Monday, November 23, 2009

Do Bots Dream of Electronic Corporations ?

I was watching Blade Runner when it struck me that, much like androids in that movie were dangerously close to humans, bots in Waves (Google Waves, that is) are, potentially, dangerously close to employees.

Think about it : why all the hype about Google Wave ? After all, it is just another platform, and the fact that platforms are the key component of any corporate strategy is already (widely) understood (this article, for instance). There is great technology in Google Wave, that, I agree with, but we are used to living with increasingly great technology.

No, the more I think about it the more I believe that calling bots its applications and giving them participant status in conversation is the killing idea. Thinking further, while it is a fact that Google people are masters at buzz marketing, there are, I believe, deeper reasons behind the hype: 
  • As a social platform, Google Wave is born at the crossroads of two major social evolutions, that have been dubbed «the end of the guttenberg parenthesis» and «the coming of the singularity»; analyzing bots helps better catch the meaning of these evolutions;
  • As a business platform, it pushes platform strategy into daylight, and provides the first «mass market» platform for corporate revolution.
I have argued before that the emerging virtual environement (web 2.0, web squared, ...) could be likened to the emergence of a global Quick Brain, in which thinking (or influence), for any given group of people, or for any given company, would rest on becoming a Deep Brain. Google Wave provides me with another opportunity to explore how companies are becoming deep brains, and also to point out the risks that come with using technology without changing our management principles. But I will deal with that in a future post. First, let’s look at our quick brain from a historical perspective.

After Guttenberg ...

Culture production in this new environment, in this Quick Brain, is becoming very different with what it used to be. Thomas Pettitt of the University of Southern Denmark (his document) has intelligently simplified the debates by stating that we are coming out of the Guttenberg Parenthesis, a long period in which culture production became individualistic because of the nature of printing press. In the web 2.0 environment, production is definitely more collective and dynamic : a blog, for instance, is not only interesting in itself, but also as part of the network built by incoming and outgoing links. As the blog evolves, so do the other blogs it is linked to. In this ecosystem, we are continuously adapting our own individual reading and learning processes.

Two or tree years ago, we used to build our paths in the blogosphere, identify our preferred bloggers and thinkers, and usually go back to them for reference. Unlike the ones presented in a book, the ideas that we found there kept evolving, because posts were updated, because its links were changed and mostly because other links had been created. Today, even our preferred thinkers and bloggers are not our only references as the realtime web accelerates connexions between ideas (see what Brian Solis has to say about contextual networks).

I would like to argue that, by providing a platform for collective thought, Google Wave goes one step further, which could prove to be a giant step.

In the first place, a wave is a dynamic conversation. I tell my clients that forum conversations are key learning objects that should be built carefully (from an individual point of view) as they will help others quickly catch up with the thought process of the conversation. To my mind, conversations are key building blocks of communities.

A wave brings another dimension to the conversation. It is at the same time horizontal and vertical. Horizontally, the conversation can linger for ages, as new people or ideas come in. Vertically, every step of the conversation can be deepened. This is something that could be done before in Q&A forums, for instance, but it somehow appears more natural in a wave.

If Twitter, for instance, is a tool for improving the Quick Brain and creating endless contextual networks, then I would say that Google Wave is a tool for building deep brains all around. It has the potential to exponentially increase the thinking power of the web. Other tools and applications had a similar potential maybe (think about social networks), but none of them gave participants to the tool the same power that I think wave participants can have. Through bots.

Yes, secondly, and more important to my mind, a wave brings in bots. The bots in itself are interesting, but not a revolution : after all, we live in a world where more tasks are executed by automated machines (mecanical or virtual) than by humans. As I said before, the point with bots is that they are given participant status in the conversation. Here is where we go back to the androids of  Philip K. Dick.

Let’s push further : with basic programming skills, almost anyone can create a bot (an avatar) to add a permanent value to the conversation. That has mind-boggling implications: a person with a brillant idea that can be transformed into a bot could be participating in countless conversations. Well not him, his avatar. Or his bot. Or  is actually his bot really his bot ?

Google Wave strikes me because it provides a platform for building deep brains all over, and deep brains in which humans, some day, will not be needed to keep adding value and meaning to the wave (if bot development takes on, then new bots could go back to existing waves and keep adding value to the existing conversation).

And so it is that, in this post-Guttenberg era, we go back to a dynamic, continuously evolving culture. In this cultural environment, books still provide starting points for conversations but, for that matter, so can a blog post or a tweet. And, compared to the pre-Guttenberg era, we have reached a speed level in culture production that was not conceivable before. Why ? Because today, we are not only a human society, we are also a technological society.

... and before "the singularity"

Ollivier Dyens has argued (and brilliantly in my humble opinion) in his book La Nature Inhumaine, that we have reached such a step in our technological development when we need to look at society with new eyes. Biological reality is only a vision of reality. Our key principles (what it is to be alive, human, conscious) are based on that biological reality. It is time to question them.

If you read that book, you will be prompted to change your understanding of what technology is (what is built and transforms matter or perception). For Dyens, we live in a world that is more technological than biological, if you admit that everything we have built, starting with the language, is a technology.

Assuming Dyens position, you may actually wonder whether a book was not already a bot. A participant in any conversation. After all, what it is we are doing when we quote a book (or someone) if not bringing him/her/it in the conversation ?

It seems then, Google did not invent anything. Bots were always here. We used to call them books, or songs, or paintings, or ....  Just vehicles for smart ideas. And then, the Guttenberg Parenthesis was not really a parenthesis. Just the time it took us to admit books in the conversation ...

I have to admit it then. Google people are masters at buzz marketing. They just helped me understand the society we have been living in, and that we still look at through our old, romantic, pre-industrial revolution eyes. Just the same eyes many of us still use to look at our professional environment, at our good old organizations.

An, in my opinion, if there is a bot that we should worry about, it is precisely the corporation. I have little doubt that the best ones will take advantage of cheap, easy-to-install and easy-to-program platforms like Google Wave is. Why, if you think about it, why not replace maintenance-intensive FTE with easy-to-develop and maintenance-light bots ?

I’ll be writing about that in a future post.

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