Augmenting humans with social media

Figure borrowed from
My first job back in the early 90’s was as a systems analyst. I was really excited about automating boring bits of peoples’ tasks so that they could get creative by accessing the extra brainpower of a computer in some wonderful human-computer collaboration.

Inspired by Doug Lenat’s AM (Automated Mathematician), where the computer was discovering mathematical proofs, I wanted to find a way to create some sort of integrated system with the computer discovering things and the human adding information to represent their feel for a given situation.

Of course, in the Accounts Department where I was ‘helping’ accountants, the reality was very different. Computers weren’t the powerful, easy to use machines they are today. So, by introducing technology to various user groups, I was actually telling people to do their jobs differently. I wasn’t making the world a better place, I was hampering everyone with computers. And elsewhere in the company I worked, computers were replacing people altogether. No wonder, computers were not popular. How times have changed.

For me, human-computer interaction was and still remains Gestaltian: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, by this I mean, that the collaboration of a human and a computer should be more than a human typing numbers into a computer and then waiting for the solution.

When I looked up Gestalt Theory, I learnt that Kurt Koffka’s original phrase was The whole is other than the sum of the parts, which works just as well. And did, when I was captivated by AI research, in particular constraint theory.

I loved the idea that if you had a space of solutions, you could explore it computationally by changing variables which represented specific design objectives such as the limit of the cost of the project, and then create other and varying solutions.

But, how often do we need something other and varying? The majority of users I have worked with love their jobs and have specific end goals for which they use computers.

When I was working alongside engineers my job was to interpret the massive data sets generated by fibre optic sensors on the bridges they monitored. I created GUIs which employed the terminology and symbolic language engineers are trained to use. The GUIs sat onto top of well-known models to interpret data. And to reflect this specific nature of engineer-computer interaction, I actually called it a sub-set of human-computer interaction. The engineers were doing something newish – monitoring bridges- but they were using the way they were trained because of the laws and health and safety when looking after the infrastructure society depends upon.

The engineers would only use something they could trust.

And that got me thinking about the whole creativity computational collaboration. Do we really need super extra powerful computers to have a creative collaboration? Or do we just need something trustworthy?

When I began this blog post – a long time ago – I had a first sentence which said: How to improve the intellectual effectiveness of the individual human being.

Now, I can barely remember what I was going to say. But googling the phrase produces millions of articles and Doug Engelbart, who was a pioneer in computing. He invented the mouse and was very much into harnessing computational power to help humans and augment their capacities. This side steps the issue of trust, because ultimately the augmented human would decide whether the collaboration of computer and human produced the right solution. And humans normally trust themselves.

Steve Mann has been augmenting his capacity for over 20 years with wearables which overlay his world view with lots of information taken from the Internet. Stelarc augmented his reality by having an ear surgically attached to his arm so that he could hear random people’s conversations again via the Internet.

Their solutions don’t involve vast computational power and they are not really solving anything. They are looking differently at augmenting humans. But both use two things:

  1. Connectivity
  2. Other people

And this is what social media does, but in a quick and easy way. Via social media, it is so easy to access a) random conversation like Sterlac, or b) information about a new town you are in like Steve Mann.

But it is not just information we want, which was what clever computers and AI realised. We want intelligence and the expertise of someone else, who is constantly updating and refreshing their world view.

Social media gives us that in a way a clever computer cannot – yet!.

This morning alone, I tapped into three experts to help me do yoga, meditate and feel more at peace:

Those experiences augmented and enriched my life and left me more peaceful and happy. I could not have done without the help of those experts or social media unless I took time off and went off to find these experts.

So, it seems that social media is one amazing way of augmenting humans. And when I think of me back in the accounts department evangelising about how computers could transform our lives, I had no idea how right I was, just not at all in the way I imagined.

We live in amazing times.

Social media explained

Corey Smith on Social Media
Corey Smith on social media

The above image by Corey Smith is great. It has many variations: doughnuts, wee, or a piss-poor explanation of social media, which have been doing the rounds for years now.

This is because, when humans are presented with anything new or old, they have to categorise, classify it and wrestle it to the ground, in order to understand and manage the world around them. And, then they like to tell others how to do it properly. Sometimes these humans are wise and are leaders, they are the culture carriers of society. Other times they are not, like the two people who told me, this week, that I am doing Twitter wrong.

The main problem they have with my wrong approach is that I like to read every Tweet. What a weirdo! Consequently, I don’t follow many people because I find it hard to keep up. Also, I don’t like everything I read, so if it happens repeatedly, I unfollow the tweeters who are filling up my feed. And, normally they unfollow me. This seems to me to be a realistic approach. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? Isn’t that like life?

Apparently not, according to my Twitter advisors, I am supposed to follow zillions of people and dip in and out. And there is lots of software to help me do this including the who unfollowed me app. I tried it out – apparently, @Oprah, @DalaiLama, and @DeathStarPR unfollowed me. What? They never followed me in the first place. There has never been any reciprocation of my fandom and I didn’t expect it either.

But, like all things in life, the more you do, the more you are worth. On Twitter, the more followers you have , the more you are worth, especially if you are influential, because you can turn that into money. And then the more money you have, the more you are worth until you have an epiphany and give back to society and then become truly worthy. It is all about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Writer Jennifer Werner is a social media influencer and writes brilliantly about having her influence monetised in the New York Times.

I too had an influential moment, when I reviewed the first Iphone on the eve of its launch and had loads of companies contacting me to buy up links on my page. This was 2007 when SEO was the main thing to get seen. Me being influential in that tiny window of the Iphone launch was heady stuff! Not really, the companies weren’t anyone I wanted to dilute my brand for (*guffaws*).

Last summer, I went to a day of Sharing is Caring – social media strategies at Campus London last year. It was a very interesting (and exhausting) day – full of how to advice such as:

  • You have 15 minutes on twitter to build momentum.
  • You have 1 hour on facebook.
  • Speed is imperative.
  • Try to latch onto a world event to get noticed.
  • Peer to peer content is more valuable than anything else.

Everyone was furiously scribbling it down, and tweeting away on the hashtag #campuslondon. Just remembering that day, makes me want to tweet, facebook and generally rush about to get noticed. Even though I figured out a while ago that blogging is what I like to do.

One of the speakers was Malcolm Bell of whose success is used by Harvard Business School as a case study in, I guess, social media success. He talked a lot about different strategies in particular using influencers like Jennifer Werner. But the thing he said which struck me the most was that:

No one has any idea how social media works.

Nobody. Not the CEOs of Facebook. Not the influencers of Twitter. No one.

And like most things which us poor humans don’t understand, we need an explanation, especially, when there are people who are making money from it. It is fascinating. Which is why there is big business in doing and being a social media strategist.

The twitter hashtags: #contentmarketing #socialmedia are full of:

  • Seven ways to get more ….
  • Use #contentmarketing to grow your…
  • Social media explained, etc.,

But, for me this all leads back to the thing I always say in every blog about social media. Actually in every blog about anything, which is: Whether you are a big business selling a product to make money, or you are an individual wandering around the Internet cocktail party looking for good conversation, it is all the same. We all want to be heard, we all want to feel like someone is listening to our story and we all want to hear a good story.

And for those of us who want to be rich and famous, well that is just a variation of being seen and heard. Money=power, power=people listening to us. Right now, social media seems to be the latest thing to make that possible.

Sociologist Sherry Turkle, has said that there is no proper conversation on Twitter. But, I disagree. I think that there is, it’s just that I haven’t completely found the conversation of my dreams yet.

But when I do, I will let the world know, well 64 of them anyway.

Travels with my phone


Recently, I came across some photos of the year my husband and I went travelling. The above is one of many we have of the Route 66 (I-40) when we spent a few months in the USA and did a driveaway.

We picked up a jeep in LA and dropped it off in Toronto driving on the Route 66 for as much of the trip as we could. We had a really nice book which described what was left of Route 66 and the landmarks and the interesting detours. And we had a camera – a predigital one – which you put film in the back and by the time you got your photos developed, you had completely forgotten what they were of and they were a complete surprise.

When we pulled onto Route 66, we stopped to snap the first historic sign by the side of the road. Then, we stopped again to snap the painted sign on the road. And then we took a couple of panaramic ones of the road stretching out ahead. And then, my husband said, ‘Right, no more pictures of the road.’

Yeah right! In Toronto we dropped off the jeep and got our photos developed, and we had so many pictures of Route 66, typically like the one above. Often we are lying on the jeep, or sitting on a rock, but mainly we have one identical picture after another of that unique view.

If we had had a digital camera, would we have spent a lot more time browsing our photos on the camera and then not taking more of the same? How is our photo taking different now?

And that got me thinking: If we went travelling now in this connected world, would our experience be different?

Back then in our backpacks, we had:

  • One camera between us and each time we got some photos developed we would post them back to the UK for safe keeping.
  • No phones. Neither one of us had a mobile phone, so we drove miles and miles without any way of contacting anyone. I don’t remember thinking about what we would have done had we broken down.
  • Several books, which were reading including the Route 66 Guide. They were heavy but reading materials back then and now are essential
  • A notebook or two to write in about our experiences and who knows what else.
  • Huge fold out maps to manage where we were.
  • A cash book to keep track of what we spent.
  • A calculator.
  • A watch.
  • Our RTW airline tickets which we needed to keep dry and safe.

I am sure we had a lot of other stuff which I can’t remember that we dragged around along with a ridiculous ukulele (Waikiki beach) and an umbrella from Kyoto. Today, souvenirs aside, much of my backpack would be replaced by my smartphone and a charger.

On our phones, we would google local landmarks and use google maps to plan our route. We would download books to read on our phones – although the husband prefers his tablet to read on. We would have a copy of that Route 66 book we so liked. And, we would be able to read it at the same time. We would share a spreadsheet across our devices so we could calculate and keep track of spending. Our airline tickets would be in an app. I would be able to check my bank balance too!

And keeping in touch? What would I do?

Back then, whilst staying in the outskirts of Bangkok I got up early one morning to walk to a phone box to phone my parents as it had been a while and they worried a lot. I had a phone card which we had tracked down the night before. Wow! Nowadays, I’d probably text. Quick and easy without the need to calculate time differences without getting out of bed, unless I was running around looking for a signal.

And what about postcards? Each new country we went to, I sent my parents a postcard, which I found in a drawer at their place a couple of years ago. When I looked at them, they didn’t seem at all representative of all the experiences we had. Would I still send postcards now? Or, would I have a blog with loads of photos and text anyone could read?

Would I go to an Internet cafe to write? Would I do it on my phone? I am guessing I would just be snapping pictures and writing/speaking text into my phone ready to upload at the next hotspot. I imagine I would be constantly looking for somewhere to recharge my phone.

And that makes me wonder, would I be having the same experience? If I was so busy documenting it and presenting it ‘in real time’, as it were, would I be present? I blogged last week about how I disagree with Sherry Turkle who believes we are all addicted to technology to take us out of our our lives and to put our attention elsewhere. I believe that we use technology to change the conversation, because it is people we are using technology to connect to. But, I don’t believe the consequences of being permanently connected is making us shallow and unable to connect with others, ourselves and the present moment in the real world.

But, back to pondering technology in a round-the-world trip,: Would I be present in that experience if I was busy putting it online? Was I present then? Or, did I have my nose in a book? Nowadays, would I have my nose in a phone? Like people who look at landmarks via their tablet or smartphone instead of at the landmark itself.

I remember towards the end of the trip, my husband and I were a bit weary – we had done a lot of seeing and doing and were feeling that we were on the home stretch. For too long, we had been in some crazy limbo and we were looking forward to getting back to our lives. What a curious idea? Like we weren’t living our life, right there and then. No, our real lives were elsewhere, we had just borrowed these ones.

And where were we that night? We were on a roof terrace of a swanky hotel overlooking Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, with a great view of the Corcovado, drinking Prosecco on a hot balmy evening and chatting.

Throughout that year we were together 24/7 and we chatted. So many words, a lot of which I don’t remember. But that night I remember the conversation clearly, because we both admitted as fantastic as that evening was- the place, the view, the hotel, the people – and how lucky we were, we wished we were back in rainy England with a nice a plate of fish and chips.

And today, as I type this, in sunny but cold England, I would love to be back there on that terrace with my husband. And if time could grant me that gift would I pay more attention and be more mindful of that moment? I don’t think so. For with or without technology, we are always looking for the next thing. It’s human nature. Which is why mindfulness is so good. It gives us a break from all that yearning.

The downside of being present though, is that you end up with a million identical photos of that unique moment.