If you could ask the world's richest man, one of its most prominent philanthropists, a question about the interaction between technology and mythology, what would you want to know? Microsoft chairman Bill Gates got such a question after his keynote speech to a conference of 1700 people from 90 countries who have received the company's Most Valuable Professional award for their contributions to various user communities for Microsoft products. (I have been an MVP since 1994.) This question from one of my MVP colleagues sure made my day:
If we take a long view of society, over 100,000 years, we see that tools fairly quickly transition from a utilitarian artifact into some form of social insignia. The war club becomes the king's mace, for example. Now, if we look at the information products out there, you're wondering how will the Microsoft products of the future become useful social insignias to identify groups, clans and members of the species. I'm wondering if you're addressing that question.
The evolution of computer-mediated insignia doesn't seem that farfetched at all, and indeed Gates had an answer. He said that Microsoft is studying how what he called "reputational marks" contribute to the growth of a "trust hierarchy," especially within a social network. As an example, he cited the importance of Xbox achievement records to that game system's community.
Microsoft Research also has been investigating such things as how to make online avatars more realistic by directing their eyes' gaze, how to make sharing mechanisms more manageable by understanding how people abstract others into different trust levels, and how to visualize the "experts" and "hot topics" in an online community and how they change over time.
In hero myths, a key moment comes when the hero chooses to accept the help of an ally, often an animal or a supernatural being. Knowing who to trust also is the key to successful online social networking and perhaps is the crucial question behind all spam filtering software as well.