Under the Influence

I have always liked old buildings. On vacations I usually seek out old house museums. My home is almost a century old (the original part, anyway, which is only two rooms). I love that high-tech companies are putting their offices into old lofts and industrial buildings. So when I learned that Christopher Gray, who writes about architectural history for the New York Times, was speaking at a local historic preservation organization, I went.

After Gray’s talk I got into a conversation with a woman who is a regular member of the group. She said it was nice to see a “young person” like me (this was several years ago; I was still in my 30s) attending an event in person. It seemed to her that many young people spent too much time with “this new Internet thing.” Then she asked how I’d heard about the event.

“I read about it on the society’s website.” Her face fell.

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Needed: 21st Century Leaders for an Open World

Photo CC Al Jazeera 2011

On Thursday and Friday I attended some Social Media Week events in New York. It was an amazing experience—not just because of the great topics and smart speakers, but because we practiced what was being preached. A fair number of audience members used laptops, iPads or smart phones during the presentations, live tweeting what was being said on stage and their own responses. Some speakers addressed questions posed via Twitter while on stage, while others took more conventional routes such as hand-raising and comments written on index cards.

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Is Twitter a Virtual Soap Box or Town Hall?

I was one of those who delayed joining Twitter because I couldn’t quite figure out what it was about. 140 characters? That’s not enough to say anything, is it? After all, I’d sometimes found the 2,000 character limit of a Blackberry e-mail message restrictive—and I had not embraced IM or text messaging as anything except a quick way to exchange a few words with colleagues when all else failed. (Emphasis on that part about “when all else failed.”)

Then I attended a presentation by Bonnie McEwan at the Foundation Center‘s New York library. She talked about various social media platforms, but it was her recommendation about Twitter that made me reconsider it. “It’s important to tweet what you are thinking, not what you are doing.” I mulled it over and a few days later I signed up for a Twitter account. (On the same day I registered this WordPress blog, because I knew there would be times when 140 characters wouldn’t be enough.)

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Can You Pass a Turing Test?

In 1950 Alan Turing proposed a test to determine whether a machine (such as a computer) could overcome the limitations foreseen by Descartes in his Discourse on the Method:

For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words… But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do.

Turing called it the Imitation Game; we now call it the Turing Test. Two people—or perhaps one is a machine—sit at teletype terminals and have a conversation. Neither can see the other, but they are allowed to ask each other anything.

Hashtag pretzels from the Tweet-up

In those days it would have been a teletype terminal, not a video monitor, so you wouldn’t have been able to send or request a photograph. You have to determine whether the responses are from a human or a machine based entirely on the text.

Six decades later we actually encounter something similar in online social networking. But I’m not here to discuss “bots” that send automated status updates, advertising, or non sequeters to Twitter or Facebook. I want to talk about humans who, when they log on to their social networking accounts, forget that they are human or social.

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