends to erode cultural differences, it can just as well provide a counteractive force that promotes cultural diversity through well-crafted simulations of each culture. A base human culture can evolve that facilitates us all working together for understanding while at the same time diversity of culture can be shared and maintained through long-tail artifacts that maintain cultural knowledge for diversity. The ability to build thriving simulation projects can rely on an evolving best culture for shared development while many of the projects can be initiated to give those living the simulaton life the opportunity to experience cultures they did not grow up knowing well. Those cultures can include dominant cultures of times past or short-lived cultures of peoples relying on physical circumstances that no longer exist. Experiencing those cultures expands the simulaton life by providing new fodder for attitudes to embrace when simulating interesting phenomena. Am I a Mayan building an astronomical temple today or am I an Astronaut experiencing the universe outside of the limiting characteristics of Earth's atmosphere? Knowing the culture helps me understand motivation as I try to understand purpose to give my own life more.
Simulation of natural phenomena provides an ideal opportunity for cultures to come together to pursue shared understanding. Though there may not be universal truths everywhere you turn — even in physical phenomena — there comes consensus over time on many things (for example, 2 + 2 = 4 is agreed upon in all cultures). If the goal of the simulation is prediction for human understanding, consensus is easier to negotiate based on agreed upon criteria. In the meantime, understanding and insight can be useful to participants even if they are unique to each individual (the order in which insights come can certainly be unique). The process through which a group pursues consensus can also optimize understanding and insight for individual gain.
The benefit of having a traditional social network in a traditional pursuit of understanding context is that the network builds an effective vocabulary to support an effective taxonomy for communicating that understanding. The reason the medical community has such a long history of jargon is that the jargon better exacted understanding than through the use of layman's terms. Patients got better service in a top-down service providing strategy when doctors had efficient and exact knowledge of their craft. As patient health moves toward a bottom-up component, the jargon can get in the way in a negative manner. Patients try to communicate with patients using terms that communicate through a common ground. If one of the two is unfamiliar with the jargon, information may not be communicated at all without less efficient and exact vocabulary use.
A simulation has an opportunity to use visual language to overcome any jargon ignorance. In the case of phenomena, the simulation can provide visual expression of understanding without any words attached at all. The visual language is not specific to any spoken or written language. Reams and reams of explanation and efficient jargon promotion can accompany the simulation — in a multitude of spoken and written languages. But, the base communication can be direct to human senses (sight and hearing) in a more primal experience of information. The primal experience is more the universal one.
Of course it is easy to suggest that social networks have a long way to go. The typical social network organized on Facebook through an issue or organizational page is not very focused in its goal to reach consensus. Many effective social networks on Facebook haven't completely been decomposed into the components that have made it successful. I spend a lot of time decomposing mine to make sure I have built an ideal social network for my daily involvement in finding insight in general world events. I have built it to include a wide range of participant ages (nieces, nephews, students through peers and colleagues to mentors and familial elders). I have built it to be international across time zones (primarily through the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Oceanasia). And, I have built it to be consisting of people who want to improve the state of the world and reduce suffering through compassion and critical discussion. There's a whole bunch of stickers popping up around town here that suggest, "Facebook is boring". I can't help but think that can only happen if you haven't consciously built your social network among interesting and motivational people. Am I missing something there?
I am convinced everyone can participate in multiple social networks comfortably and efficiently without dominating their life experience in things virtual. The more the participation revolves around things virtual, the less the motivation becomes to get out in the physical world untethered — in order to let the senses take it all in among the natural world. A social network revolving around a natural phenomenon begs a physical connection to the world — and so it seems a great way to use information age technologies to augment a natural existence. Augmented technologies will bring access to the virtual while present within the natural. That should help tremendously, but the senses may suffer a bit by being interrupted by virtual streams of information if we don't learn to focus our attention when the natural world provides a more compelling signal.