Socially augmented reality

From conversation with Greg Elin:
The typical image of augmented reality is MIT University of Toronto professor Steve Mann, who walks around with a special set of glasses that feed him data about the world around him. You know its cold, he knows it’s 17 degrees out. You can see that the Verazzano Narrows is a long bridge, he can see that the main span is 4260 feet long between towers.
The cyborg is smarter than the rest of us; he can correct our facts; and the extra data separates him from others around him.
At Clay Shirky’s Social Software conference last fall, the physical reality of the conference — the speaker talking, verbal comments — was augmented by people chatting online, projected to a big screen for folks without laptops. (Greg modified Manual Kiessling’s A Really Simple Chat Client for the experiment).
Interruptive comments were diverted to screen; people checked references and took notes and passed notes (in the 6th grade sense).
Augmented reality is experienced and created by a group of people, not an isolated individual. There are many places around the world where text messages on mobile phones are used this way (see Rheingold’s Smart Mobs if you haven’t read it already or don’t live there).
In the Steve Mann image, the cyborg is an isolated being, made less connected by a stream of data.
In the Clay Shirky conference room, and the world of augmented reality we’re starting to live in, the cyborg is a conversation.

9 thoughts on “Socially augmented reality”

  1. Adina – you’re a little behind the times. Steve Mann ( is at University of Toronto, and is now doing (his philosophical) work regarding the post-cyborg era. (His engineering research has to do with intelligent image processing, and the mathematics/engineering involved in stabilizing remote images when both camera and receiver are moving.)
    If you think about it, we are all cyborgs, connected in various ways to our technologies. Without those technologies, we could survive in the physical sense, but it certainly would be difficult. Steve is just a little more explicit about it than most of us, and definitely more aware of it than most of us.
    I would argue that cyborgism is neither isolating nor socializing, but a little from column A and a little from column B. Steve Mann may be isolated from you, but is connected and conversing with many others, including his students, we at The McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology (, and most certainly the artistic community.

  2. Adina, I think you’re missing the point. With many new inventions, there’s often a sole, solitary inventor, who introduces us to a new concept. It takes time (like maybe 20-30 years) for others to catch on, and eventually a “community of cyborgs” emerges. The Cyborg Log (cyborglog, or glog for short) is a mechanism for community. When the glog is also blogged, such as, for example, Roving reporter cyborglog, it actually does allow a large community to exist. Back in 1994 when the web was quite young, there were some 30,000 visits a day to this glog. There evolved a strong sense of community, which was quite remarkable for a glog that was also a blog, back in 1994. Now of course it’s easy to do, and many people do it, and so now of course there are many cyborgs. See for example, a short movie clip, that describes how this idea originated and is now very widespread.
    In 1994 it would have been easy to say that blogs isolated us from community, but now, by the very fact that you’re also blogging (following in cyborg footsteps to some extent), it seems kind of hypocritical to say that the cyborg is anti-community when you’re, in many ways, a cyborg yourself, and certainly at least a blogger living at least some of your “life through the screen”.
    Also, one might be curious to know whether you’ve actually read CYBORG (Randomhouse, Doubleday, and also published in paperback by Anchor Books with link from, or if instead, you’re merely speculating on what a community of cyborgs might be like, without having actually read the book.

  3. Facts corrected. My impression of Professor Mann comes from (always-flawed) press coverage; glad to hear from human beings in person!
    It’s very interesting to hear that the real cyborg experience is a community, which is different from the media and commercial stereotype.
    I do think there’s a difference between common popular and commercial images of augmented reality that isolate the individual; and some emerging kinds of communication tools.
    (And I agree with Mark’s assumptions about technology, which is a term we use only for new things; we don’t remember that agriculture and eyeglasses are technology).

  4. Since this blog is allegedly about books, my first question is: Have you read the book???
    If you have not read CYBORG, then why are you telling us about what Steve is or isn’t?
    I think if you had actually read the book, you would realize that the first 20 years or so of his life as a cyborg was one of community with other noncyborgs (by cyborglogs on the internet), but that now there are hundreds of cyborgs in the community.
    Please read the book, and then write something about the book in this book blog.
    -Andrea (a cyborg newbie but certainly not distant)

  5. What I find remarkable is that the Popular Press has trumped the book!
    We know that in the Simulacra world of Disney the Popular Press has won. But this blog says BookBlog. So what’s so remarkable is that your impression of Steve comes not from his book, but from skimming the Popular Press.
    Marc was right about column A versus B, there are shades of gray. Also it would be interesting to know what article you refer to when he measures the bridge, and why they chose to focus on bridge.
    It might be the aphorism that “engineers build bridges”.
    But also being a philosopher, artist, and thinker, he does more than design bridges.
    I think that’s the terrible stereotype that all engineers do is build bridges
    or run trains. The word Engineer started with running a train, in the engine room, running the engine,
    but the sterotype unfortunately stays that engineers only know how to run engines,
    and are social morons. But if you actually read Steve’s book you would realize that there is a real human behind the Engines.
    It would be really nice to see this bookblog actually be a bookblog, to write something about his book, rather than just write something about the popular press, because it is not likely that whowever wrote that popular press article about him designing bridges actually read his book,.
    so you are getting the information third or fourth generation by writing about your impression of an article that was written probably by somebody who got their impression from another popular press article about him building a bridge.
    I would be surprised if any of it originated from anything he actually wrote or said.

  6. Oh boy. Looks like you touched a nerve, Adina. How exciting! It would appear that both you and I have some reading to get caught up on.
    I hope this turns out to open a door for an interesting dialog between different individuals who may be considering many of the same questions from different “points of view”.
    Another part of the conversation between Adina and I involved constrained vocabularies and relationship between vocabularies and communities (how sometimes the vocabulary emerged from the community and how sometimes communities formed around explicitly defined vocabularies).
    There is an overlap between blogs and glogs (, though not only the at the point of the camera. And yet, the vocabulary of cyborg and glogging community (now coming into my focus, I clearly must expose myself to further) differs from vocabulary the blogging community (having at last started one in which I am still penning the uncritical newbie praise). And it is worth beginning to examine those vocabularies, hopefull for how they can inform one another rather than divide.
    This is to say, that while the illucidating comments on Adina’s blog post are great, Adina’s observation about the cyborg as conversation in contrast to Steve Mann’s take is not to be summarily dismissed.
    The cyborg tradition in Steve Mann’s work, as well as its depiction in popular culture (from the $6 Million Dollar Man to the Borg) gives (has given?) primacy to the eye and the visual field. The web-log tradition (from Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan to journalists and gives (has given?) primacy to voice and its expression in the written word. How these two interest and merge with one another is interesting to explore. But their differences can also be embraced as valuable.
    My own personal experiences as an image maker (photography) and now a database developer make me keenly aware of overlaps and tensions and possibilities between these two traditions, our particular western cultural baggage associated with our uses of either, and how each is very depends upon the other.
    Whatever further observations I might endeavour to articulate on that awareness are pending further exploration and rumination.

  7. Greg, your mention of “vocabulary” is particularly useful. Language – our first technology, by the way – not only takes our thoughts from “inner” to “outer” (or “utter,” as McLuhan and James Joyce were wont to say). Language also takes thoughts from outside and brings them in, to influence our thinking. In doing so, the specific language we use, and the way in which we use it, results in our forming conceptions or models of reality. The problem with this, of course, is that “believing is seeing” (and not really the other way around.) We only see that which we believe to fit our individual models of reality. Perception is regularly overridden by conception; our ability to see the effects of change is impaired by our preconceived theory of change.
    (This thinking brought to you by my course in “Applied McLuhanistics” –

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