Desert of My Real Life

{December 31, 2008}   Failed Predictions

Predicting the future is a notoriously difficult endeavor and yet there is never a shortage of people willing to play the game, especially at the end of a year. 

Many of the predictions for 2009 seem to involve world politics.  For example, over at Psychic World, Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker predict that an assassination attempt on Barack Obama will occur in 2009.  They posted this prediction on October 9, 2008 and then updated the entry on October 27, 2008 (in red font, just so we know that it’s an important update).  The update tells us (and I can almost hear the breathlessness with which this important information is stated) that this prediction already came true!  Apparently, the vague assassination “plot” by two neo-Nazis thwarted by the ATF in October constitutes an assassination “attempt”.  The fact that these men did not actually begin to implement the plot, which involved first shooting over 100 black people in Tennessee and following that spree up with the assassination of then-Senator Obama, doesn’t matter to the psychics who made this prediction.  It still counts as a success for their ability to predict the future.  An even bigger issue for me is the fact that they predicted the assassination attempt would take place in 2009.  Clearly, this plot was discovered in 2008.  The psychics never discuss how useful it is for a prediction to be that far off in its timing and details.

As amusing as I find the predictions of psychics who claim to be able to “foresee” the future, the predictions that I’m most interested in are the ones made by those who examine trends and then predict where those trends will take us.  People who make these kinds of predictions are called “futurists” or “futurologists” and, unlike psychics, claim no mysticism in coming to their predictions.  Instead, according to Wikipedia, futurologists study “yesterday’s and today’s changes, and aggregating and analyzing both lay and professional strategies, and opinions with respect to tomorrow. It includes analyzing the sources, patterns, and causes of change and stability in the attempt to develop foresight and to map possible futures.”  Although futurologists make predictions about many different fields, I’m particularly interested in the area of technology, especially because technological change is very rapid and vast.  I think technology shows despite their claims to scientific methodologies, the predictions of futurologists are typically as wrong as the predictions made by those claiming to have a mystical insight into the future. 

The technological futurologist that has gotten the most attention in the US in recent years is Ray Kurzweil, the author of a number of books that have captured the popular imagination.  Kurzweil is a computer scientist from a time when computer scientists were rare.  When he was just a teenager, long before computers were widespread and common, he created computer software that wrote impressive musical compostions using the patterns it discovered analyzing great masterworks.  He also developed the first optical character recognition software which led to his invention, in 1976, of The Reading Machine, which read written text out loud for blind people.  Since that time, he’s invented musical synthesizers, speech recognition devices, computer technology for use in education, and a whole host of other useful tools.  He’s obviously a smart, creative guy who knows a lot about technology and how to use it to benefit humans.  Kurzweil’s faith in technology is so great that he considers himself to be a transhumanist, advocating the use of technology to “overcome what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, disease, aging, and involuntary death,” according to Wikipedia.  It is in this area that many of his predictions fail.

In his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, about the impact of artifcial intelligence on human consciousness, Ray Kurzweil made a number of predictions about technology at the end of 2009, 2019, 2029, and 2099.  Since we are just about to begin the year 2009, I thought it might be interesting to consider how likely it is that Kurzweil’s predictions can come true in the next year.  Chapter 9 of the book, which makes predictions for 2009, can be read online here.

The chapter is divided into sections called The Computer Itself, Education, Disabilities, Communication, Business and Economics, Politics and Society, The Arts, Warfare, Health and Medicine, and Philosophy.  Although some of Kurzweil’s predictions have indeed come to be reality, the vast majority of them are still far off into the future.  In fact, some involve technological tangents that seemed interesting in 1999 but that our society has chosen not to pursue.

Kurzweil predicted that the computer itself would be much more ubiquitous than it actually is and that they would be smaller than they actually are.  Because computers are so ubiquitous and small today, it’s difficult to imagine how someone might have overestimated these trends just ten years ago.  But that’s the problem with Kurzweil.  He is such a technology evangelist that he tends to go too far.  In the case of the computer itself, he predicted that the average person would have a dozen computers on and around her body which would communicate with each other using a wireless body local area network (LAN).  These computers would monitor bodily functions and provide automated identity verification for financial transactions and for entry into secure areas.  The technology he describes is nearly available now in the form of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips which are common in some warehouses and which are now part of every US passport.  Most of these RFID chips are passive devices, however, which means that they can only be read by an external device and do not provide computing power themselves.  In addition, there has been something of an uproar over the increased use of these chips.  For example, I recently received a new ATM/credit card from my bank that had an RFID chip embedded in it to make using the card easier.  I would no longer need to swipe the card to use it.  Instead, I could simply tap it against any reader.  But because it doesn’t have to be swiped, anyone who got close enough to me with a reader could read the chip.  I didn’t see the advantage of having such a chip in my credit card and saw many disadvantages and so I returned it, making a special request to get a card without the chip.  I suspect there are others out there who have similar concerns.  Kurzweil did predict that privacy issues would be a concern in 2009 but I’ll talk about that later.

Some of the other things about the computer itself that Kurzweil got seriously wrong involve the way in which we interact with our computers.  He predicted that most text would be created using continuous speech recognition software–in other words, we would speak to our computers and they would transcribe our speech into text.  This is clearly not going to become the norm in the next year and I’m not sure we would want it to become the norm.  As I sit typing this blog entry, for example, I have the television on (because multi-tasking is the prevalent way of interacting with the world–something that Kurzweil does not mention) and Evelyn is sitting next to me interacting with her own computer.  Neither of us would want the other to be talking to her computer at this moment.  This might be an example of a place where a cool technology would actually be an obstacle to the way most users interact with their computers.  But Kurzweil did not stop there.  He also predicted that we would wear glasses that allowed us to see the regular visual world in front of us but with a virtual world superimposed on it using tiny lasers.  Such glasses do exist but they are novelties, used only in experimental situations.  And I think most people would find such a superimposition to be a distraction.  Until some benefit can be shown for this technology and how it allows us to interact with the world, I think it will remain a novelty.

Another area where Kurzweil predictions have not come to fruition (yet) is the area of disability.  It is in this area that Kurzweil betrays his transhuman biases.  He predicted that by the end of 2009, disabilities such as blindness and deafness could be dealt with using computing technologies to the extent that such disabilities are no longer considered handicaps but are instead mere inconveniences.  Although significant progress has been made in the area of augmenting such situations using computing technologies, we are nowhere close to where Kurzweil predicted we would be.  Kurzweil’s zeal in the advancement of technology once again led him to overestimate the progress that we would be able to make in ten years.  The history of technology is filled with such zeal and overestimation.

I won’t detail every area that Kurzweil gets things wrong but I do want to touch on the area of politics and society.  The Obama campaign rode its unprecedented use of technology to a presidential victory but in ways that were not predicted by Kurzweil.  Kurzweil predicted that privacy issues would be a primary political issue and although there are groups of people who are very concerned with privacy in our society today (both because of technical issues and because of political issues involved with the War on Terror), I don’t think too many people would say that privacy is a primary political issue in our society, although I, for one, wish it was a bigger issue for most people. 

I’m curious to see which of Kurzweil’s predictions do eventually come to pass.  My guess is that anyone who pays close attention to technological issues could attain the same level of accuracy that he does.  At least he doesn’t claim to have some mystical connection to what the future will bring.

{December 27, 2008}   FaceBook: A Hotel California?

Robin forwarded an article called How Sticky Is Membership on FaceBook?  Just Try Breaking Free from the New York Times.  Of course, because I’m completely addicted to FaceBook, my first thought was “Why would anyone ever want to leave?”  But I can see that there may be reasons that someone might want to leave.  And even if you don’t want to leave, FaceBook’s approach to member information might raise some privacy concerns.

According to the New York Times article, members who want to leave FaceBook find it difficult to do so because FaceBook retains information on their servers after a member deactivates her account.  As one disgruntled member says, “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.”  FaceBook’s executives say that they retain this information in order to make it easy for a member to reactivate her account.  That is, because the information doesn’t disappear when an account is deactivated, if the account is then reactivated, the information is available for the reactivated account.  This is obviously a problematic answer to member concerns about information retention.  If I decide to deactivate my account, I want my information to be removed from FaceBook’s servers.  In response to the ensuing uproar, FaceBook’s executives provided another process for removing information from a deactivated account.  The member must delete each piece of information and then once all the information has been manually deleted, the account can be deactivated.  Clearly, this is a tedious process that has done little to stem the tide of criticism about FaceBook’s practices.

From a technical standpoint, it should be easy to provide a one-step process for deleting all of the information in an account and then deleting the account itself.  So when I first read about the tedious process required for deleting the information associated with an account, I thought perhaps the technical folks at FaceBook had simply been overwhelmed by the success of the site and had not had time and resources to build in as much user-friendliness as the members demanded.  After all, FaceBook was created as a hobby project by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 and as of October, 2008, there were more than 140 million active members worldwide.  That kind of growth is bound to result in some pain so I figured the lack of easy account deactivation was simply part of that growing pain.

But then I read this excellent post by Steven Mansour.  Mansour points out that we voluntarily give our personal information to FaceBook which can then sell that information to the highest bidder.  Perhaps this lucrative side business is the real reason that FaceBook doesn’t want to make it easy for users to delete their accounts.  This particular privacy issue has been a concern for me for a long time.  For example, I am one of the few people I know who has no rewards cards–the kind of cards that you get from grocery stores and book stores where you provide your personal information in return for savings on items that you buy.  I have not found that the savings on my purchases has been worth the price of making my private information available to these large corporations.  It had not occurred to me that FaceBook might be engaged in the same kind of information harvesting as Hannaford Brothers and Borders Books and Music.  But I guess I was just being naive.  And the sad thing is that knowing that FaceBook might be engaging in this behavior has not convinced me to leave FaceBook.  In return for my information, I get easy-to-use tools that help me keep up with my friends’ lives.  I guess everyone has her price.

{December 9, 2008}   Mob Wars

I have recently been playing Mob Wars on FB. I started because Ann and Liz both invited me to be part of their mobs. I nearly stopped playing after Thanksgiving but Scott begged me not to uninstall the application because he wanted me to stay in the mob. As a result of these friends playing, I have continued. But I have to echo Liz when I say, “It’s no Parking Wars.” So why doesn’t Mob Wars stack up well against Parking Wars? To understand why Parking Wars is a better game, I think we have to understand a little bit about how to play each game.

Mob Wars is a game in which the player plays a mob boss. Each mob boss has a number of characteristics, represented by numbers. The characteristics include health (with a starting maximum value of 100), energy (starting maximum value of 20), stamina (starting maximum value of 3), attack (starting maximum value of 3) and defense (starting maximum value of 3). In addition, each mob boss has a stockpile of weapons and vehicles, an amount of cash and experience points. The goal of the game is to move up the levels (called leveling up) by gaining experience points. Experience points are gained in a number of ways.

The first way to gain experience points is to complete jobs. Every job requires some amount of energy as well as some tools (weapons, vehicles, mobsters, other items such as bottles of liquor) and, upon successful completion, pays cash within a certain range. Another way to gain experience points is to fight other mobs (and beat them). Once an appropriate number of experience points is gained, the player is alloted 3 skill points that she can distribute among her many characteristics (such as maximum health, maximum energy and so on).

These are just the beginning of the MANY decisions that need to be made while playing Mob Wars. As I’ve written before, decision-making is a very important factor in determining whether a game is engaging. In general, the more meaningful the decisions that need to be made in a game, the more engaging the game is. A meaningful decision is one that allows the player to delineate a strategy for winning the game. In other words, for a decision to be meaningful, there must be multiple choices, each of which may lead to a winning strategy, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. Mob Wars requires the player to make a series of meaningful decisions. For example, my stamina in Mob Wars is currently set to 9. Each time a player chooses to fight some other mob (hoping to gain experience points and take some of that mob’s money), the player’s stamina is reduced by 1. In other words, I can engage in 9 fights with other mobs in a row without waiting for my stamina to be replenished. For me, however, this value rarely comes into play because of other choices that I have made. In order to win a fight, I must spend my money on weapons and vehicles. Instead, I have chosen to spend my money on properties within the city which allows me to earn more money at a faster rate (without having to fight). Because I don’t have as many weapons and vehicles as other mobs, I lose a lot of fights which decreases my stamina without gaining me anything. Until I purchase more weapons and vehicles, it doesn’t make sense for me to add more stamina to my mobster. This is just one meaningful decision among many that I must make.

Parking Wars, on the other hand, has relatively few meaningful decisions. There are basically two. First, the player must decide on whose streets she is going to park her cars. She is allowed to park her cars on her friends’ streets as well as those of three anonymous strangers’ streets. Second, once she earns a certain amount of money, she must decide which specialized car she is going to purchase (if any). That’s it! There are no other meaningful decisions.

Therefore, according to Costikyan (one of the game theorists that I make my students read), because Mob Wars has more interesting meaningful decisions than Parking Wars, Mob Wars should be a more engaging game than Parking Wars. But it isn’t. And here’s why I think that’s the case.

Both games are played on FaceBook, a social networking tool that is all about connecting with people. Parking Wars involves more interesting social interaction than Mob Wars and since the context of playing the two games is a social interaction site, Parking Wars is more interesting. In Parking Wars, a player parks on her friends’ streets and has her friends park on her streets. She is able to ticket her friends when they park illegally and send them messages on those tickets. She begins to learn her friends’ patterns–when they check their streets, whether they give tickets at low values or wait until the tickets become more valuable, and so on. In addition, there is the possibility of creating alliance with certain friends, agreeing not to ticket that friend’s illegally parked cars. Noticing and commenting on these alliances is also engaging. In fact, Nick created a group called Parkaholics Anonymous in which he explicitly commented on my alliance with Ann. All of this is part of the engagement of Parking Wars.

On the surface, Mob Wars has similar social possibilities via the “mob” aspect of the game.  That is, the members of a player’s mob are her friends.  The fact that a player is in the same mob as one of her friends does not impact on her playing of the game, however. She cannot explicitly take advantage of the fact that she has friends with certain characteristics in her mob. This is a missed opportunity and, I think, the main reason Mob Wars is not as engaging as Parking Wars.

I believe this goes to show that there is not a single reason for playing a game. Game designers would be well advised to pay attention to the context of a game and why players might be interested in playing as they design the interactions and decisions involved in playing their games.

et cetera