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The End of Cyberspace

I’m going to Oxford this summer for the workshop on imagining business. I’ll be talking about «paper spaces,» the large, often room-sized roadmaps, timelines, and other documents the Institute uses in its workshops.

I’ve put a PDF of the paper online; I may experiment with putting a copy on Google Docs, and using Zotero to manage the citations (though that seems iffy, given that I often write pretty long footnotes). Whatever environment I use, the piece is like to undergo substantial revision over the next couple months, as I know there are a couple parts of the argument I want to expand. Here’s the introduction:

This article is about paper spaces: room-sized maps, timelines, and charts used to develop, record and share ideas. When used in collaborative work, paper spaces support both focused, creative activity—the creation of a strategy roadmap, the outlines of a software development project, etc.—and informal social goals, like the development of a sense of community or common vision. These are essentially very large pieces of paper, but the term «paper spaces» (the term is borrowed from computer-aided design ) highlights several things. First, we’re used to thinking of things made of paper as physical objects whose qualities help shape the experience of reading, but it’s useful to pay attention to their spatial and architectural qualities as well. Large visuals aren’t just things: they’re spaces that possess some of the qualities of desks or offices. IFTF workshops exploit their scale and physicality to promote social activity between workshop participants. In this case, the spatiality of paper is fairly self-evident; but many of our interactions with paper, books, and writing have a spatial quality. Scholars could gain much by analyzing print media using conceptual tools from architecture, design, and human-computer interaction, as well as literary theory and book history. Second, studying paper spaces help us understand the role that visualizations play in contemporary organizations. Historians have used studies of visual media and visual thinking to expand our understanding of science, technology, and other fields. The business world is supersaturated with visualizations—everything from advertisements, to PowerPoint presentations, to org charts, to brands, to workflows and flow charts—and studying those images could bring similar benefits. At the same time, it warns us against taking too passive or formal a view of visual tools in business, of treating them like paintings on a wall. In the way users interact with them— they’re annotated, extended, argued over, and played with— they’re more like Legos than landscapes. The process of creating maps, and the maps themselves, both reflect a set of attitudes about how to understand and prepare for the future, one that emphasizes user involvement, and the need for actors to develop and possess shared visions of the future. Finally, the term «paper spaces» highlights their hybrid, ephemeral quality. They work because they’re simultaneously interactive media and workspace, but their lives are brief and easy to overlook: they are designed to support idea- and image-making, but leave little trace of themselves.

To illustrate how paper spaces work, this article will focus on their use in a specific context: in expert workshops and roadmapping exercises conducted at the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a Silicon Valley-based think-tank. The article begins with an overview of information spaces, and a brief look at IFTF’s local culture and research practices. Next, it looks in detail at our expert workshops and facilitated exchanges, and describes how they’re organized, what they aim to accomplish, and how they work. It then discusses how paper spaces support the co-creation of knowledge about the future, and a sense of group solidarity. Finally, it argues that paper spaces are ubiquitous: most of our interactions with texts and other media have a spatial dimension that affects the ways we read, think, and create.

The piece is currently a relatively svelte 5000 words long; I figure it’ll hit 6000-7000 before I’m done. There are two big things I still have to do.

First, I have to build out the discussion of how working with (or in) paper spaces generates group solidarity, or a sense of common identity and purpose among participants.

Second, I hadn’t planned on doing this, but my experience working with ZuiPrezi has made me think I should make explicit something I had planned to leave implicit: that the paper spaces I describe will become extinct in the forseeable future. When I was in Malaysia, I used ZuiPrezi in one of my workshops, and it was a terrific experience; and it leads me to believe that we’re not far off from being able to replicate most, if not all, of the social functionalities of paper spaces in digital, projected tools. Thinking about what has made paper spaces work well has been essential for making them obsolete, and I think I’m going to add a section explicitly laying out what a digital system has to do in order to work as well as paper.

Technorati Tags: displays, end of cyberspace, facilitation, Kitchen Budapest, materiality, media, paper spaces, workspaces, ZuiPrezi

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Talk at the Philosophy of Telecommunications Convergence conference (caveat).

«I’m going to talk about everything in the world:… self and technology.» 10 minutes on nothing about technology, then 10 minutes connecting the first 10 to mobile communications.

Humans are «designed to operate with objects:» we’re the only species who also engage in conceptual blending, to take things that are complex and diffuse, and to integrate them into familiar frameworks.

Take cause-motion constructions: I threw the ball through the window, but «England pushed France to war» is a cause-motion construction at a vastly different scale, and even though they’re different phenomena, we use the cause-motion construction to make sense of it. This allows us to turn unfamiliar things into familiar ones, make big phenomena into ones at human scale, develop and evolve culture, etc..

Ironically, we’re not built to understand ourselves: we’re built to understand our world well enough to avoid being eaten and to find things to eat, but self-consciousness is an accident rather than an evolutionary advantage. We can describe ourselves in terms of stable identities, even though we vary greatly over our lives. We explain our actions in terms of desires or rationality, even though we often act first and «make» the decision a few milliseconds later.

What has all this to do with technology?

We have always blended our selves with our technologies. Writing and language are technologies, and are especially powerful ones. (The metaphor of communications is especially powerful in cause-motion constructions: we think of the self as converser, talk about «peoples of the book,» etc.) These days, we think of ourselves in terms of our communications technologies, by blending our general concept of ourselves with our understanding of how the communications technology works. In a sense, we know our technologies better than we know ourselves.

This matters because of the addictive power of communications technologies; the ease with which we can create avatars or online identities radically different from the ones we have in real life; the opportunities it creates to merge with others (or at least to engage in collective action), to differentiate or contextualize our identities (e.g., having different SIM cards that work in different countries, have different contacts).

[ Posted from Hungarian Academy of Sciences via plazes.com ]

Technorati Tags: Budapest, cognition, communication, conference, mobility, pervasive computing, philosophy, psychology, ubicomp

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The End of Cyberspace

This will probably be just a throwaway line in the book, or a paragraph at most, but I’ve been thinking a bit about RSIs and computer-related injuries as an example of the fractured manner in which we’ve tried to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds.

Of course, you can injure yourself carrying firewood, herding sheep, wrangling children, or doing a million other things in the real world. But as I understand it, people get RSIs when of two things happen: either when computers (or more precisely, keyboards, mice, and monitors and their relationships to the body) force users to do something that their body objects to; or when computers remove a physical constraint that prevented users from performing the same action for a long time.

This isn’t necessarily a problem caused by badly-designed computers. One of my colleagues sent around this bit (allegedly) from the New England Journal of Medicine:

A healthy 29-year-old medical resident awoke one Sunday morning with intense pain in the right shoulder. He did not recall any recent injuries or trauma and had not participated in any sports or physical exercise recently….

[H]e had bought a new Nintendo Wii (pronounced «wee») video-game system and had spent several hours playing the tennis video game…. In the tennis video game, the player makes the same arm movements as in a real game of tennis. If a player gets too engrossed, he may «play tennis» on the video screen for many hours. Unlike in the real sport, physical strength and endurance are not limiting factors.

The problem with the Wii isn’t that it makes you do something really unnatural. But in the real world, few of us can play tennis for four or five hours straight; a Wiimote, in contrast, is light enough to make that possible.

There’s also some criticism of the new Cisco open office on ergonomic grounds:

The photo of a Cisco no-cubicle office in the recent San Jose Mercury News article set off my alarm bells, however. The no-cubicle environment in the picture is an ergonomic nightmare. I can’t believe the article didn’t discuss this downside to the wonders of the new office.

I called Lisa Voge-Levin, an ergonomic consultant who helps companies design healthy work environments, and asked her to look at the Cisco photo with me…. [She reported that the armchairs, lack of eye-level monitors, and absence of tables for drinks and accessories] contributes to neck and back injuries including muscle and tendon strain as well as such serious injuries as ruptured discs. She also notes that in such an environment, it is hard to control lighting, glare, or noise; all can lead to headaches.

Technorati Tags: ergonomics, Wii

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From National Defense Magazine, a short account of a meeting of SIGMA, «a loosely affiliated group of science fiction writers who are offering pro bono advice to anyone in government who want their thoughts on how to protect the nation:»

The 45-minute panel discussion quickly deteriorated as federal, local and state homeland security officials, and at least one congressional aid, attempted to ask questions, which were largely ignored.

Instead the writers used their time to pontificate on a variety of tangentially related topics, including their past roles advising the government, predictions in their stories that have come to pass, the demise of the paperback book market, and low-cost launch into space.

[To the tune of Perpetual Groove, «Naive Melody,» from the album «Live at the Georgia Theatre, 31 December 2005».]

Technorati Tags: science, science_fiction, security

Another example (via Mike) of how the digital world and physical intersect, to our peril: a timeline of the top 10 data breaches of the decade (here’s a bigger version). The smallest affected 5 million people; the largest, 97 million.

[To the tune of Johann Sebastian Bach, «- Sarabande (s1),» from the album «Yo-Yo Ma: Complete Cello Suites — Inspired By Bach (Disc 1)».]

Technorati Tags: internet, security

  • «The general objective of the Research Creativity and Management Office (RCMO) is to provide management, administrative and implementation needs as well as support, liaise and sustain the R&D activities of the university.»

Thanks to Heather for pointing out this E. B. White quote from… a long time ago.

I live in a strictly rural community, and people here speak of “The Radio” in the large sense, with an over-meaning. When they say “The Radio” they don’t mean a cabinet, an electrical phenomenon, or a man in a studio, they refer to a pervading and somewhat godlike presence which has come into their lives and homes (E. B. White, quoted in Tom Lewis, » ‘A Godlike Presence: The Impact of Radio on the 1920s and 1930s,» OAH Magazine of History, 1992)

Technorati Tags: end of cyberspace, place/space, radio

Cyrus Farivar pointed me to this piece from Harper’s Magazine, an annotation of a blueprint for a Google server farm on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon. It’s interesting as a reminder of the materiality of «the cloud,» that apparently amorphous and evanescent computational resource that exists… somewhere… but who care where.

Google and its rivals are raising server farms to tap into some of the cheapest electricity in North America. The blueprints depicting Google’s data center at The Dalles, Oregon, are proof that the Web is no ethereal store of ideas, shimmering over our heads like the aurora borealis. It is a new heavy industry, an energy glutton that is only growing hungrier…. [T]he Dalles plant can be expected to demand about 103 megawatts of electricity— enough to power 82,000 homes, or a city the size of Tacoma, Washington….

In 2006 American data centers consumed more power than American televisions. Google… and its rivals now head abroad for cheaper, often dirtier power. Microsoft has announced plans for a data center in Siberia, AT&T has built two in Shanghai, and Dublin has attracted Google and Microsoft…. As the functions long performed by personal computers come to be executed at these far-flung data centers, the technology industry has rapturously rebranded the Internet as «the cloud.» The metaphor is apt, both for our foggy notions of a green Web and for the storm that awaits a culture that squanders its resources.

Some time ago, Richard Grusin pointed out that claims by hypertext theorists that electronic writing was «immaterial, ephemeral, [and] evanescent» were problematic because «these ephemeral electromagnetic traces are dependent on extremely material hardware, software, communications networks, institutional and corporate structure, support personnel, and so on.» Or, as he put it elsewhere, «Claims for the agency of electronic technologies marginalize the materiality of these technologies.»* Clearly assumptions about immateriality and evanescence haven’t gone away.

It also occurs to me that the metaphor of «the cloud,» in contrast to cyberspace, is decidedly non-spatial: the could isn’t a place, it’s the absence of physicality.

*The Grusin quote is from, «What is an Electronic Author?» Configurations 3 (1994), 469-483, quotes on 476, 471.

Technorati Tags: end of cyberspace, internet, materiality

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Thanks to Heather for pointing out this E. B. White quote from… a long time ago.

I live in a strictly rural community, and people here speak of “The Radio” in the large sense, with an over-meaning. When they say “The Radio” they don’t mean a cabinet, an electrical phenomenon, or a man in a studio, they refer to a pervading and somewhat godlike presence which has come into their lives and homes (E. B. White, quoted in Tom Lewis, » ‘A Godlike Presence: The Impact of Radio on the 1920s and 1930s,» OAH Magazine of History, 1992)

Technorati Tags: end of cyberspace, place/space, radio

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As part of my study of the end of cyberspace and the future of information and information technologies, I’ve spent some time looking at the history of the idea that printed media are a problem to be solved: that, as Eldred Smith put it, «information is restricted by the very vehicle that was designed to promote its availability— the book or other print product.»

It turns out that while predictions of the «death of the book» became a stock in trade for Internet enthusiasts in the 1990s, and were the subject of plenty of attention in popular culture (at least, that part that reads New York Review of Books, Atlantic Monthly, and the like), arguments about whether the book could survive as a useful medium for professional knowledge-workers has a long history.

There are a couple good articles that talk about debates within the library world about the future of the book, but through the miracle of Google Scholar (and the vanity of searching for yourself), I just came across something that looks broader and quite promising as a history of anxieties about the future of print: Andy Duffy’s 2000 M.A. thesis (PDF), «The replacement of printed text: Alternative media forms from the 1940s to the 1980s.»

Here’s the abstract:

The purpose of this thesis is to examine alternative forms of media developed in the USA between the 1940’s and 1980’s, which were proposed in order to come to terms with the faults associated with printed text and the paper medium. The examination is concentrated on relevant literature on the media and not the actual media themselves. The questions asked were: 1. Why were alternative forms of media presented for replacing printed text and what were the aims of those wanting to replace it? 2. What were these alternative forms of media and how did they compare with printed text with regard to storing and disseminating text? The study concentrates on two aspects of the different media: their ability to store and disseminate text.

Due to the increasing amount of scientific research results in the form of printed text the research community experienced growing problems with text dissemination and recall. These problems caused delays in research procedures hampering scientific development. Due to the increasing importance of scientific research, not least its role in international conflicts, a solution to these problems was regarded as being of the utmost importance….

A few pages in, Duffy expands on the problems with books:

I have chosen to emphasise one important aspect of this change for this thesis. This is the examination of the social and historical context in which different media were developed to help solve what I refer to as the information problem….

In the 1930’s and 1940’s mechanically printed text had been regarded by many as being responsible for giving rise to the information problem. Printed text, in diverse forms, was no longer regarded as being the best medium to disseminate and preserve information. Despite its previous importance for spreading scientific research results, printed text was now viewed as limiting and constraining scientific research and development.

The thesis covers micro-card, Vannevar Bush’s Memex, J. C. Licklider’s Online Information Network, and Ted Nelson, Xanadu. (It doesn’t talk about microfiche, microfilm, or the other micro-technologies that actually did make it into the library, and were occasionally touted as replacements for the book.)

Technorati Tags: books, history, library, media

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Today Sue Thomas gave a talk at the Institute on «transliteracy.» I’ve communicated with Sue for the last couple years about the end of cyberspace— last year she published an article in Convergence titled «The End of Cyberspace and Other Surprises» that said nice things about my work— but this was the first time we’d met in person.

Transliteracy is «the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.» It’s a concept that the De Montfort University PART (Production and Research in Transliteracy) Group, which Sue leads, is working on. I found the talk quite interesting, but it made me aware of something I hadn’t realized:

I hate the term «literacy.»

Obviously this needs some explaining.

I certainly agree with the basic the idea that the repertoire of skills that we need to express ideas is multiplying, as the variety of media in which we work grows; that the cultivation and exercise of those skills probably affect not just how we can communicate, but how we think; and that all this deserves lots of attention.

Where things go off the rails is using the term «literacy» to talk about things as different as game-playing, geo-blogging, writing, and picture-taking. I think there are two possibly insurmountable problems with it.

First, among academics, the term «literacy» may be irretrievably bound up in assumptions of literacy as fluency with texts. The danger with applying the term to other kinds of creative and communicative activity is that it ends up reviving the post-structuralist imperialist project— the intellectual enterprise that saw everything from nuclear war to dressing to Photoshopping as engagement with one or another «text.»

Second, among just about everyone else, «literacy» isn’t a description of a particular kind of skill, but instead is a claim about the importance of a skill. Skills that have economic value or give power to their users— or more specifically, are believed to be skills that are valuable now but will become more valuable in the future— are defined as types of «literacy:» we talk about computer literacy, visual literacy, economic literacy, information literacy, and other forms of 21st-century «digital literacy.» On the other hand, we don’t talk about «bicycle literacy,» «walking literacy,» or «sexual literacy» (except perhaps in certain chat rooms)— these are either universal and hence trivial, or not economically significant. The word «literacy» signifies importance. It’s an argument masquerading as a definition.

Finally, and separately, I wonder about how long the particular condition that the PART Group is interested in— the need to have different forms of literacy that allow for fluent use of different kinds of media— is going to last. Today we talk about visual literacy, television literacy, and computer literacy as different things because they’ve been separate media; but in the YouTubed, mashed-up, RSSed future of media, will we need different kinds of skills to deal with each? Is transliteracy an artifact of today’s fractured media situation?

Again, this is not to say that the underlying issues don’t deserve to be studied; they most certainly do. I just wonder how long it will be before the concept of «literacy» will be more trouble than it’s worth.

Technorati Tags: culture, literacy, media

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Nigel Thrift, «Movement-space: the changing domain of thinking resulting from the development of new kinds of spatial awareness,» Economy and Society 33:4 (November 2004): 582-604. [pdf]

In other recent articles Thirft has «looked at how, as a result of the intervention of software and new forms of address, these background time-spaces are changing their character, producing novel kinds of behaviours that would not have been possible before and new types of object which presage more active environments.» This paper argues that «the activity of calculation has become so ubiquitous that it has entered a new phase, which I call ‘qualculation’,» (584) and this new form of calculation is starting to change the way we perceive and think about space.

The World of Paratexts

«All human activity depends upon an imputed background whose content is rarely questioned: it is there because it is there. It is the surface on which life floats.» This used to be largely natural, but in the last century industrialization has created a new artificial background shaping human activity. «Now a second wave of second nature is appearing, extending its fugitive presence though object frames as diverse as cables, formulae, wireless signals, screens, software, artificial fibres and so on.» This is a mundane, inescapable «fugitive materiality» that requires a lot of invisible support— e.g., the creation of metrics, standards, addresses, and modularity. But if «all these characteristics can be imposed, then the logic of the system, as it becomes both necessary and general, will gradually become the logic of the world.» (586)

From Quantification to Qualculation: The Growth of Calculation

«The growth of quantitative calculation in the world… is a long and complicated story» going back to the ancient Greeks. «But what seems certain is that the sheer amount of calculation going on in the world has undergone a major shift of late… [and] is becoming a ubiquitous element of human life» (586) thanks to the growth of computing power, growth of ubiquitous computing, and the of substitution of «analytic solutions… by brute computing force.» (587)

Just as earlier systems for creating and organizing knowledge about the world— ranging from the discovery of mathematical notation in ancient Greece (a process akin to the impact of writing described by Havelock Ellis and other), to new visions of space in the Scientific Revolution, to information management tools in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the rise of logistics in the 20th century, all «produced a new sense of the world and new forms of representation of it, so we can see something similar happening now.» (587) In all these historical cases, and today, «number does not just describe, it constructs…. number tends to cast the world reciprocally in its image as entities are increasingly made in for ms that are countable. Number performs number.» (589-590)

New apprehensions of space and time

«[T]he sheer amount of calculation that is now becoming possible at all points of so many spaces is producing a new calculative sense, which I will call ‘qualculation’.» In this new calculative order, «calculations become part of a background whose presence is assumed.» (592) To those of us living today, qualculation is as much a part of the «background» of reality as animal tracks and weather were to our ancestors.

A new sensorium

So what effect will the rise of qualculation have on the sensorium? Two possibilities are the rise of new phobias (something we saw with the transformation of the Euro-American city in the 19th century), and «the rise of new forms of intuition» (like thin-slicing). (596) Most interesting, however, is a «reworking of space and time… written into the human body and language.» (596) Thrift points to three changes:

Hands. «The sensory system of the hand is complex and capable of exquisite fine-tuning. It is not just an ‘external’ organ: it is so vital to human evolution that it seems quite likely that parts of the brain have developed in order to cope with its complexities rather than vice versa.» (597)

[I]n a qualculative world… the sense of touch will be redefined in three ways as haptic engineering moves beyond today’s primitive keyboard, keypad, mouse and data glove. First, from being conceived as a heavily localized sensation, touch will increasingly be thought of as a sense that can stretch over large spaces…. Second, entities that are able to be touched will correspondingly expand; all manner of entities will be produced with an expanded sensory range. Third, paramount among these newly touchable entities will be data of various kinds which, through haptic engineering, will take on new kinds of presence in the world as something closer to what we conventionally regard as ‘physical’ objects. In other words, the hand will extend, be able to touch more entities and will encounter entities which are more ‘touchable’. The set of experiences gathered under ‘touch’ will therefore become a more important sense, taking in and naming experiences which heretofore have not been considered as tactile and generating haptic experiences which have hitherto been unknown. (598)

Space. «It will become normal to know where one is at any point…. As importantly, the ability to tag addresses to moving objects which started with barcodes and credit cards and is now expanding and becoming more infor mation-rich with the rapidly expanding use of radio frequency identifier chips will mean that over a grid of fixed co-ordinates will be laid a series of moving addresses specific to particular entities.» (598)

Language. «[V]ocabularies of spatial configuration will multiply. The critical importance of spatial distribution in flow architectures will produce an extended spatial vocabulary which will provide new opportunities for thinking the world, opportunities which will themselves be constitutive of that world. We can already see something of this going on in the practical aesthetics of fields like architecture, performance and film.» (600)

Technorati Tags: end of cyberspace, mobility, Nigel Thrift, pervasive computing, place/space, ubicomp

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« December 2007 | Main | February 2008 »

19 posts from January 2008

  • «This call invites submissions for a special issue related to digital cultures of California. Internationally, California is a phenomenon in terms of its relationship to creating, consuming and analyzing the era of digital technologies….»
  • «Convergence invites papers on multimedia, gender and technology, satellite and cable, control and censorship, copyright, electronic publishing, the internet, media policy, interactivity, education and new media technologies, screen interfaces…»
  • Now that’s a BIG joystick!
  • On the use of computers in facilitated meetings. Color me skeptical.
  • «Nobody can predict the future, but proven tools help us illuminate the path ahead, so we can make better decisions and innovate successfully…. The Future Studio’s mission is to bring these, tools, resources, and insights to leadership decision-makers.»
  • links to articles on delphi, strategy, scanning, scenarios, planning, etc.
  • Most-downloaded articles in Technological Forecasting and Social Change.
  • Futures® is… concerned with medium and long-term futures of cultures and societies, science and technology, economics and politics, environment and the planet and individuals and humanity» and «methods and practices of futures studies.»
  • On the adoption of English in Japanese neuroscience. «What would seem to be a welcome development—the adoption of the international language in this globalizing age—has a downside its official proponents seem not to have anticipated.»
  • «Peer review plays a central role in many of the key moments in science…. Yet, peer review as currently practised can be narrowly scientific, to the exclusion of other pressing quality criteria relating to social relevance.»
  • «A World Brain… should have at least seven features: timely abstracts… comprehensive coverage… regional and national nodes… overviews of sectoral and cross-sectoral issues, user-friendly features, and ample publicity.»
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Could you track the history of our relationship to computers through the history of personal productivity or personal tracking tools?

Here’s what I mean. Twenty years ago, with the first generation of personal computers, a «productivity»-related piece of software might have been a calendar or list app— something fairly generic, and probably business- or work-related. It would have borne a resemblance to business productivity tools, and would often have been used to help manage our working days.

These days, though, the list and calendar is something you can take for granted (though integrating multiple calendars is a pain). But the category of productivity tools hasn’t disappeared: it’s changed. Lifehacker’s list of New Year’s resolution management tools, and Make Use Of’s list of «online services to help you out with your daily life and new year resolutions,» both point to them becoming more intimate and proactive: you can use them not just to track when you have that meeting with Ted, but you can track what days you exercised and ate right— and you can share that information.

So when did the first personal productivity applications appear? When did dieting or weight management programs appear?

Their appearance and proliferation suggests two things. First, it’s yet another data-point documenting the ever-greater integration of personal computing into our personal lives. Second, this category is worth watching because the big trends in this space seem to be increasing automation— both in receiving information from users, and in sending out alerts and such— and continuous engagement— they’re not things you sit down with very few weeks, like Quicken, but ideally would be systems that you would use when making decisions about what to eat, how far to run, etc.. You can start to imagine how powerful these programs could become when you access them through mobile devices— or when they access you through those devices, ten minutes before you’re scheduled to go to lunch, or just before you exit the freeway and pass the gym.

Technorati Tags: health, personal management, productivity, software