Did you know that a beagle’s nose has 300 million receptor sites? Humans, in contrast, have about six million. And that changes everything in a dog’s perception of the world. It also explains why they sniff and snort as much as they do and have such a preoccupation with other dogs’ pee.
When Marshall Kirkpatrick called me today to discuss his upcoming ReadWrite Real-Time Web Summit and report, I used some of these tidbits to help explain the changes I see coming with the emergence of the real-time web.
Specifically, in the document-centric era of the web, humans largely adapted their behavior to fit the speed of the network, and chunked their thoughts into discreet, long-lived static blog posts and documents. But, as we’re seeing, Gutenberg’s reach into the web can only extend so far: the mores of physical media shall eventually give way to the seeping tendencies of data in the networked age.
If the speed of thinking — and the shape of our thoughts — have previously been confined to 93.5 square inches (the area of an eight and half by eleven sheet of paper), then our perception of reality must adjust to the scale of the web — to draw a comparison, as though we expanded our olfactory centers from 6 to 300 million.
Consider one consequence of “the mechanics of the canine snout”:
People have to exhale before we can inhale new air. Dogs do not. They breath in, then their nostrils quiver and pull the air deeper into the nose as well as out through side slits. Specialized photography reveals that the breeze generated by dog exhalation helps to pull more new scent in. In this way, dogs not only hold more scent in at once than we can, but also continuously refresh what they smell, without interruption, the way humans can keep “shifting their gaze to get another look.”
Imagine that we were able to interpret information at the scale and rapidity that dogs parse scent. That’s where we need to go.
To put this into perspective, consider how long it takes you to read one page of text; three minutes? Five? If we had the equivalent of a dog’s sense of smell for our ability to consume information, we’d be able to consume FIFTY pages of information in the same amount of time that it takes us to currently consume ONE. (For shits and giggles, if you printed the Internet, it would take up around 700 square miles of US letter-sized pages).
The dog’s nose, therefore, is perfectly adapted to consume vast quantities of information by scent. In order to cope with the real-time era of the web, we must imagine a similar augmentation of our own knowledge processing abilities if we’re to cope with the deluge.
In the real-time era, information is no longer restricted to an arbitrary number of words that fit on a page — let alone the kind of structures that were given to such proportions. Now, it is our capacity to consume and process information efficiently and effectively that limits us — partly explaining why we’re struggling to cope with all these “distractions”. Our brains are just doing what they were designed to do: process an intermittent flow of incomplete information and make rough cost-benefit calculations of possible decisions, while mitigating risk.
Lest we be overcome with information, we crave resolution and action. The crisis of the real-time web is how we confront an unending stream of undifferentiated information that all seems equally important and immediate, paralyzing us. In these cases, failing our own intrinsic resources, we look to surrogates (parents or other authority figures — celebrities suffice) to help us discard irrelevant information and get to the good stuff. We look to their reassurance to help us make a decision.
And this is why filters — natural, artificial, or social — will be so important in the real-time web.
As advanced as we think we are, our animal brains are just not adapted for this kind of environment. And we’re going to need help — as well as new thinking.
To reinforce this point, let’s return to our canine friends.
Contrary to what “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan claims, dogs are not pack animals — at least not in the way that wolves are. Schine writes:
[...] Countering the currently fashionable alpha dog “pack theories” of dog training, Horowitz notes that “in the wild, wolf packs consist almost entirely of related or mated animals. They are families, not groups of peers vying for the top spot. . . . Behaviors seen as ‘dominant’ or ‘submissive’ are used not in a scramble for power; they are used to maintain social unity.”
The idea that a dog owner must become the dominant member by using jerks or harsh words or other kinds of punishment, she writes, “is farther from what we know of the reality of wolf packs and closer to the timeworn fiction of the animal kingdom with humans at the pinnacle, exerting dominion over the rest. Wolves seem to learn from each other not by punishing each other but by observing each other.”
So just as we must shake such ingrained, patriarchic theories in animal biology, we must also reconsider the models we have for thinking about, understand, and relate to information in the flow of activity streams.
Dogs are able to consume vast quantities of information by scent — and that means that their perception of reality is fundamentally different from ours. Will we ever know what it’s like to smell a rose with 50 times more receptors? No, probably not — nor is it clear that we’ll be able to augment our native cognitive abilities to consume information 50 times faster than we do today. And yet the real-time web relentlessly marches forth, promising a massive shift in both our access and ability to cope with such huge amounts of data.
Presuming that we keep the brains we have, this has huge ramifications for interaction and user experience design. We cannot simply apply document-based interfaces to this new, more rapid and fluid space. Instead, we need to take inspiration from the field of game design (Halo would suck if it operated at anything less than real-time); we need to think about how social search fits in and can augment our ability to filter information and make better decisions; we need to consider how one can effectively project intentions onto the web to receive better, faster, automatic service, as Doc Searls’ Project VRM proposes; we need to take advantage of the always-on human network, as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Q & A service Aardvark do; and we should embrace the natural and native speed that comes with a more conversational and people-centric web.
If this review got me to realize anything, it’s that we should be careful about applying familiar and comfortable rubrics to the nature of information flows on the real-time web. Our brains are powerful and incredibly plastic, but the quantities of information available on the real-time web may bring us to the limit of our current cognitive abilities. Our challenge as designers, developers, and innovators, is therefore either to modify the environment around us, or build new tools and methods that make will us 50 times more capable of confronting this emerging reality.