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The comment thread in my last post was lengthened by Seth Finkelstein‘s characterization of me as “basically a PR person”. I didn’t like that, and a helpful back-and-forth between the two of us (and others) followed. In the midst of the exchange I said I would unpack some of my points in a fresh post rather than branch off in the comment thread. So here we are.

We tend to be defined by what we do. Or, in some cases, what we’ve done. Many of our surnames describe the work of an ancestor. Carpenter. Baker. Weaver. Tanner. Of my own surname, it says here,

In his book, Surnames of the United Kingdom, Harrison writes that the surname Searle, Searls, Searles, Serle, Serles, Serrell, or Serrill is of Teutonic origin signifying “Armour or Arms”. It is derived from the Old Teutonic Serlo, Sarla, Sarl, Sarilo, Serilo. Serli ” and the Old English “Searo”, it is the equivalent of the Old High German “Saro” which is the same as the old Norse ” Sorus” meaning Armor arms, skill or device.”

A soldier, I guess. My father, Allen H. Searls, was a soldier, both before and during WWII (he re-enlisted at age 36). But basically he was a carpenter: a builder. So was his father, George William Searls. Also George’s father, Allen Searls. Also Allen’s father, Samuell Searls. I’m not, but my daugther Colette married Todd Carpenter. So my grandson is a Carpenter too.

By the time I knew him, my father was an insurance agent. But he saw himself more as an builder of useful stuff. Thus our basement was a workshop. Pop’s brother-in-law, Archie Apgar, was a banker by day and a builder the rest of the time. In the summer of 1949, the two of them together built our summer house in the woods of South Jersey. (In a paradise of pine, oak and blueberries, now home to a shopping center.) My father was also a longshoreman, a cable-rigger on the George Washington Bridge, and a builder of railroad trestles. He did that in Alaska, where he met my mother, a social worker who had grown up in North Dakota. They married after the War and moved to New Jersey, where Mom worked for many years as a teacher. Her maiden name was Oman, borrowed by a grandfather from a fellow Swede on the boat over from Malmö (or maybe it was Göteburg… someplace with an umlaut).

Mom was a good writer, and in that respect I took more after her than Pop. I started writing in high school, covered sports for my college paper, and the wrote for a variety of newspapers and  magazines across the many years since.

But I’ve done lots of other stuff too. I was a moving man. I drove an ice cream truck. I worked in frozen produce wholesaling (which consisted of moving skids of goods with forklifts and carrying clipboards in and out of freezing warehouses, railroad cars and tractor trailers). I worked in the fronts and the backs of restaurant kitchens, and waiting tables. I flipped burgers and worked counters in fast food joints. I worked in the kitchen at a hospital, and delivering food to patients. I worked in retail, both in sales and management. I worked as a community organizer in a social welfare project (a job that later gave me respect for Barack Obama’s work at the same job, especially since he was good at it and I was not). I worked in radio, doing everything from selling ads to spinning records to engineering, including maintaining transmitters and tower-climbing to change bulbs. I did site studies for FM stations, and made new facility applications to the FCC. I worked in academic parapsychology, helping with research and editing publications. I worked in a landlord’s sawmill when I couldn’t make the rent. And I worked in advertising and PR. Next to writing, that’s the job I held longest.

In 1978 I co-founded Hodskins Simone & Searls, an advertising agency in Durham, North Carolina. By 1980 we came to specialize in what as then called “high tech”. We did well and opened a second office in Palo Alto, moving there completely in 1986. A couple years later we created a division called The Searls Group, which specialized in PR, and eventually spun off on its own as a marketing consultancy. Our clients included Farallon, Symantec, The Burton Group, pieces of Apple and Motorola, Sun Microsystems, Hitachi Semiconductor, Zenith Data Systems and many more.

I had mixed feelings about doing PR, because I was still a journalist at heart, even though I was only freelancing at it during that time. And, while being a journalist made me a better flack, it didn’t make me less of one. I also found that PR folk had little leverage on corporate strategy. Their function was output, not input. So, after awhile, I moved The Searls Group’s work up the client stack, to the point where we did consulting at the CXO level, helping clients understand and engage their markets, rather than in helping them craft and send messages to those markets. You might say our job was delivering (often unwelcome) clues to the places where those clues were needed most. This shift started in the early ’90s and was done by the time Chirs Locke, Rick Levine, David Weinberger and I wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, in 1999.

Not long after Cluetrain came out as a book in early 2000, Jakob Nielsen noted the use of the first person plural voice in the original Manifesto. When we talked about “we”, as with this here…

not

… we were not speaking as marketers. We were speaking as human beings, out in the marketplace. What happened, Jakob said, was that “You guys defected from marketing, and sided with markets against marketing.”

He was right.

The great irony that followed was that Cluetrain was generally classified as a marketing book, and its closest followers have been in marketing as well. Many marketers have been inspired by Cluetrain to improve marketing, including the practices of advertising and PR. Along those same lines, Cluetrain has also been credited with foreseeing the “social” movement in computing and communications, and with inspiring and guiding that movement as well. Look up Cluetrain+social on Google and see what comes up. (Here’s a Twitter search for the same.)

I’m not proud, or even happy, with either of those developments. Not long ago I even suggested that “social media” is a crock. My point was not to denigrate people doing good work in the social media space, but rather to point out that our collective vision of this space was wrongly limited to what could be done on Facebook, Twitter and other commercial “platforms”. Ignored was the freedom and independence granted by the Net’s own open and essentially ownerless platforms and protocols — and the need to equip individuals with their own instruments of independence and engagement: work that’s still mostly not done.

That’s why I welcomed the opportunity to add fresh chapters to Cluetrain for its 10th anniversary edition. For the last few years I’ve been working on Cluetrain’s unfinished (or unstarted) business, through ProjectVRM, at Harvard’s Berkman Center, and through its collection of allied efforts and volunteers, both around the Center and around the world. Thus my own chapter of the latest Cluetrain is titled Markets Are Relationships, and unpacks the ambitions behind VRM (which stands for Vendor Relationship Management):

  1. Provide tools for individuals to manage relationships with organizations. These tools are personal. That is, they belong to the individual, in the sense that they are under the individual’s control. They can also be social, in the sense that they can connect with others and support group formation and action. But they need to be personal first.
  2. Make individuals the collection centers for their own data, so that transaction histories, health records, membership details, service contracts, and other forms of personal data aren’t scattered throughout a forest of silos.
  3. Give individuals the ability to share data selectively, without disclosing more personal information than the individual allows.
  4. Give individuals the ability to control how their data is used by organizations, and for how long, including agreements requiring organizations to delete the individual’s data when the relationship ends.
  5. Give individuals the ability to assert their own “terms of service,” obviating the need for organization-written terms of service that nobody reads and everybody has to “accept” anyway.
  6. Give individuals means for expressing demand in the open market, outside any organizational silo, without disclosing any unnecessary personal information.
  7. Make individuals platforms for business, by opening the market to many kinds of third party services that serve buyers as well as sellers.
  8. Base relationship-managing tools on open standards, open APIs (application program interfaces) and open code. This will support a rising tide of activity that will lift an infinite variety of business boats, plus other social goods.

We don’t have those tools yet. When we do, they will change the way customers relate to companies, and therefore change the reverse as well. That will change the job of marketing, sales, and pretty much everything else a company does — so long as it responds to customers who are far better equipped to express demand, and otherwise relate, than they are today.

So, to sum up, there is a place where I stand in respect to all the above. That place is alongside customers, in the marketplace. Not alongside sellers, even when I’m consulting those sellers. My consulting hat is not a PR or a marketing one. It’s a customer hat. A user hat. (And, to the extent that I’m hired to help make sense of free and open source development, a geek hat.)

This is why I took offense to being labeled a “PR person.” I have no problem with good PR people. In fact I try to help them out, along with everybody else who’s interested in my input. But what makes me valuable, I believe, is where I stand in respect to customers. I’m on their side. I’m trying to help them out, and markets along with them. Maybe I’ll succeed, and maybe not. But I do believe that, in the long run, we will have VRM tools, and that these tools will make life better for everybody in the marketplace, including vendors.

Meanwhile, there is a temptation not only to confuse the past with the , but the present with the future. We tend to assume that, as John Updike once said (at a time when copiers, answer machines and faxes seemed miraculous), “we live in the age of full convenience”. We don’t. The present is just a draft for the future. Our conveniences are just prototypes.

I’m glad Seth and others (Dave Rogers, where are you?) are out there, calling bullshit on techno-utopians like me. A lot of what Seth and others on that thread had to say was sobering stuff. The flywheels of Old Skool industrial practices, and thinking, have not gone away. They even spin inside “good” companies like Google.

Markets are different now that the Net runs beneath them. There are fewer secrets, and both good ideas and bad can spread with alarming speed. Lately the split between the static and the live web (which most of us call “real-time” and some of us saw coming half a decade and more ago) has become dramatic and confusing. So has the split between fixed and mobile computing and communications. One can get lost through enthusiasm, despair, or both. Hey, the iPhone is a wonderful thing, but — what next? And why? And how?

Markets are no better than we make them. I’m not sure what one should call a person who works on tools to make markets better. But hey, that’s my job.

Guess I’m a builder after all.

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A couple days ago I responded to a posting on an email list. What I wrote struck a few chords, so I thought I’d repeat it here, with just a few edits, and then add a few additional thoughts as well. Here goes.

Reading _____’s references to ancient electrical power science brings to mind my own technical background, most of which is now also antique. Yet that background still informs of my understanding of the world, and my curiosities about What’s Going On Now, and What We Can Do Next. In fact I suspect that it is because I know so much about old technology that I am bullish about framing What We Can Do Next on both solid modern science and maximal liberation from technically obsolete legal and technical frameworks — even though I struggle as hard as the next geek to escape those.

(Autobiographical digression begins here. If you’re not into geeky stuff, skip.)

As a kid growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s I was obsessed with electricity and radio. I studied electronics and RF transmission and reception, was a ham radio operator, and put an inordinate amount of time into studying how antennas worked and electromagnetic waves propagated. From my home in New Jersey’s blue collar suburbs, I would ride my bike down to visit the transmitters of New York AM stations in the stinky tidewaters flanking the Turnpike, Routes 46 and 17, Paterson Plank Road and the Belleville Pike. (Nobody called them “Meadowlands” until many acres of them were paved in the ’70s to support a sports complex by that name.) I loved hanging with the old guys who manned those transmitters, and who were glad to take me out on the gangways to show how readings were made, how phasing worked (sinusoidal synchronization again), how a night transmitter had to address a dummy load before somebody manually switched from day to night power levels and directional arrays. After I learned to drive, my idea of a fun trip was to visit FM and TV transmitters on the tops of buildings and mountains. (Hell, I still do that.) Thus I came to understand skywaves and groundwaves, soil and salt water conductivity, ground systems, directional arrays and the inverse square law, all in the context of practical applications that required no shortage of engineering vernacular and black art.

I also obsessed on the reception end. In spite of living within sight of nearly every New York AM transmitter (WABC’s tower was close that we could hear its audio in our kitchen toaster), I logged more than 800 AM stations on my 40s-vintage Hammarlund HQ-129x receiver, which is still in storage at my sister’s place. That’s about 8 stations per channel. I came to understand how two-hop skywave reflection off the E layer of the ionosphere favored flat land or open water midway between transmission and reception points . This, I figured, is why I got KSL from Salt Lake City so well, but WOAI from San Antonio hardly at all. (Both were “clear channel” stations in the literal sense — nothing else in North America was on their channels at night, when the ionosphere becomes reflective of signals on the AM band.) Midpoint for the latter lay within the topographical corrugations of the southern Apalachians. Many years later I found this theory supported by listening in Hawaii to AM stations from Western North America, on an ordinary car radio. I’m still not sure why I found those skywave signals fading and distorting (from multiple reflections in the very uneven ionosphere) far less than those over land. I am sure, however, that most of this hardly matters at all to current RF and digital communication science. After I moved to North Carolina, I used Sporadic E reflections to log more than 1200 FM stations, mostly from 800 to 1200 miles away, plus nearly every Channel 3 and 6 (locally, 2,4 and 5 were occupied) in that same range. All those TV signals are now off the air. (Low-band VHF TV — channels 2 to 6 — are not used for digital signals in the U.S.) My knowledge of this old stuff is now mostly of nostalgia value; but seeking it has left me with a continuing curiosity about the physical world and our infrastructural additions to it. This is why much of what looks like photography is actually research. For example, this and this. What you’re looking at there are pictures taken in service to geology and archaeology.

(End of autobiographical digression.)

Speaking of which, I am also busy lately studying the history of copyright, royalties and the music business — mostly so ProjectVRM can avoid banging into any of those. This research amounts to legal and regulatory archaeology. Three preliminary findings stand out, and I would like to share them.

First, regulatory capture is real, and nearly impossible to escape. The best you can do is keep it from spreading. Most regulations protect last week from yesterday, and are driven by the last century’s leading industries. Little if any regulatory lawmaking by established industries — especially if they feel their revenue bases threatened, clears room for future development. Rather, it prevents future development, even for the threatened parties who might need it most. Thus the bulk of conversation and debate, even among the most progressive and original participants, takes place within the bounds of still-captive markets. This is why it is nearly impossible to talk about Net-supportive infrastructure development without employing the conceptual scaffolding of telecom and cablecom. We can rationalize this, for example, by saying that demand for telephone and cable (or satellite TV) services is real and persists, but the deeper and more important fact is that it is very difficult for any of us to exit the framing of those businesses and still make sense.

Second, infrastructure is plastic. The term “infrastructure” suggests physicality of the sturdiest kind, but in fact all of it is doomed to alteration, obsolescence and replacement. Some of it (Roman roads, for example) may last for centuries, but most of it is obsolete in a matter of decades, if not sooner. Consider over-the-air (OTA) TV. It is already a fossil. Numbered channels persist as station brands; but today very few of those stations transmit on their branded analog channels, and most of them are viewed over cable or satellite connections anyway. There are no reasons other than legacy regulatory ones to maintain the fiction that TV station locality is a matter of transmitter siting and signal range. Viewing of OTA TV signals is headed fast toward zero. It doesn’t help that digital signals play hard-to-get, and that the gear required for getting it sucks rocks. Nor does it help that cable and satellite providers that have gone out of their way to exclude OTA receiving circuitry from their latest gear, mostly force subscribing to channels that used to be free. As a result ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and PBS are now a premium pay TV package. (For an example of how screwed this is, see here.) Among the biggest fossils are thousands of TV towers, some more than 2000 feet high, maintained to continue reifying the concept of “coverage,” and to legitimize “must carry” rules for cable. After live audio stream playing on mobile devices becomes cheap and easy, watch AM and FM radio transmission fossilize in exactly the same ways. (By the way, if you want to do something green and good for the environment, lobby for taking down some of these towers, which are expensive to maintain and hazards to anything that flies. Start with this list here. Note the “UHF/VHF transmission” column. Nearly all these towers were built for analog transmission and many are already abandoned. This one, for example.)

Third, “infrastructure” is a relatively new term and vaguely understood outside arcane uses within various industries. It drifted from military to everyday use in the 1970s, and is still not a field in itself. Try looking for an authoritative reference book on the general subject of infrastructure. There isn’t one. Yet digital technology requires that we challenge the physical anchoring of infrastructure as a concept. Are bits infrastructural? How about the means for arranging and moving them? The Internet (the most widespread means for moving bits) is defined fundamentally by its suite of protocols, not by the physical media over which data travels, even though there are capacity and performance dependencies on the latter. Again, we are in captured territory here. Only in conceptual jails can we sensibly debate whether something is an “information service” or a “telecommunication service”. And yet most of us who care about the internet and infrasructure do exactly that.

That last one is big. Maybe too big. I’ve written often about how hard it is to frame our understanding of the Net. Now I’m beginning to think we should admit that the Internet itself, as concept, is too limiting, and not much less antique than telecom or “power grid”.

“The Internet” is not a thing. It’s a finger pointing in the direction of a thing that isn’t. It is the name we give to the sense of place we get when we go “on” a mesh of unseen connections to interact with other entitites. Even the term “cloud“, labeling a utility data service, betrays the vagueness of our regard toward The Net.

I’ve been on the phone a lot lately with Erik Cecil, a veteran telecom attorney who has been thinking out loud about how networks are something other than the physical paths we reduce them to. He regards network mostly in its verb form: as what we do with our freedom — to enhance our intelligence, our wealth, our productivity, and the rest of what we do as contributors to civilization. To network we need technologies that enable what we do in maximal ways.  This, he says, requires that we re-think all our public utilities — energy, water, communications, transportation, military/security and law, to name a few — within the context of networking as something we do rather than something we have. (Think also of Jonathan Zittrain’s elevation of generativity as a supportive quality of open technology and standards. As verbs here, network and generate might not be too far apart.)

The social production side of this is well covered in Yochai Benkler‘s The Wealth of Networks, but the full challenge of what Erik talks about is to re-think all infrastructure outside all old boxes, including the one we call The Internet.

As we do that, it is essential that we look to employ the innovative capacities of businesses old and new. This is a hat tip in the general direction of ISPs, and to the concerns often expressed by Richard Bennett and Brett Glass: that new Internet regulation may already be antique and unnecessary, and that small ISPs (a WISP in Brett’s case) should be the best connections of high-minded thinkers like yours truly (and others named above) to the real world where rubber meets road.

There is a bigger picture here. We can’t have only some of us painting it.

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It’s been a long travel day, and we’ve got an hour to go before getting unstuck here in the Denver airport, which is in Nebraska, I think. Got an early flight out of Boston, then failed to get on by standby with two flights so far. But we’re reserved on the third, and due to arrive in Santa Barbara an hour and a quarter before tomorrow.

Anyway, my normally sunny mood, even in the midst of travel woes (one should appreciate the fact that commercial aviation involves sitting in a chair moving 500 miles an hour, seven miles up), was compromised earlier this evening by an unhappy exchange with Enterprise, the rental car company. I wrote about it in Unf*cking car rental, over in the ProjectVRM blog. It concludes constructively:

So I want to take this opportunity to appeal to anybody in a responsible position anywhere in the car rental business to work together with us at on a customer-based solution to this kind of automated lameness. It can’t be done from the inside alone. That’s been tried and proven inadequate for way too long. Leave a message below or write me at dsearls at cyber dot law dot harvard dot edu.

Let’s build The Intention Economy — based on real, existing, money-in-hand intentions of real customers, rather than the broken attention-seeking and customer-screwing system we have now.

There’s the bait. We’ll see if anybody takes it.

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In his comment to my last post about the sale of WQXR to WNYC (and in his own blog post here), Sean Reiser makes an important point:

One of the unique things about the QXR was it’s relationship with the Times. The Times owned QXR before the FCC regulations prohibiting newspapers ownership of a radio station were enacted. Because of this relationship, QXR’s newsroom was located in the NY Times building and news gathering resources were shared. In a precursor to newspaper reporters doing podcasts, Times columnists and arts reporters would often appear on the air doing segments.

It’s true. The Times selling WQXR seems a bit like the New Yorker dropping poetry, or GE (née RCA) closing the Rainbow Room. (Which has already happened… how many times?) To cultured veteran New Yorkers, the Times selling WQXR seems more like a partial lobotomy than a heavy heirloom being thrown off a sinking ship.

For much of the history of both, great newspapers owned great radio stations. The Times had WQXR. The Chicago Tribune had (and still has) WGN (yes, “World’s Greatest Newspaper”). The Washington Post had WTOP. (In fact, the Post got back into the radio game with Washington Post Radio, on WTOP’s legacy 50,000-watt signal at 1500 AM. That lasted from 2006-2008.). Trust me, the list is long.

The problem is, both newspapers and radio stations are suffering. Most newspapers are partially (or, in a few cases — such as this one — totally) lobotomized versions of their former selves. Commercial radio’s golden age passed decades ago. WQXR, its beloved classical format, and its staff, have been on life support for years. Most other cities have lost their legacy commercial classical stations (e.g. WFMR in Milwaukee), or lucked out to various degrees when the call letters and formats were saved by moving to lesser signals, sometimes on the market’s outskirts (e.g. WCRB in Boston). In most of the best cases classical formats were saved by moving to noncommercial channels and becomimg public radio stations. In Los Angeles, KUSC took over for KFAC (grabbing the latter’s record library) and KOGO/K-Mozart. In Raleigh, WCPE took over for WUNC and WDBS. In Washington, WETA took over for WGMS. Not all of these moves were pretty, but all of them kept classical music alive on their cities’ FM bands.

In some cases, however, “saved’ is an understatement. KUSC, for example, has a bigger signal footprint and far more to offer, than KFAC and its commercial successors did. In addition to a first-rate signal in Los Angeles, KUSC is carried on full-size stations in Palm Springs, Thousand Oaks, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo — giving it stong coverage of more population than any other station in Los Angeles, including the city’s substantial AM stations. KUSC also runs HD programs on the same channels, has an excellent live stream on the Web, and is highly involved in Southern California’s cultural life.

I bring that up because the substantial advantages of public radio over commercial radio — especially for classical music — are largely ignored amidst all the hand-wringing (thick with completely wrong assumptions) by those who lament the loss  — or threatened loss — of a cultural landmark such as WQXR. So I thought I’d list some of the advantages of public radio in the classical music game.

  1. No commercials. Sure, public radio has its pitches for funding, but those tend to be during fund drives rather than between every music set.
  2. More room for coverage growth. The rules for signals in the noncommercial end of the band (from 88 to 92) are far more flexible than those in the commercial band. And noncommercial signals in the commercial band (such as WQXR’s new one at 105.9) can much more easily be augmented by translators at the fringes of their coverage areas — and beyond. Commercial stations can only use translators within their coverage areas. Noncommercial stations can stick them anywhere in the whole country. If WNYC wants to be aggressive about it, you might end up hearing WQXR in Maine and Montana. (And you can bet it’ll be on the Public Radio Player, meaning you can get it wherever there’s a cell signal.)
  3. Life in a buyer’s market. Noncommercial radio stations are taking advantage of bargain prices for commercial stations. That’s what KUSC did when it bought what’s now KESC on 99.7FM in San Luis Obispo. It’s what KCLU did when it bought 1340AM in Santa Barbara.
  4. Creative and resourceful engineering. While commercial radio continues to cheap out while advertising revenues slump away, noncommercial radio is pioneering all over the place. They’re doing it with HD Radio, with webcasting (including multiple streams for many stations), with boosters and translators, with RDS — to name just a few. This is why I have no doubt that WNYC will expand WQXR’s reach even if they can’t crank up the power on the Empire State Building transmitter.
  5. Direct Listener Involvement. Commercial radio has had a huge disadvantage for the duration: its customers and its consumers are different populations. As businesses, commercial radio stations are primarily accountable to advertisers, not to listeners. Public radio is directly accoutable to its listeners, because those are also its customers. As public stations make greater use of the Web, and of the growing roster of tools available for listener engagement (including tools on the listeners’ side, such as those we are developing at ProjectVRM), this advantage over commercial radio will only grow. This means WQXR’s listeners have more more opportunity to contribute positively to the station’s growth than they ever had when it was a commercial station. (Or if, like WCRB, it lived on as a lesser commercial station.) So, if you’re a loyal WQXR listener, send a few bucks to WNYC. Tell them thanks for saving the station, and tell them what you’d like them to do with the station as well.

I could add more points (and maybe I will later), but that should suffice for now. I need to crash and then get up early for a quick round trip to northern Vermont this morning. Meanwhile, hope that helps.

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One among any

On the ProjectVRM blog: A Declaration of Customer Independence.

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I’m listening right now to On Point*, where the topic is Pushing E-Health Records. The only case against electronic health records (EHR, aka electronic medical recordsk, or EMR) is risk of compromised privacy. Exposure goes up. The friction involved in grabbing electronic medical records is lower than that involved in grabbing paper ones, especially with the Internet connecting damn near everything.

Here’s the problem with privacy in the Internet Age (which we are now in, with no hope of ever getting out, unless we live the connectionless life): the Net is a big copy machine. It’s amazing how a fact so simple escapes attention until a first-rate metaphorist such as Kevin Kelly comes along to expound on what ought to be obvious:

The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. IT companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. Every bit of data ever produced on any computer is copied somewhere. The digital economy is thus run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free.

Our digital communication network has been engineered so that copies flow with as little friction as possible. Indeed, copies flow so freely we could think of the internet as a super-distribution system, where once a copy is introduced it will continue to flow through the network forever, much like electricity in a superconductive wire. We see evidence of this in real life. Once anything that can be copied is brought into contact with internet, it will be copied, and those copies never leave. Even a dog knows you can’t erase something once it’s flowed on the internet.

We’re not going to fix that. The copying nature of the Net is a feature, not a bug. We can fight some of it with crypto between trusting parties. But until we find ways to make that easy, the exposure is there. And, as long as it is, we’re going to have people who say risk of exposure overrides other concerns, such as the fact that dozens of thousands of people in the U.S. alone die every year of bad health care record keeping and communications — in other words, of bad data.

Still, if we want good medical care, we need EHR. That much is plain. The question is, How?

The answer will not be an information silo, or a set of silos. We have too many of those already. That’s the problem we have now — both on paper and in electronic formats (as I discovered last year in one of my own medical adventures).

The patient needs to be the point of integration for his or her own data, and the point of origination about what gets done with it. Even if the patient’s primary care physician serves as a trusted originator of medical decisions, the patient needs to anchor the vector of his or her own care, for the simple reason that the patient is the one constant as he or she moves through various medical specialties and systems.

The patient needs to be the platform. Not Google, or Microsoft, or your HMO, or the VA, or some kieretsu involving Big Pharma, Big Software Companies and Big Equipment Makers.

This requires classic VRM: tools of independence and engagement. That is, tools that enable the patient to be independent of any health care provider, yet better able to engage any provider.

In other words, while the answer needs to be systematic, it does not need to be A Big System (which I fear both BigCos and BigGovs whish to provide).

The answer needs to come from geeks who know how to eliminate big problems with simple solutions. For example,

  • Consider how the Internet Protocol solved the problem of multiple networks that didn’t get along.
  • Consider how email protocols such as SMTP, POP3 and IMAP solved the problem of multiple email systems that didn’t get along.
  • Consider how the XMPP protocol solves the problem of multiple instant messaging systems that don’t get along.

We need new ways of organizing our own health care data, and communicating that data selectively to trusted health care providers through open and standard protocols (that may or may not already exist… I don’t know).

I wanted to get those thoughts down because there’s a bunch of stuff going on around health care right now (including two conferences in Boston), detailed to some degree in Health Care Relationship Management, over at the ProjectVRM blog.

* On WBUR, a Boston station I pick up here in Santa Barbara over my Public Radio Tuner.

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The Internet Identity Workshop , aka IIW, started as the Identity Gang way back in ’05, and has since grown (thanks more to Kaliya and Phil than to yours truly) to become a fixture event in the calendars of many developers and other folks supportive of development work toward working user-driven identity systems. (These today include…

(That’s somewhat abbreviated from the list here.)

What’s cool about IIW is that we have a large bunch of individuals and outfits working in converging directions, creating and/or mashing up solutions to problems faced by individuals needing to control and assert their identity information in the digital world. For all the activity going on here, the whole field is still brand new, with lots of work left to be done before it’s ready for Prime Time, which has been going on in any case since the commercial Web was born 1.5 decades ago. More importantly, much effort is made by everybody involved not to foreclose progress or lock out other solutions where development vectors converge or cross. it’s the only thing like it I know.

What also rocks is that progress happens at every single IIW, sometimes a great deal of it. The whole thing is about doing. We have participants, not just attendees.

There is, however, urgency. Making sure we get our usual space at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View depends on getting enough registrants today.

Do that here.

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Clueship fishing

Over at the ProjectVRM blog, two posts: Who in CRM 2.0 will help VRM 0.1? and What’s completely screwed about this picture?

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