Is Web 3.0 Already Here?: A Question of Semantics

In the last article we read for class today, Matt Crosslin discussed the “future” of the Internet — Web 3.0, or the Semantic Web. This quote caught my attention:

Some software development companies are creating SL clients that have integrated web browsers inside of them. Clicking on an object in SL with an embedded web link will bring up a transparent web browser next to the user’s SL avatar (3-D virtual representation of a person). Depending on the future direction of the Internet, this could be what surfing the Web could become. Surfers will have a virtual avatar that explores 3-D islands and cities online, and then displays more information about various organizations, companies, schools, and individuals by bringing up a website within the virtual world.

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Bender, from Futurama’s episode about the Internet, says, “Behold; the Internet! “(In the next shot: Fry says, “My God, it’s full of ads!”) Image retrieved from fynewnewyork.com.

In the Futurama episode “A Bicyclops Built for Two,”the characters enter the Internet via a virtual reality machine. Their minds are uploaded to the internet and a realistic avatar is created for them to physically browse the Internet as if it is a large, sprawling city. They even play games online in a way that mimics physical activity like Laser Tag.

While Futurama’s image of the Internet is over the top and entirely unreasonable, Crosslin’s idea that the Semantic Web will allow us to represent ourselves online and search in new and unprecedented ways is much more believable. It outlines some sensible goals. His article was written in 2011, which is 5 years ago now. A lot can happen to the Web in five years. Let’s see if this idea for the future of the Internet has come to pass . . .

Argument: The Semantic Web is a current reality. 

Supporting Evidence: Interconnectedness of current technology. 

When most think of the future of technology, they think of a truly interactive experience. Like in the Futurama episode, most imagine an Internet that comes as naturally as anything else in the physical world, easily integrated into their current lives. It enhances our physical interactions as well as makes online interactions more realistic and informed. In many ways, this additive technology is already here.

Consider IFTTT (If This, Then That), a web-based service which allows users to create “recipes” to make their applications execute certain commands under the written conditions. In a Mic.Com article on Web 3.0, Greg Muender provides several examples of these conditional statements, including the a command to start the hot tub at home if several meetings are scheduled for one day.

Recipes through IFTTT rely on several things. One, that web-based applications can follow intricate conditioned commands. Two, that web-based applications can communicate with each other (via bluetooth and wireless Internet sharing capabilities). And three, that users can write their own codes.

One of the goals for the Semantic Web as outlined by Crosslin is the ability for users to contribute Application Programming Interface, or API. Essentially, users should be able to personalize their web-based technology for their own needs. IFTTT does not require a deep understanding of code, but still allows users to write their own commands, which fulfills this idea of an executable web experience. Not only do users read and write as established by Web 1.0 and 2.0, users can interact directly with their web-based devices in a meaningful way.

Predictive information is another huge facet of Semantic Web theory. In order to better integrate with daily lives, the Web should know what you want before you know you want it. In some ways, directed advertising fulfills this condition, but there are other more interesting ways the current Internet is individually tailored, via predicted text. Google Now is described as an “intelligent personal assistant“that answers questions, makes recommendations, and performs actions without the user needing to ask it beforehand. Google itself already makes predicative suggestions based on your area. If you search for Mexican restaurants, for example, it will show you restaurants near you.

I have a feeling this predictiveness is in other technology, too. I haven’t found a way to prove it quite yet, but every time I pull down on my Apple homepage to use the search function at the gym, the online radio I use is in the first suggestion, as if it remembers I commonly use this app at that location. It makes for a smoothly integrated gym experience – I don’t have to type in “Slacker Radio”. A truly predictive system would have already started the app as I walked indoors, but that’s a task for the future.

An even simpler technology that augments your reality is Push for Pizza, an app that takes away the decision making process of ordering a pizza and narrows it down to one simple question of whether the user wants cheese or pepperoni. Streamlining processes is an important aspect of the Semantic Web. Users should feel like the Internet is working for them, not that they have to make it do what they want.

Evidence against my argument: We Won’t Know Web 3.0 Until It’s Here 

While Crosslin acknowledges that the lines between Web 1.0 and 2.0 are blurred, many argue that the jump to Web 3.0 will be so drastic that we won’t be able to ignore it. The problem with searching for arguments against Web 3.0 is that the Internet has been accessible to a large number of users for well over 20 years. This means that very old articles are still readable, such as this 2007 article against Web 3.0, which calls the very idea of the semantic web “destructive,” and this 2009 article that says Web 3.0 is “nonsense.”

It is easy to see why articles from the last decade would be distrustful of the promises of the Semantic Web. After all, we were promised flying cars in science fiction, and here we are in 2016, still tied to the ground. (I remember reading a Discovery magazine as an elementary student that said all households would have a robot by 2015. I suppose a roomba counts.)

The criticism surrounding Web 3.0 often derides the idea for its hype. Focusing on what the future might hold detracts from current technological advancements, says Tim O’Reilly. These interactive technologies are just Web 2.0 coming into its own. Trying to find evidence of a future that is fantastical doesn’t encourage people to look for new ways to innovate outside of these proposed ideas – we need more technology than just ways to make sure the kettle is boiling tea by the time we get home.

Discussion

I feel like there are parts of Web 2.0 that are bleeding into the ideas of the Semantic Web. Moving away from the term “Web 3.0” is more agreeable for most technologically inclined researchers. If you take away this idea that Web 3.0 is a clearly defined event and more of a process of technological advancements known as the Semantic Web, I feel that more people would be willing to believe that we are well into the “future” of the Internet.

The scramble to achieve Semantic Web ignores the larger implications of this technology as well. If the Semantic Web hopes that technologies can “communicate” with each other and interpret data, then that means there’s a potential for technology to decide not to work. Without human intervention, the Semantic Web could spin out of control, and we would lose our hold on the situation.

Technology that augments our reality without being predictive is well on the way to existing. Google Glass is a major proponent of this futuristic technology, making interface more easily integrated into our daily lives. Other technology that could lead to this idea of the Semantic Web include Brain-Computer Interface. Though it’s not used for most able-bodied people, BCI is making huge steps in improving computer interaction for paralyzed users. BrainGate allows user to move prosthetics or a computer mouse using only brain waves. We could potentially harvest that technology to augment reality for all users, making it more easily navigable.

Eye-tracking is also something that could potentially be used for more streamlined link-clicking and information seeking.This takes us even closer to Vannevar Bush’s idea of the Memex. There is an application known as “Periscope” which allows users to stream what they’re seeing on their phone, which many use for adventures or to show them getting a tattoo or any number of things. If we could combine this technology of eye-tracking, link-clicking, and Periscope, we could get even closer to the Memex.

But that’s the problem with futuristic ideas like Memex or the Semantic Web. They are meant to inspire us as developers, inventors, and information scientists. Too many people get bogged down in the details into how to make the technology these theories say we should have. But imagine how impressed Bush would be by our Google system, even though it’s not what the Memex put forth! We can continue to advance our technology. We don’t need to worry about if it fits a theory.

Genderization of Wearable Technology

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Fitbit is supposed to encourage us to become more active. How does activity-tracking technology affect our daily lives? (Image retrieved from http://www.npccomic.com/comic/2014/01/10/if-a-tree-falls)

I asked my father for a Fitbit Surge on Christmas. I wanted something that would not only track my activity so that I could better log it on MyFitnessPal.com, but also something that would more accurately estimate calories burned via heart rate monitoring. Steps are not my main goal – in fact, I put my daily step goal to a paltry 5,000 steps every day. I sometimes go to 10k or 15k, but I try to be reasonable. Instead, I focus on the 30 minutes of activity I get at the gym daily, using my Fitbit to keep track of how much I burn. Did it work? Well, since January 1st, I have lost 17 pounds.

Was the Fitbit necessary for that loss? No, of course not. I could surely go to the gym without some plastic, over-priced piece of technology on my arm. But it’s more than a tracker. It’s a constant reminder. Instead of thinking, “Hm, I should probably go to the gym sometime,” you remember every time you glance down at your wrist to check the time.

For today’s blog post, let’s discuss gendered technology.

Argument: Wearable technology is marketed in accordance to gender roles. 

Evidence to Support My Argument: The marketing strategies of Fitbit and Google Glass. 

Let’s talk about gendered wearable technology, for a moment. When you consider the potential user of a Fitbit, what pops into your mind? I won’t speak for you, but I usually imagine a thin, white woman in her late 20s or early 30s. In fact, the huge majority of my friendslist on Fitbit–connected via Facebook–are all women. This is no mistake; the diet and exercise/weight loss industry (and yes, it is an industry, with businesses that rake in almost $6 billion in 2015) is specifically geared toward women.

Presuming you watch TV, consider the last diet commercial you watched. Perhaps it was something like “My Husband Ted,” wherein a wife complains that her husband stopped drinking soda and lost weight, while she didn’t. Consider any commercial that flashes images of their weight-loss champions. I would say that most of them are women, who say taglines like, “I lost three dress sizes!” or “I am the size I was in high school!” or even, “I feel sexy and desirable!” Perhaps even, “Please validate me, now that I have restricted myself for months so that I can be the size that every woman should be according to our patriarchal society! I hope you find me sexy now! PLEASE TELL ME I’M SEXY!”

Oh, excuse that last one. (Was that a little heavy handed? Perhaps…)

Let’s take a look at the Fitbit site. Perusing their images of customers provides you with many, many images of “fit” and “active” women, with maybe a few men sprinkled intermittently. By my count, there are 7 images of women, and 5 images of men. One of those images is a couple, and three of them don’t focus on their face (one is just a hand that I assumed was masculine, and another was a hairy pair of legs).

If you had the time to click through the gallery, perhaps you saw my favorite of these screenshots: Tory Burch for Fitbit. “Make fitness fashionable,” it urges you. The images with men mostly focus on being active, on setting goals (see: the Fitbit Surge image).  But fitness becomes an idea for women, an aesthetic. Athletic chic. Beautiful active wear and a Fitbit that fits in with your other accessories. The Fitbit becomes less a reminder to be active and track your progress, and more a fashion statement.

Let’s compare this with another famous wearable technology: the Google Glass. Try to imagine someone wearing Google glass. Are you having trouble coming up with something? Don’t worry, I can’t remember the last time I saw an actual breathing human being wearing one.

Oh wait, yes I do. Yesterday I got lunch at Noodles to Go by campus (the Thai Hot Pot is very good and I recommend it). There was a man there on a blind date. Three guesses as to his accessory of choice – and the first two don’t count.

Yes, he was wearing a Google Glass on his first date. An odd choice, to be sure. My husband and I shared amused looks, texting each other about whether or not we would date someone who wore Google Glass on a date.

Now, I did some thinking after I read the article on wearable technology last night, and realized I had never seen a woman wearing Google Glass. So I did a little digging, and found this article, “Google Glass’ Women Problems:”

Recently Google co-founder Sergey Brin took to the stage at the TED “Ideas Worth Spreading” conference. His idea worth spreading? That cellphones are “emasculating.” […] With one word Brin appears to have shot in the direction of both feet: both possibly alienating Google’s male Android smartphone customers and offputting women who might otherwise be in the market for Google Glass.

Taylor Burley investigates further into Google’s gendered marketing problem. He finds that in an analysis of the gender makeup of Google+ users who used the #ifihadaGoogleGlass hashtag, an alarming 86% of these users were most likely male, and 14% are female. The same hashtag on Twitter had a similar rate of 80% male, 20% female.

Perhaps the marketing itself isn’t to blame. Google might have seen the gender makeup of people responding to Google Glass technology and realized that they should appeal to the majority of their market – the men – by playing up the masculinity angle. Should they be blamed for this? Perhaps not. But if Google Glass is marketing itself as the technology of the future, then it shouldn’t simply focus on male potential buyers.

(Side note – before we get into evidence against my argument, I’m just going to show you the first result on Google when I typed in ‘women’s Google Glass’. It’s a video detailing a woman’s day by recording it via Glass. It doesn’t end well.)

Evidence Against my Argument: Marketing strategies of music-making wearable technology.

In one of the articles we read for class, the author mentions a Kickstarter for an amazing musical invention called the “Machina Midi.” It’s a jacket that a musician can wear to perform music by moving around and having present sounds for each movement. It’s a very cool concept, one that actually had me gasp in surprise at how awesome the opening video advertised the product.

I decided to look into more music-making wearable technology once I noticed that the jacket didn’t seem to be necessarily gendered. I found a post that listed many musical technologies, and perused their products. Each of these products are definitely worth checking out.

One thing I noticed is that there seemed to be a pretty good balance between the representation of male and female users. Imogen Heap, an amazing artist I’ve been a fan of for many years, markets her musical gloves, the MiMu. It doesn’t focus on the gender of the user. It instead focuses on the product that this technology creates: sound, music.

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Even without gendering wearable technology, many wonder if wearable technology is too specific, too “out there”. (Image retrieved from davewalker.cc)

Discussion

Perhaps the gendered marketing of wearable technology depends on its purpose. If the technology is meant to supplement your daily lives – such as the Fitbit or GoogleGlass – then its marketing appeals to those who would already use it. For instance, marketing already implores women often take daily walks or strive to be active, so a Fitbit helps keep them on their goals. GoogleGlass, however, is more focused on the technology aspect, and technology innovations in general tend to be marketed toward men (as the popular idea is that men dominate the IT industry).

Wearable technology that is meant for full-day use is gendered just as our fashion is gendered. Fitbit has special bands to look like bracelets because the company understands that women probably won’t wear something all day if it’s ugly or sticks out and looks tacky with relation to the rest of their outfit.

However, musical wearable technology has a purpose. It is not meant for all-day use. It is focused on a product, a creation – whether it be songs or a light show. Why gender something that already has a specific market – musicians? It doesn’t make sense for that particular product.

Despite the fact that many wearable technologies consider themselves to be the products of the future, all these technologies are part of a business, and these businesses are driven by profit margins. As terrible as it may be, I doubt that gendered marketing of wearable technology will dissipate if it’s meant for daily use. If it’s what’s making money for these businesses, they’ll keep doing it until it no longer makes money. (Or, perhaps, take a bold shot by going against gender norms and making that their market by embracing LGBT marketing strategies – but “pink money” is an entirely different issue.)

Perhaps all this comes down on this idea that many companies might not understand the usefulness of their product. With wearable technology being put forth as the technology of tomorrow, more companies feel pressured to release it. Consider the AppleWatch, or any other smart watch. Why would we need a smart watch, when it doesn’t take that much effort to take your phone out of your pocket? Because it looks cool, mostly (which will refer you to aesthetics, which will put you right back at gendered marketing). In an interesting article, Mark Thomas implores businesses to critically consider what their technology actually brings to the table:

So, we’ve established that there are numerous devices with endless capabilities, but how does any of this truly have a positive impact on our lives? Carefully managed, these devices and the data they collect can give users greater power to detect and act upon many different aspects of their lives, from banking and finance through to home security and automation, and, in the health and wellbeing arena, from early health warnings through to customised fitness programmes tailored to the individual. I’m a keen follower of physics and chemistry, and can see that wearable tech has huge potential in detecting early signs of low blood-sugar levels, or reminding people to take medications based on signals from physiological sensors, as examples.

If businesses were to focus on the real benefits of wearable technology and how it might help the average person instead of how wearable technology plays into gendered fashion expectations, then we might get rid of this gendered marketing issue altogether. That, however, would require businesses to think more critically about what they really want their technology to do, rather than just look cool or sit pretty on your wrist.

Information Accessibility & Upward Mobility

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The idea that people can “climb the ladder to success” often ignores that the ones on top make it difficult to follow them. (Image from: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21571417-how-prevent-virtuous-meritocracy-entrenching-itself-top-repairing-rungs)

Technology can save the world! Can’t it?

The idea that technology is able to drastically change economical circumstances around the world is the running theme throughout the required readings for today. Many of these readings reek of White Savior complexes, especially the start-ups mentioned in Charles Kenny’s “Can Silicon Valley Save the World?” article. Charles Kenny writes of several start-ups meant to ‘fix’ impoverished countries, all of which began with the idea that a simple invention can solve the problems of entire countries. He speaks of a claim made by broadband companies that access is linked to an increase in GDP, outright ignoring the fact that China has many impoverished citizens while also having some of the most ubiquitous broadband access in the world. Another great point that he makes is that accessibility to the internet means nothing in countries like Liberia where the literacy rate is very low.

Some most egregious examples of failed western inventions meant to fix poverty abroad include a soccer light ball called “Soccket” that costs 10 times more than an effective solar-powered lamp while also requiring the ball to be played with before the light will work (because, you know, all African children love soccer and need to play more than they just need working lights). PlayPumps, a water pump backed by influentials like AOL and Laura Bush, cost four times what a regular working water pump does. It was also prone to breaking and required 27 hours of “play time” in order to meet the water needs of the community. Because, again, African children love to play, more than they love accessibility to water.

I’m digressing here. I suppose this desperate need that (mostly white) westerners feel to fix the rest of the world doesn’t sit well with me, especially since we so often ignore that most of the structural issues within these countries come from our direct involvement in these countries via colonialism. (See: “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” by Walter Rodney. I’ll even give you a link to a pdf! Click.)

Of course, my initial cynicism and distrust does not do well to comment on how technology has served to help improve society around the world. In Kenny’s article, he lists many successful companies that have helped countries via accessible medicine.

The very idea of social informatics is that society affects technology and vice versa. Consider the political cartoon at the beginning of this article. American culture pushes this idea that disenfranchised citizens can become successful, when truthfully the wealthiest only seem to get wealthier as the poor become poorer. This economic divide, and its continuing widening, is reflected within information science. The digital divide, as defined in the Kerry Dobransky article as “a gap […] within and between societies in the degree to which different groups have access to and use information and communications technologies,” widens as technology helps facilitate communication.

Consider the situations in Africa I referenced with Libera’s failing literacy rate. Kenny described a push to give laptops to African children, despite evidence that shows laptops do not significantly further education. What good is a laptop if children can’t read? What good is accessibility to this technology – when gifted – if literacy isn’t accessible as well? Technology, though it has given us unprecedented access to information, causes this gap to widen. Poor, uneducated people do not have access to the technology nor the ability to use it, while the wealthy and educated gain more and more knowledge and benefit from these technologies at skyrocketing rates.

Of course, there is another side to this argument, as there always is. Sure, giving technology blindly does not solve poverty just as putting a bandaid on a broken dam would not stop a flood. However, reasonable expectations can be met by making information technology more accessible to disenfranchised persons. Consider public libraries – they strive to meet the needs of even the poorest of the community. My father, who grew up in poor, rural Mississippi, told me that he would spend hours reading books at the library on any subject he could get his hands on – and today he’s a successful orthopedic surgeon.

Yes, rich people do benefit from information technology at rates much higher than poor people. However, this does not mean that this technology is at all wasted on disenfranchised members of the community. It can still help them. It is when people have extremely high expectations of technology when it does less to help and more to hurt a community. If you make exorbitant claims that a iPhone app is going to solve world hunger, then of course your app will fail. Technology can help. We just need to be realistic about it.