Human Internet Proxies

The MIT Technology Review echoes an AP story about how, despite the proliferation of smart phones (and the digerati’s consequent obsession with them), “most wireless use is still centered on laptops”. So what do people do when they’re on the road and need something? They call a friend and ask them to look it up/book it/etc., as a human internet proxy.

Donna and i do this all the time: we don’t have web-connected phones, so if i’m driving and lost, i call her. She’s very likely to be either sitting at or within 50 feet of an Internet-connected computer, so she can relay the information back to me. Maybe not quite as cool as having my own pocket Internet , but very workable, a whole cheaper (no data plan), and it reinforces our relationship at the same time.

Technology Review: Info on the go for travelers without smart phones.

Transmedia and Biblical Storytelling

There’s an interesting article in Wired UK on “Transmedia tales and the future of storytelling“. “transmedia” is my new word for the day: in the article, Henry Jenkins (former MIT professor and author of  Convergence Culture) is quoted, defining transmedia storytelling as

“a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels.”

The basic idea is to go beyond the traditional print medium (a novel) and deliver stories through a combination of print, video, TV, on-line activities, and even real-world artifacts, all working together to engage the reader consumer. The article provides a nice overview of some ways this is happening today.

This is all well and good for contemporary fiction, and it seems like an interesting approach for stories that are unfolding afresh for the first time. The fundamental difference from telling the Biblical story (aside from the fact that we don’t treat it as fiction) is that the narrative itself isn’t “new”: it’s already been “out” in the culture for thousands of years. But that doesn’t mean everybody knows it (clearly they don’t), nor does it mean the presentation can’t be new.

How might transmedia be used to communicate Biblical stories in a way that’s faithful to the text, not speculative (i’m not convinced we need more of these), but still engaging for today’s media-savvy younger generations? As an example, i could certainly imagine a transmedia re-telling of David’s adultery with Bathsheba, his subsequent murder of Uriah, and Nathan’s confrontation of him (2 Sam 11:1-12:26). This highly dramatic story could be unfolded in (compressed) real time, both to give a sense of the time scales involved, but also to bring home more clearly the tensions, uncertainty, and emotional impact of the narrative. For example, a sequence like this (with suitable delays):

  1. introduce the scene from the Biblical text (2 Sam 11:1-4a), perhaps in a Sunday sermon, and invite people to follow along
  2. twitter 2 Sam 11:5
  3. release a video retelling of Uriah’s visit to David (2 Sam 11:6-13)
  4. email 2 Sam 11:14-16, David’s letter to Joab
  5. email Joab’s news flash (and the context)

and so forth.

I’d love to hear about any examples of this kind of interactive, media-engaged Biblical storytelling.

Some related activities:

  • The Network of Biblical Storytellers (my wife is a member, and we attended the 2008 festival gathering) is one group seeking to bring the text more dramatically to life, primarily through oral re-telling that stays close to the Biblical text.
  • The American Bible Society has several initiatives to expand Bible reading and interest in the younger generation, some focused on contemporary music and personalities. This isn’t quite transmedia, though it does combine several media channels in a contemporary fashion.

Good Enough Bible Software

Without really intending to, i wound up taking the summer off from blogging. But Wired‘s got me thinking with their article entitled “The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple is Just Fine.” Their basic point, illustrated with examples like inexpensive video cameras, the MP3 format, and the military’s Predator unmanned aircraft, is that Good Enough Tech often triumphs in the marketplace against clearly superior technology, because it capitalizes on the predominant value of several kinds of accessibility:

  • ease of use
  • continuous (ubiquitous) availability
  • low price

For those of us working on what i’d claim is the Cadillac of Bible software (dating myself with that standard of reference!), namely Logos, this raises the obvious question: what’s “good enough” when it comes to Bible software?

One answer, of course, is how many people are currently voting with their wallets and (even more importantly) with their attention: that is, no software at all. Many Christians simply don’t read their Bibles, and of those that do, many use the old dead trees format, perhaps the shining example of “cheap and simple”.

But clearly technology has gone well beyond paper in offering accessibility to Bible readers: so where’s the sweet spot? Let’s organize the discussion around several levels of capability, with increasing sophistication:

  • Free Bible texts available on the web (Bible Gateway,, and many many others)
  • Free software, typically including multiple Bible versions, search, perhaps some additional titles: e-Sword, the Sword project,
  • “Entry level” packages for a modest fee: iLumina, PC Study Bible, QuickVerse, along with mobile software from vendors like Olive Tree and Laridian.
  • Software for professional-grade study of original languages, commentaries, theology, etc.: here i’m thinking of Bible Works and Accordance.
  • The library approach to Bible Study taken by Logos (my employer, so i’m not neutral on this point) offers packages at a range of levels and prices, so it both covers the spectrum above. But (to my mind) it’s in a class by itself because of the breadth and depth of its offerings.

(Just so you know, i took most of these from this survey of Bible software programs, rather than my own experience: i haven’t used all these packages.)

How do these systems stack up against Wired’s criteria for accessibility? Well, clearly free-on-the-web is the winner, as long as all you require is reading a Bible text. The cost is zero, it’s easy to find a passage (if you know the reference) with a search box, and it’s as available as the Internet. If you need genuine ubiquity (like on your smartphone) you can still get free software to meet that need, though with the added “cost” of installing and maintaining them. The entry level packages offer more functionality (other books, parallel translations, perhaps additional study helps), though they don’t really change the basic criteria. So you might wonder whether they’ll eventually get eclipsed by their “good enough” free counterparts.

The professional-grade software packages offer much more sophistication and many more resources than the free/modest cost packages, but those capabilities come with a significant price tag. Users with professional requirements really can’t get the same capabilities with a Good Enough alternative today, but such users represent only a portion of the larger market. The longer-term question is how the market for professional grade software will develop over time, given the continual pressure from free alternatives, and other general resources like Google Books and Amazon’s Kindle.

Social Communication in the Enterprise

These days all the cool kids are tweeting, twittering and telecasting their every thought and activity using services like Twitter and Facebook. While i’m usually willing to give new technologies a try, i’ve been hesitant to take the plunge into Twitter. It’s not like i need additional sources of distraction: i’m perfectly capable of losing my focus all by myself.

In some respects, Twitter seems like another replay of several earlier IT pyramid schemes: first bulletin boards, then websites, then blogs. The earlier adopters get the lion’s share of attention, and the people who follow them get the initial benefit of more information and (maybe) more access. But as the pyramid grows over time, the volume of communication becomes unmanageable. Then we evolve new schemes for managing the flood: bookmarks, feeds and feed readers, tags spaces (hash tags for Twitter), and other meta-schemes. At some point we ought to stop and ask whether the new communications services and the additional complexity and overhead they impose provide enough benefit to justify their cost.

I’m humble enough to acknowledge that many smart and productive people say they get a lot of benefit from Twitter, so maybe i really am missing something by remaining doggedly tweet-free. But the latest issue of eWeek (you may need to download their reader to access it) has a nice review of several enterprise-oriented social communication services (SocialCast, Socialtext, and Huddle) that’s making me rethink my position. These have several distinct differences from Twitter and Facebook that make them more interesting to me:

  • Narrower scope of communication: While broad services like Facebook and Twitter provide access to a universe of information, that can become overwhelming, particularly when the universe is talking back at you. Limiting the conversation to what’s happening in our company has a lot of appeal.
  • Better business information: getting the right mix between quantity and focus about what’s going on in your company has always been a difficult challenge in my business career. The people who have the most to say are also very busy, and of course they already know what they know: so there’s asymmetry, with a cost to them in producing information while most of the near-term benefits accrue to their listeners.At the same time, there’s no easy way to predict what information might be useful to whom, so generating lots of it makes sense provided there are effective ways to filter it.
  • Distributed leadership: personnel at all levels have useful things to offer your company, if you can just break them out of the stovepipes of departmental structure and management hierarchy.

Here’s how i might see this playing out at Logos. Our business structure is largely typical for a software company of our size: there’s a sales and marketing division with some people who travel a lot and who (along with inside sales) provide a lot of our revenue, a customer service group that deals with users and their problems, the programmers who make the application work, a smaller group (where i work) that’s developing new features and data sets, a variety of support and infrastructure people who keep IT, finance, etc. running smoothly, and of course a management team that’s steering the corporate ship. All of these groups have front-line access to information that might help the rest of us do a better, given the right kinds of access.

One of the challenges is to keep the information we all broadcast a little more targeted. While some amount of personal interest makes all the hours we spend at work more fun, too much information about somebody’s disappointment that their favorite team lost, or how much they hate paperwork, the lousy sandwich they had for lunch, etc. would start to make this just like Facebook (and i don’t think having employees reading Facebook during work time is a good strategy for productivity). But i’d love to hear:

  • from front-line sales people: a conference sales pitch that really hit home with people; the reason somebody just gave for purchasing our software (or not purchasing it); a complaint from a loyal customer
  • from customer support: the common problems that get raised over and over, and that would make make for a much happier user experience if we fixed them upstream
  • from support staff: the challenges that we can all help with
  • from programmers and from R&D: exciting new discoveries, tips and tricks
  • from management: new things we’re learning and thinking, big picture business issues, where we see our business heading

Many of these things get communicated now, just more formally, and therefore less frequently, and to a more selective audience within the enterprise. Moving toward Twitter-style microcontent, just a little more focussed, might provide the right mix to get me tweeting.