Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Worst Parts of Meatspace

Meatspace, noun. a term, originating from cyberpunk  fiction and culture, referring to the real (that is, not virtual) world, the world of flesh and blood.  ... The opposite of cyberspace.

In July, I caught a breathless article on CNN about a telepresence robot.  Imagine, if you will, being able to attend meetings and peer over your drones' shoulders, all without subjecting your bed-sore-covered carcass to sunlight.  It's $15,000 worth of technology that makes a Segway look like a wise and life-affirming investment. 

Your wage slaves get to interact with your wheeled robot stand-in through a tiny little screen, to enforce the message that being spoken to by this contraption is holding the muddy end of the stick.  As the power player, you're at home, dressed somewhere between Hugh Hefner and Howard Hughes, driving from a monitor bigger than their cube wall.

So, this manages to project both poor taste and intense disdain for those around you, like an indoor Hummer.  But I also thinks it solves a vast, interesting problem in a way that deftly preserves all the worst parts of physical reality in a shiny new digital shell.  The robot can't operate doors or stairs or even elevators.  When it joins a meeting at a normal conference room table, it has to swivel left and right to "see" who's talking.  The driver has to choose between steering it room-to-room throughout the day or making all the meetings come to him (which will kick off a territory-marking contest if ever two powerful honchos in the same company own robots).  A battery life of "up to 8 hours" also means your plastic servant is likely to need a pit stop in the middle of the day.

All of these problems were solved by video conferencing 20 years ago.  You update a room with a monster TV, a wall-mounted camera that can see everyone in the room, and plug the whole rig into the wall for power and network.  Time for the next meeting?  Hang up and call another room!

All hatin' aside, Anybots isn't the first company to just not get that they could be using digital technologies to solve meatspace problems instead of faithfully preserving them.  This appears to be the whole premise of Second Life.  Imagine how fun it would be if you had to walk from Amazon to Flickr!  Imagine clumsily steering your avatar into a meticulous recreation of a drab conference room, to watch a presentation blocked by the head of the guy in front of you, at a faithfully recreated slightly-to-one-side angle!  Oh, and can we import assholes, too?  You bet!  (Second Life defenders will note that now your Avatars can fly and teleport.  Keep going guys, you're a few patches away from being Star Trek Online.)

David Weinberger gets it.  Virtual stores are better than physical stores.  I can sort, I can filter, I can leap from cameras to chocolates without a 20 minute hoverchair ride around the Buy n Large.  Check out David's story about the big pile of clothes, start near the 15:00 mark if you're impatient. 

What about online classes?  On the one hand, I get to take them from the comfiest chair in my house (an overstuffed, closeout sale, C3PO-colored monstrosity), on a screen just the size/distance/font-size that I like, after putting on the baby's pyjamas (and my own).  On the other hand, I ask fewer questions, I don't grow my personal or professional network, and I don't get my knuckles rapped with a ruler when I doze off.  Maybe online classes take a good thing too far, maybe they need a little meatspace infusion.

Meatspace and cyberspace are different, no matter what you learned from Tron and Hackers.  Meatspace is really good for some things (hello, reproduction!) but don't think that everything in cyberspace should aspire to be like its older brother.  And if your product can be thwarted by a doorknob, you may not be solving the right problem.

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