August 2010

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First, three posts by:

His bottom line in the last of those: “… people are saying the web dumbs us down. This is wrong. The web can dumb us down, but only if we choose to let it.” Much substance leads up to that, including many comments to the first two posts.

In the first post, JP says, “For information to have power, it needs to be held asymmetrically. Preferably very very asymmetrically. Someone who knows something that others do not know can do something potentially useful and profitable with that information.” He adds,

So when people create walled-garden paid apps, others will create unpaid apps that get to the same material. It’s only a matter of time. Because every attempt at building dams and filters on the internet is seen as pollution by the volunteers. It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. No pollutants.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. There’s been a lot of talk about the web and the internet making us dumber.

I think it’s more serious than that. What the web does is reduce the capacity for asymmetry in education. Which in turn undermines the exalted status of the expert.

The web makes experts “dumb”. By reducing the privileged nature of their expertise.

Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. And, over time, the abundance will win. There will always be more people choosing to find ways to undo DRM than people employed in the DRM-implementing sector. Always.

Joe Andrieu responds with Asmmetry by choice.  After giving some examples, Joe adds,

These types of voluntary acceptance of asymmetry in information are the fabric of relationships. We trust people with sensitive information when we believe they will respect our privacy.

I don’t see abundance undoing that. Either the untrustworthy recipient develops a reputation for indescretion and is cut off, or the entire system would have to preclude any privacy at all. In that latter scenario, it would became impossible to share our thoughts and ideas, our dreams and passions, without divulging it to the world. We would stop sharing and shut down those thoughts altogether rather than allow ourselves to become vulnerable to passing strangers and the powers that be. Such a world would of totalitarian omniscience would be unbearable and unsustainable. Human beings need to be able to trust one another.  Friends need to be able to talk to friends without broadcasting to the world. Otherwise, we are just cogs in a vast social order over which we have almost no control.

Asymmetry-by-choice, whether formalized in an NDA, regulated by law, or just understood between close friends, is part of the weft and weave of modern society.

The power of asymmetry-by-choice is the power of relationships. When we can trust someone else with our secrets, we gain. When we can’t, we are limited to just whatever we can do with that information in isolation.

This is a core part of what we are doing with and the . Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) is about helping users get the most out of their relationships with vendors. And those relationships depend on Vendors respecting the directives of their customers, especially around asymmetric information. The Information Sharing Work Group (ISWG) is developing scenarios and legal agreements that enable individuals to share information with service providers on their own terms. The notion of a is predicated on providing privileged information to service providers, dynamically, with full assurance and the backing of the law. The receiving service providers can then provide enhanced, customized services based on the content of that data store… and individuals can rest assured that law abiding service providers will respect the terms they’ve requested.

I think the value of this asymmetry-by-choice is about artificial scarcity, in that it is constructed through voluntary agreement rather than the mechanics/electronics of the situation, but it is also about voluntary relationships, and that is why it is so powerful and essential.

I’ll let both arguments stand for now (and I think if the two of them were talking here right now they’d come to some kind of agreement… maybe they will in comments here or on their own blogs), while I lever both their points toward the issue of privacy, which will continue to heat up as more people become aware of liberties taken with personal information by Web companies, especially those in the advertising business. I hadn’t thought about this in terms of asymmetry before, but maybe it helps.

The Web has always embodied the design asymmetry of . Sites have servers. Visitors have clients (your computing device and its browser). To help keep track of visitors’ relationships, the server gives them . These are small text files that help the server recall logins, passwords, contact history and other helpful information. Cookies have been normative in the extreme since they were first used in the mid-nineties.

Today advertising on the Web is also normative to an extreme that is beginning to feel . In efforts to improve advertising, “beacons” and flash cookies have been added to the HTTP variety, and all are now also used to track users on the Web. The Wall Street Journal has been following this in its series, and you can find out more there. Improvement, in the new advertising business, is now about personalization. “It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai, told the Wall Street Journal. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.”

Talk about asymmetry. You are no longer just a client to a server. You are a target with crosshairs on your wallet.

Trying to make advertising more helpful is a good thing. Within a trusted relationship, it can be a better thing. The problem with all this tracking is that it does not involve trusted relationships. Advertisers and site owners may assume or infer some degree of conscious assent by users. But, as the Journal series makes clear, most of us have no idea how much unwelcome tracking is really going on. (Hell, they didn’t know until they started digging.)

So let’s say we can construct trusted relationships with sellers. By we I mean you and me, as individuals. How about if we have our own terms of engagement with sellers—ones that express our intentions, and not just theirs? What might we say? How about,

  • You will put nothing on my computer or browser other than what we need for our  relationship.
  • Any data you collect in the course of our relationship can be shared with me.
  • You can combine my data with other data and share it outside our relatinship, provided it is not PII (Personally Identifiable Information).
  • If we cease our relationship, you can keep my data but not associate any PII with that data.
  • You will also not follow my behavior or accumulate data about me for the purposes of promotion or advertising unless I opt into that. Nor will your affiliates or partners.

I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not saying any of the points above are either legal or in legal language. But they are the kinds of things we might like to say within a relationship that is symmetrical in nature yet includes the kind of asymmetry-by-choice that Joe talks about: the kind based on real trust and real agreement and not just passive assent.

The idea here isn’t to make buyers more powerful than sellers. It’s to frame up standard mechanisms by which understandings can be established by both parties. Joe mentioned some of the work going on there. I also mention some in Cooperation vs. Coercion, on the . Here’s a long excerpt:

What we need now is for vendors to discover that free customers are more valuable than captive ones. For that we need to equip customers with better ways to enjoy and express their freedom, including ways of engaging that work consistently for many vendors, rather than in as many different ways ways as there are vendors — which is the “system” (that isn’t) we have now.

There are lots of VRM development efforts working on both the customer and vendor sides of this challenge. In this post I want to draw attention to the symbols that represent those two sides, which we call r-buttons, two of which appear above. Yours is the left one. The vendor’s is the right one. They face each other like magnets, and are open on the facing ends.

These are designed to support what calls , which he started talking about back in 2005 or so. I paid some respect to gestures (though I didn’t yet understand what he meant) in The Intention Economy, a piece I wrote for in 2006. (That same title is also the one for book I’m writing for . The subtitle is What happens when customers get real power.) On the sell side, in a browser environment, the vendor puts some RDFa in its HTML that says “We welcome free customers.” That can mean many things, but the most important is this: Free customers bring their own means of engagement. It also means they bring their own terms of engagement.

Being open to free customers doesn’t mean that a vendor has to accept the customer’s terms. It does mean that the vendor doesn’t believe it has to provide all those terms itself, through the currently defaulted contracts of adhesion that most of us click “accept” for, almost daily. We have those because from the dawn of e-commerce sellers have assumed that they alone have full responsibility for relationships with customers. Maybe now that dawn has passed, we can get some daylight on other ways of getting along in a free and open marketplace.

The gesture shown here —

— is the vendor (in this case the public radio station , which I’m just using as an example here) expressing openness to the user, through that RDFa code in its HTML. Without that code, the right-side r-button would be gray. The red color on the left side shows that the user has his or her own code for engagement, ready to go. (I unpack some of this stuff here.)

Putting in that RDFa would be trivial for a CRM system. Or even for a CMS (content management system). Next step: (I have Craig Burton leading me on this… he’s on the phone with me right now…) RESTful APIs for customer data. Check slide 69 here. Also slides 98 and 99. And 122, 124, 133 and 153.

If I’m not mistaken, a little bit of RDFa can populate a pop-down menu on the site’s side that might look like this:

All the lower stuff is typical “here are our social links” jive. The important new one is that item at the top. It’s the new place for “legal” (the symbol is one side of a “scale of justice”) but it doesn’t say “these are our non-negotiable terms of service (or privacy policies, or other contracts of adhesion). Just by appearing there it says “We’re open to what you bring to the table. Click here to see how.” This in turn opens the door to a whole new way for buyers and sellers to relate: one that doesn’t need to start with the buyer (or the user) just “accepting” terms he or she doesn’t bother to read because they give all advantages to the seller and are not negotiable. Instead it is an open door like one in a store. Much can be implicit, casual and free of obligation. No new law is required here. Just new practice. This worked for (which neither offered nor required new copyright law), and it can work for r-commerce (a term I just made up). As with Creative Commons, what happens behind that symbol can be machine, lawyer or human-readable. You don’t have to click on it. If your policy as a buyer is that you don’t want to to be tracked by advertisers, you can specify that, and the site can hear and respond to it. The system is, as Renee Lloyd puts it, the difference between a handcuff and a handshake.

Renee is a lawyer and self-described “shark trainer” who has done much in the community to help us think about agreements in ways that are legal without being complicated. For example, when you walk into a store, you are surrounded by laws of many kinds, yet you have an understanding with that store that you will behave as a proper guest. (And many stores, such as Target, refer by policy to their customers as “guests.”) You don’t have accept “terms of service” that look like this:

You agree we are not liable for annoying interruptions caused by you; or a third party, buildings, hills, network congestion, rye whiskey falling sickness or unexpected acts of God or man, and will save harmless rotary lyrfmstrdl detections of bargas overload prevention, or if Elvis leaves the building, living or dead. Unattended overseas submissions in saved mail hazard functions will be subject to bad weather or sneeze funneling through contractor felch reform blister pack truncation, or for the duration of the remaining unintended contractual subsequent lost or expired obligations, except in the state of Arizona at night. We also save ourselves and close relatives harmless from anything we don’t control; including clear weather and oddball acts of random gods. You also agree we are not liable for missed garments, body parts, electronic communications or musical instruments, even if you have saved them. Nothing we say or mumble here is trustworthy or true, or meant for any purpose other than to sphincter the fears of our legal department, which has no other reason to live. Everything here does not hold if we become lost, damaged or sold to some other company. Whether for reasons of drugs, hormones, gas or mood, we may also terminate or change this agreement with cheerful impunity.

[   ]  Accept.

And for that you get a cookie. Yum.

gives a great talk in which he reduces History of E-Commerce to one slide. It looks like this:

1995: Invention of the Cookie.

The End.

Not content with that, Phil has moved history forward a step by writing KRL, the , which he describes in this post here. The bottom line for our purpose in this post is that you can write your own rules. Terms of engagement are not among them yet, but why not? It’s early. At last Friday, showed how easy it is to program a relationship—or just your side of one—with KRL. What blew my mind was that the show was over and it was past time to leave, on a Friday, and people hung out to see how this was done. (Here’s a gallery of photos from the workshop.)

And those are just some of the efforts going on in the VRM (and soon, we trust, the CRM) community. What we’re trusting (we’re beyond just hoping at this point) is that tools for users wishing to manage relationships with organizations of all kinds (and not just vendors) will continue to find their way into the marketplace. And the result will be voluntary relationships that employ asymmetry by choice—in which the choice is made freely by all the parties involved.

Tags: , , ,

ERP Software Advice has put together an informal but well-thought-out poll on Oracle’s next take-over target. Dig it here. My own off-the-wall bet was on Akamai, which Stephen was kind enough to include in his report. Even if you don’t follow Oracle or the other companies listed, it’s a very interesting exercise (created by Stephen Jannise). And it will be fun to see who is right and why. Because Oracle is a hungry cannibal. It can’t help eating other companies. Somebody’s gonna get chomped. (And somebody after that, and after that.)

Bonus link.

I’ve been so heads-down working on a book, and prepping  for this this week’s workshop, that I haven’t blogged anything in a while. Normally blogging is a steam valve for my work, but tweeting does more of that now. (Which is too bad, because tweets are snow on the water. Or at least it seems that way when I go back looking for what somebody said.) So the blog(s) get neglected.

Anyway, I want to share my affection for two new books that blowing my mind, page after page. One is Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. The other is Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. Both authors worked for years on these books, and it shows in the depth of their scholarship and the polish of their prose.

Both are not merely important, but essential. Kevin’s breaks new ground in all directions one must travel to understand what technology is, and its relationship with human nature and work. Lewis does a complete re-think of “intellectual property,” and in the process re-grounds our understanding in an abundance of history — too much of which has been long (and selectively) forgotten. I can’t find a review of What Technology Wants yet, so I’ll link to what Craig Burton said here a while ago. Common as Air got a huge thumbs-up from Robert Darnton this past Sunday in The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review. Go read it. I’m getting back to work.

Last week I flew back and forth from Boston to Reno by way of Phoenix. Both PHX-RNO legs took me past parts of Nevada I hadn’t had a good look at before. One item stood out: a dry lake that looked, literally, like a town had been built on it and blown up. In fact, this was the case. The lake was Frenchman Lake, on Frechman Flat, a valley in a part of the desert known as the Nevada Test Site. The town was nicknamed “Doom Town,” and it was built to see what would happen to it in an atomic blast. Here’s a video that shows the results.

In fact more than a dozen blasts rocked the Doom Town area, starting with Able, in 1951 — the first at the Test Site.

This shot shows Yucca Lake and Yucca Flat, which has many dozens of subsidence craters where underground blasts have gone off. This Google Maps view shows the same from above. All the blasts look like rows of dimples in the desert. But some are hundreds of feet across. Before reading about underground nuclear testing, I had thought that all the tests were deep enough to avoid surface effects.

This shot looks across the Test Site to Area 51. Amazing place. Some of what they say about it may even be true. By the way, that shot was taken (I just checked) from almost 100 miles away. I used a Canon 5D and a zoom telephoto lens set to 200mm.

I recently realized that the line “Markets are conversations” (familiar as the first thesis in The Cluetrain Manifesto) was born at least partly from my experience as a resident of many forums on Compuserve, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was on Compuserve that I learned the differences between flaming, trolling and plain old heated discussion. While I wasn’t a full-time sysop (discussion leader) I often came off the bench as a back-up, and learned a lot about good sysop practices from forums devoted to the subject.

Perhaps the most cardinal among rules enforced by syops was this one: no personal attacks. (Wikipedia agrees.) Personal attacks were a broad category that included unwelcome characterizations, ad hominem arguments and various forms of passive aggression. Most often, however, they could be flagged by the pronoun you. Written or spoken in the second person singular, you tends to provoke a defensive response, especially if it implies a state of being. When A says to B, “You are wrong,” A is not making a statement about what B has said, but rather about B himself or herself.

Conversations risk going south when one person characterizes the other’s very being as “wrong” — even though the phrase “You’re wrong” could hardly be more common.

This fact came to mind today when I read The Evolution of Society, Madness and Social Media, by Tac Anderson. In it Tac says this:

Anytime I have a visceral reaction to something, I’ve learned that it’s usually because there’s some truth to the statement that threatens my own closely held beliefs. This kind of fear is rooted one of two concerns: a) The truth is misrepresented and misleading or b) the truth is right and that means that I’m wrong (for the record it’s almost always that they’re wrong).

All of which is something of a corollary to a bit of wisdom I often give my 13-year-old son: “Being right is overrated.” We’re here to learn, I tell him. Not just to score points in a game that others aren’t also playing.

The trick in conversation is not just to listen, but to do two things that come hard for people with an unhealthy need for being in a state of rightness. One is to respect the other person as an original source of interesting (if not necessarily correct) things to say. The other is weigh without prejudice the substance of what the other person is saying. Neither, of course, comes easy. Both, however, are helpful.

The case Tac brings up is his own aversion to Nicholas Carr and two items for which Nick is lately best known. One is an Atlantic article titled, Is Google Making Us Stupid? The other is The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a book that enlarges on the article, about which Tac says, “…once you take away his intentionally provocative title and approach, for the most part I think he’s right – about the facts at least.” Tac goes on to say,

The Internet, like every other technological advancement, is changing the way we think, live and work. But where I disagree with Carr, is that the Internet is not making us stupid. Instead I believe the Internet is making most of us smarter. But there is a consequence to this evolution: Not everyone evolves.

Tac adds a number of points that I agree or disagree with to varying degrees. Here is what I would like him, and anybody else who is interested, to think about: What if the Internet does not persist as an environmental condition?

It certainly won’t persist in the forms we know it best right now. Phone and cable companies, by whose graces most of us access the Internet, have self-serving ambitions for the Net that are at variance from the ideals of the Net’s founding protocols. Phone companies, especially mobile ones, want to bring the Net inside their billing systems, with metered charges for data use and national boundaries across which customers pay huge additional fees for “roaming.” Cable companies wish to become “content providers”, as publishing, broadcast and entertainment goods move from paper, airwaves and cable channels to new all-digital forms that display on glowing rectangles of all kinds.

In other words, I wonder if the world in which Tac and others like him (including myself) find themselves adapting so well isn’t doomed to become Business As Usual 2.0. That’s what Jonathan Zittrain warns in his book The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It. As Jonathan sees it, the Internet was designed to be generative. That is, it encourages originality and productivity for everything it runs on and that it supports — not just for the companies and technologies that “carry” it. (By the way, the old sysops forum on Compuserve was run for many years by Jonathan, who later co-founded the Berkman Center.)

I think the Net will get worse before it gets better. But I think we need to consider seriously whether it will get better at all. Recent defeats of the FCC by carriers make clear who holds the cards. (And I’m not saying that the FCC was right. I’ve always felt that “Net Neutrality” was more effective as a red flag for carriers than for helping its proponents’ legislative and regulatory agendas.)

Here’s what I believe, at least for now. The Internet, as the open and generative thing its protocols like to support, is good for humanity, for human evolution, for society and for business. I would like that to be right, but it might be wrong, and I’m open to hearing that.

Meanwhile, I don’t think we’ve had enough time to prove anybody’s case. And evolution will prove more patient than any of us.

Ancestral bonus links here, here and here.

Second Waves

Here’s a theory: others can make better things with Google Wave’s parts than Google made with Wave itself, the death of which Google announced today. Sez that post,

The central parts of the code, as well as the protocols that have driven many of Wave’s innovations, like drag-and-drop and character-by-character live typing, are already available as open source, so customers and partners can continue the innovation we began.

Why just customers and partners? Why not anybody? Why not point to the code repositories and say, “Have at it”?

Indeed, why not.

If the code is good, and useful, and available, it’ll get used. That’s the way to bet, anyway.

It’s bad enough that signage toward Boston Logan’s economy parking lot has never been ideal. It’s a lot worse now that they’ve killed off that lot, changed almost none of the original signage, and opened a new lot that’s actually more convenient, but there’s no way to know that until you give up looking for the old one, which is now a construction site.

There is a sign that says “Economy Lot,” but nothing else that looks like Logan signage. There is a big sign that says “SEE AGENT,” but it’s not clear that the sign is for people parking, since the road also serves a lot of industrial facilities. Blinding construction lights make it hard to tell that a small booth is in fact the agent. There somebody hands you a sheet of paper with instructions for following little temporary signs that just say “P.” The agent also says “It’s across from the gas station.” This would have been good information in the first place.

The lot itself was beyond full this morning (at 4:45am), with drivers inventing parking spaces where there are none marked. If you’re flying from Logan, consider avoiding the whole thing.

This has been a public service announcement from a citizen flyer.

[Later...] On the plane now. It’s delayed. “We have a problem with one of the little computers here…” Normally I’m on United, which is a large, predictable very average airline. This time I’m on US Airways, which changed its name from USAir after they realized that stood for Unfortunately Still Allegheny In Reality. Its slogan should be “That’ll cost ya.” Luggage, changing seats, little bits of food, all extra. Oxygen too, perhaps.

My connection to Reno is one hour after I land in Phoenix. So far we’re a half hour late departing, with no sign that we’re going to leave soon. On a flight this long they can make up some time, but … I dunno. We’ll see.

Switching aircrafts. Arg.

[One flight later...] Got to Phoenix too late. Booked on a later plane. Sitting in a lounge now, working. Could be worse. Next stops: Reno, then a car to Techonomy. Looking forward to it.