Listening Platform Technology

Fifty years ago the Internet was an idea in science fiction — an obscure idea the prophetic nature of which people did not recognize or fully appreciate. Will F. Jenkins (better known as Murray Leinster) wrote a story called “A Logic Named Joe”.

Commentators have compared Logics to personal computers, and “Joe” is a logic that becomes self-aware. Realizing its potential to help people, Joe sort of awakens the world-wide network in ways people didn’t expect. You can read a summary of the story here (there may be advertising for mature content on the site).

One interesting aspect of the story is that it sort of predicts contextual and interactive advertising, along with everything else. It’s the interactive functionality that grabbed my attention. People were able to ask their computers to provide solutions to their problems and solutions presented themselves.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that happened in real life on the World Wide Web?

The technology is actually in development by several companies, one of which I work for (Visible Technologies). One of the services VT offers is TruCast, a Listening Platform recognized by Forrester Wave as a strong performer in the field (ranked third overall in their evaluation).

Listening platforms are services that enable companies to locate and digest blog and forum comments. Each company approaches the task a little differently, but the TruCast solution is geared toward identifying people (particularly “influencers”) and topics. Companies use TruCast and competitive products to monitor consumer sentiment, generally with the intention of opening new channels of communication with unhappy consumers (and perhaps happy consumers).

Wouldn’t it be great if you could turn a bad customer service experience around by grousing on a blog or forum and suddenly someone contacted you directly, offering to help resolve your issue? It’s actually happened to me (without the use of Listening Platform sofware), although my situation was never resolved.

I do know some companies have used listening platforms to improve their public images — not by being sneaky, but by working with consumers to resolve the issues the consumers are unhappy about. It’s almost like Joe is working hard for our benefit.

Of course, Joe is really several teams of programmers, several corporate communications departments, groups of people working together to build more effective communication between consumers and vendors. There may be some rough spots left to smooth out but the technology is impressive, even when you are close to the creative process that moves the technology forward.

Science fiction has taught us to develop many powerful and ubiquitous tools. Modern hospitals use vital signs monitoring equipment that designers attribute to their fondness for Star Trek. We use cell phones almost exactly the way Star Trek characters used personal communicators (many years ago I even programmed my first cell phone to dial home whenever I said “Kirk to Enterprise” to it).

Arthur C. Clarke proposed satellites. Jules Verne proposed long undersea voyages on submarines, genetic manipulation of animal species, and trips to the moon. Edgar Rice Burroughs proposed the idea of atmosphere manufacturing factories for his Mars.

We may not have achieved everything that science fiction has proposed but today’s technologies owe a great deal to the flights of fancy that early science fiction writers published. Maybe they envisioned very different means of achieving the same effects. We cannot blame them for failing to see the integrated circuit revolution, Moore’s Law, and Internet flame wars.

But they bequeathed to us an unyielding desire to improve our lives and to keep moving into the future. That review of “A Logic Named Joe” was written in 2002. The writer noted that we still could not use the Internet as a telephone and television. Well, in 2002 a few people had that ability but now millions do.

I use Skype to call Hawke Robinson when we record episodes for Middle-earth Talk Radio episodes. And, of course, people are now watching movies and television shows (even legally) on their computers.

Ask most people when the Internet began and they’ll probably say sometime in the 1980s, or maybe late 1969 when ARPANET began operations with two computers connecting to each other. But the Internet really began when Jules Verne imagined a world using a telegraphic communications network.

Today’s listening platforms may not have been exactly predicted in science fiction, but there are quite a few comparable ideas. We are living in the future. We are living in the world of science fiction. And maybe someone is out there listening, looking for a new way to engage in discussion with everyone.

Hey, maybe one day we’ll all be able to listen to the whole Internet. Does that sound so much like science fiction? Let it inspire you.

SF-Fandom is a fan-run moderated Web discussion community devoted to science fiction, fantasy, history, and mythology. Founded in 2001, SF-Fandom is part of the Xenite.Org Network of science fiction and fantasy Web sites.


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