“So, what’s the mood of America?”
Interface, 1994

One of the most fascinating novels so far on data-driven politics is Neal Stephenson’s and J. Frederick George’s “Interface“, first published in 1994. Although written almost 20 years ago, many of the technologies discussed in this book, would still be cutting edge if employed right now in 2013. One of the most original political devices is the PIPER wristwatch, a device for watching political content such as debates or candidate’s news coverage, while analyzing the wearers’ emotional reaction to these images in real-time by measuring bodily reactions such as pulse, blood pressure or galvanic skin response. This device is a miniaturized polygraph embedded in a controlled political feedback loop.

Social sensors on Twitter for conversations and trends in modern arts

Social sensors on Twitter for conversations and trends in modern arts

What’s really interesting about the PIPER project: These sensors are not applied to all Americans or to a sample of them, but to a rather small number of types. Here are some examples from a rather extensive list of the types that are monitored this way (p. 360-1):

  • irrelevant mouth breather
  • 400-pound tab drinker
  • burger-flipping history major
  • bible-slinging porch monkey
  • pretentious urban-lifestyle slave
  • formerly respectable bankruptcy survivor

In the novel, the interface of this technology is described as follows:

By examining those graphs in detail, Ogle could assess the emotional status of any one of the PIPER 100. But they provided more detail than Ogle could really handle during the real-time stress of a major campaign event. So Aaron had come up with a very simple, general color-coding scheme [...] Red denoted fear, stress, anger, anxiety. Blue denoted negative emotions centered in higher parts of the brain: disagreement, hostility, a general lack of receptiveness. And green meant that the subject liked what they saw. (p. 372)

This immediately grabbed my attention because this is exactly what we are doing in advanced market research projects at the moment: Segmenting a population (in this case: the US electorate) in different personae that represent a larger and more important relevant part of the population under study. And a similar approach is used in innovation research, where one would also focus on “lead-users” that are ahead of their peers when it comes to the identification and experimentation with trends in their respective subject.

Quite recently, this kind of approach has surfaced in various academic publications on Twitter analysis and prediction under the name of “social sensors” (e.g. Sakaki, Okazaki and Matsuo on Twitter earthquake detection or Uddin, Amin, Le, Abdelzaher, Szymanski and Guyen on the right choice of Twitter sensors). The idea is, not to monitor the whole Twitter firehose or everything that is being posted about some hashtag (this would be the regular Social Media Monitoring approach), but to select a smaller number of Twitter accounts that have a history of delivering fast and reliable information.

 

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