Mark Pesce: Evolution by SMS

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 11 May 2005

“LiveRecord is a bare-faced attempt to create another, more powerful form of mobile crack.”

“We’re all experts in the things that give us pleasure. We are compelled by our essential nature as social beings to share these moments. They help make life worth living. And now, in the age of the mobile, those moments are constantly at hand. Better living, through quality. The allure of the quality moments offered up by mobile digital social networks will make SMS seem like a weak opening act. “

Yes, Mark Pesce talks big. Every five years or so, this programmer, philosopher, artist and provocateur emerges with another ground-shaking declaration – and often the software or research to back it up.

In the early 90’s it was VRML, a Virtual Reality Markup Language capable of letting users roam through 3D spaces online. Five years later, in his book The Playful World, he was showing us how the pretend spaces of children portend a new phase of human experience. More recently, his Webearth project has been working to build a live VRML model of Earth as it is at the current moment.

And all along, in talks, workshops and on his personal website, he tipped his hand enough to reveal the spiritual and metaphysical logic informing his vision of our future. Pesce is now in Sydney, teaching Interactive Media at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. And while his mandate may have been to work on the computers and digital filmmaking he knows so well, he was bit by the cellphone bug, and may never be the same.

Just a couple of months ago, I was among the lucky couple of hundred of his friends to receive something of a manifesto from Pesce in my inbox. The You Portal (PDF) amounts to a confession, analysis and prognosis all at once. Yes, he’s late to the wireless scene; yes, it’s still more significant a shift than any of us imagine; and yes, he has a killer app to take it to the next level – an open-source program he calls LiveRecord.

Based on his observation of what held social networks such as Orkut or even together, LiveRecord is basically a way for people to share their “quality tips,” as they happen. Having a good meal, good view or a good time? Share the restaurant, vantage point, or method with your network. Sounds simple enough, but Pesce is convinced this sharing of tips will become the “new mobile crack.”

TheFeature: You said you were a recent convert. What was the moment, exactly, when you felt yourself cross over into the true religion of wireless.

Pesce: My conversion began a month after I arrived in Australia; I’d given a talk to the Screen Producers Association of Australia, and had put my mobile number on the final slide of the presentation. All of a sudden, I found myself receiving SMS text messages from folks who’d been in the room with me.

Then I bought a new, whiz-bang phone…and I fell in love with it. It has about as much power as my desktop computer did back 9 years ago. And it’s programmable in Java, with lots of freely available tools designed to make it easy for anyone with software skills to write code for it. I’ve been programming for a quarter of a century, so it wasn’t much of a learning curve.

That’s when I had my second, and more complete conversion: I realized that this mobile phone was, at least potentially, always connected to the Internet at a fairly reasonable speed. That means I am carrying around a constant connection to the Net, and because I can program the phone, I can make of that connectivity whatever I will.

That’s a huge amount of power in my hand, and I have complete control over it. What could possibly be more seductive than that?

TheFeature: You almost seem to be saying that the LiveRecord messages themselves are less important than the network they create.

Pesce: Human beings naturally create social networks; it’s what we do. Electronic networks accelerate communication speed to light and remove the boundaries of proximity. These two phenomena, now intersecting, are leading to the emergence of some entirely new things – for example, Wikipedia – which couldn’t have been predicted from either tendency alone.

TheFeature: Well, is the network the means or the ends?

Pesce: Both. Networks have an almost “gravitational” quality; the more we use a network, the more indispensable it becomes, and the more we add to it. There was, briefly, a network overbuild in the late 1990s. Within another few years, all that bandwidth will be used up, as we move to the next level of network-centric culture. The increased capabilities we’re getting from social networks (which are almost all ad-hoc, but will rapidly be formalized) will become so essential to human culture that social networks and electronic networks will become nearly inseparable.

TheFeature: Is LiveRecord an application for the data itself, or the social experience?

Pesce: LiveRecord was an experiment in mobile connectivity; it starts with the basic understanding that modern mobiles on modern (2.5G and up) networks are more-or-less constantly connected to the Internet. They’re with you all the time, and they’re always connected. So what can you do? You can get information. Fine. But, more significantly, you can record information. All the time. Anywhere, for any reason.

So what kind of information to record? Information of value only to you is fine, so far as it goes. But far better – given that it’s a network we’re talking about – is to provide a shared pool of data, of experience, in this case, which everyone adds to and reaps the benefit of.

So LiveRecord allows you make note of your “moments of quality”: that is, a great movie, album, book, TV show, or whatever you like. It’s recorded to a database, and everyone can record their quality moments to this database.

TheFeature: Is someone building it out?

Pesce: What happens next is up to you; the code has been released under the GPL.