Archive for February, 2009

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Identity Data: My Brother’s Keeper


There was no particular reason that the anthropologist Robin Dunbar and the technologist Doug Engelbart ever needed to meet. Their work doesn’t need to be connected explicitly. As part of our daily struggle to survive, we constantly try to extend and augment our capabilities. Engelbart made a career of exploring the ways that personal computing could extend human capability. Dunbar established the limit against which augmentation would be applied in the social sphere.

Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number, but a commonly cited approximation is 150.

Dunbar’s number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues such as high school friends with whom a person would want to reacquaint themselves if they met again.

Businesses manage larger numbers of relationships through a management structure and their customer-facing employees. It’s an organizational technique developed by Daniel McCallum. If each employee can have a meaningful relationship with 150 other people, a business builds a management system around that limit. Ratios can get much higher when a business is unconcerned with the quality of the relationships, or the relationships are purely anonymous and transactional.


To increase both the productivity of employees and the quality of the customer relationships— and augmentation of human memory was required. The customer relationship management system is an extension of the salesman’s customer preferences notebook. The salesman kept reminders of what this customer or that liked or disliked. Jotted down some personal information to jog the memory for use at the next sales opportunity. This extension, or augmentation, of human memory results in better quality interactions with very large numbers of people— the required relationship information is ready-to-hand, it can be retrieved with a few keystrokes.

Once a company has become a custodian of a pool of customer identity and relationships, it has obligations to protect that data. There are now laws on the books regarding breaches of client data. Notification is required, and some form of identity fraud protection must generally be offered.

In a NY Times article on the erosion of privacy, The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that:

…online service providers — social networks, search engines, blogs and the like — should voluntarily destroy what they collect, to avoid the kind of legal controversies the baseball players’ union is now facing. The union is being criticized for failing to act during what apparently was a brief window to destroy the 2003 urine samples before the federal prosecutors claimed them. “You don’t want to know that stuff,” she says, speaking of the ordinary blogger collecting data on every commenter. “You don’t want to get a subpoena. For ordinary Web sites it is a cost to collect all this data.”

Since Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘The Tipping Point’ we’ve become more aware of people who act as high volume hubs in social networks, so-called influencers. From a sheer numbers point of view, some of these social hubs are beginning to rival the number of connections a company might have.


As an individual gathers larger and larger pools of personal data on other people through social networks, custodial responsibilities begin to accrue. While some might say the contents of their address book belong solely to them, in the event of a security breach or a subpoena there may be some disagreement. And so now we must ask, are we our brother’s keeper?

Collecting Fragments: Pieces of Beatles, Pieces of Stones


Neil Young, talking to his biographer Jimmy McDonough, divides the musical world into two poles. It’s a way for him to put aside distraction and focus on what he sees as important about the music.

“So I’d taken rock and roll and divided it into two categories. Rolling Stones and Beatles, okay? And I realized that if you divided into those two categories, color makes no difference, what part of the world made no difference. Beatles are on one side, Rolling Stones are on the other side, everybody else line up, okay? Crazy Horse and the Mynah Birds, they were on the Rolling Stones side.
–Buffalo Springfield were the Beatles?

When you get to the “the take? the moment when you know you’ve got the right, not just the best, but the right performance of a composition or a piece of music– it’s either loose like the Stones, or tight like the Beatles. Young puts all popular music into one category or the other. It’s a tool he uses to understand both music and the openings and  possibilities within the process of making music.

But let’s step back from the categories, and look at the moment when things are still unformed and fragmentary. The small pieces that are not yet joined, loosely or otherwise into a categorizable finished piece. The fragments are identified, collected, iterated — put together in different ways, explored forwards and backwards, different styles are layered on until something solid emerges, or it doesn’t. Or perhaps it doesn’t at that moment at time, and it’s stashed away for later.

The perfect take hides the alternate universes that the moment is built upon. Before the world is divided into Neil Young’s two categories– the bits and pieces any artist plays with look very similar. It’s the process taking those pieces and connecting them up, running them through your filters that makes the finished work. Identical raw materials could result in diametrically opposed outcomes.

The shards of glass, the pieces of broken pottery, the phrase, the scraps of paper, the image, the reference– these are all pieces that go into the final product. Sometimes they’re visible and shine through in the end. Sometimes they’re invisible, a starting point left somewhere down the road.

This brings us to the idea of bricolage, we make new things from the things we collect from our environment. We carry with us a mistaken idea of creativity– a divine creating out of nothingness, new things emerging fully formed without history or context. As Wittgenstein might say, if such a thing could happen, we couldn’t understand it.

Bricolage refers to:
▪    the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things which happen to be available;
▪    a work created by such a process.
It is borrowed from the French word bricolage, from the verb bricoler – the core meaning in French being, “fiddle, tinker” and, by extension, “make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are to hand (regardless of their original purpose).”

On the Network there are a lot of ways of collecting and consuming items of information. Twitter, FriendFeed and RSS subscriptions offer a raging stream of roughly filtered items for our consumption. But that’s the old model, the conveyor belt of tasty treats moving endlessly and efficiently toward our collective gaping maws. The restauranteurs of the machine of popular culture want to teach us to eat faster.

I’ve just started integrating a software application called Scrivener into my writing practice. There are a number of  possible writing workflows that can be built with Scrivener– but the one that currently interests me has to do with the structure of the application’s document format. Each document is comprised of two sets of outlines: a research outline and a draft outline. The draft outline is for composing text using an outliner approach, fragments of text can be arranged, rearranged and put into hierarchies. The research outline is for collecting raw material, which can be text, web pages, quicktime files, images, audio– anything that might serve in the writing process. In my system of categories they’re called the raw and the cooked.

These days when we talk about the two-way web, we understand very little about the writing part. We’re obsessed with creating a manageable and consumable stream of information. The latest manifestation of this is the dream of the perfect dashboard with a blinking readout and summary of our online digital existence.

But one might ask, once these digital information items have been consumed and digested– what’s next? Are those selections and collections we’ve made the raw material for building something new, or are they ‘used up’ once they are consumed and partially digested– routed to the sewage treatment plants running continuously in the river of our unconscious minds?

To close the loop, the reading tools have to be connected to the writing tools. To create my research outline in Scrivener, I have to copy and paste the things I find into it. The application isn’t connected to the Network, it doesn’t have an inbox listening for items I might like to route to it. The closest thing we have to this kind of application today is Gmail, an editorial application disguised as an email tool.

I can hear the loud objections already. Not everyone needs to be able to write. Writing should be left to the professionals. And then comes the vigorous pointing to the power law curve showing participation rates in two-way systems. The only point here is if you give everyone access to two guitars, a bass and some drums, something good is bound to come out of it. Music isn’t just for listening. And remember, as music can stand in for  writing, writing can stand for the research you do before a purchase or some other kind of transaction. Doc Searls might call it VRM.

Searching the Map: Searching the Territory


When we say that Google searches the web, we don’t have it quite right. Google, and other search engines, spider the web— bring back an impression of what they find and deposit it into an index. When a search query is submitted, Google checks the map it’s constructed of the Web and provides results based on their snapshot.

This is where we must turn to Alford Korzybski, the father of general semantics. He reminds us to look at the space between the territory and its map.

“A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness”

Search engine optimization is the process of teaching the territory to look more like the map. In this case we have a landscape that wants to flatten itself into the shape of the map. The reasoning is that only by using a map could something be found. After all, you can’t just ask someone walking down the street.

In order to have the best and most accurate search results, one must construct the best map. But the territory is live earth, it changes from this to that, expands, contracts and sometimes parts of it disappear all together. The map must be continually updated, a drawing that’s never finished. Can we ask a question of the snapshot taken 4 months ago? How about ten minutes from now?


And here’s where we must turn to Borges and his thoughts on maps, territory and the exactitude of representation:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

So one might ask, in the real-time web, is there a map worth looking at? Or is it the territory itself that we seek to uncover, locating the swarms of attention that congregate across the digital landscape. Not the representation of the thing, but the thing itself. Perhaps we could just ask someone walking down the street.

In This Real Time Digital Landscape: Can I Get a Witness?


The malleability of the digital is perhaps its essence. Everything in the digital world is constructed from a combination of ones and zeros, and because of that anything can be changed into anything else. The freedom to rearrange those ones and zeros is the basis of our information economy. But as signifiers pointing to actual events in the world, the digital is an unreliable narrator. There’s a sense in which the raw capture of the world through digital sensors is considered the starting point, the beginning a a series of digital transformations.

We’ve seen movie stars from another era reconstructed digitally and made to sell products to which they had no connection. We’ve seen digitally altered photographs released through newswires purporting to give us an eye witness view. What happens when we want digital media to authentically transmit the raw capture of an event? Can we ask the digital to put aside its transformational qualities and stand as an honest witness? The question about how we prove the authenticity of a digital artifact is a difficult one. A witness swears an oath and tells us what she has seen. A man signs a paper with wet ink to attest to the truth of statement he has written.

John Markoff of the NY Times recently reported on a new approach to preserving the authenticity of witness testimony encoded digitally. The process involves creating a cryptographic hash of  timestamped digital material. This signature is unique and any change to the digital material would result in a new signature that would not match the original. It’s a process commonly used to ensure the integrity of a message as it is transmitted from one point to another on the Network.

…a group of researchers at the University of Washington are releasing the initial component of a public system to provide authentication for an archive of video interviews with the prosecutors and other members of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Rwandan genocide. The group will also release the first portion of the Rwandan archive. This system is intended to be available for future use in digitally preserving and authenticating first-hand accounts of war crimes, atrocities and genocide. Such tools are of vital importance because it has become possible to alter digital text, video and audio in ways that are virtually undetectable to the unaided human eye and ear.

In the digital world we have uncertainty surrounding all the elements: personal identity, signing or attesting and the digital document which contains the testimony. And even if we can verify that the digital document has not been altered, we have to apply all the usually filters to the testimony itself. In our courts, we have a bias against “heresay.” Wikipedia’s article shows us what degree of scrutiny we apply to this kind of testimony.

The theory of the rule excluding hearsay is that assertions made by human beings are often unreliable; such statements are often insincere, subject to flaws in memory and perception, or infected with errors in narration at the time they are given. The law therefore finds it necessary to subject this form of evidence to “scrutiny or analysis calculated to discover and expose in detail its possible weaknesses, and thus to enable the tribunal (judge or jury) to estimate it at no more than its actual value?.

Three tests are calculated to expose possible weaknesses in a statement:

  1. Assertions must be taken under oath
  2. Assertions must be made in front of the tribunal (judge or jury)
  3. Assertions must be subject to cross-examination.

Assertions not subject to these three tests are (with some exceptions) prohibited insofar as they are offered testimonially (for the truth of what they assert).

The basis for our scrutiny of witness testimony is that it is a recounting of the past. The memory of an event from a single point of view is not considered highest form of trustworthiness. In that sense our idea of witness and truth rely on the social character of truth, we ask for a corroborating witness or evidence. We ask for the right to cross-examine an assertion, and hear the story from other points of view. It’s through this process that we come to terms with what happened.

In his TED talk from 2006, Peter Gabriel talks about Witness, an organization that seeks to spread the use of digital cameras, blogs, and cellphone cameras around the world. Their battle cry is “See it, Film it, Change it.” By capturing human rights violations on digital video and making that footage available through the Network, we can see what’s happening for ourselves. This kind of communication isn’t conclusive, but rather it is the start of an investigation. Here we must rely on the authority of the person capturing the event and Witness, as an organization, to guarantee its veracity.

This brings us around to the real-time web and its role in this process of “See it, Film it, Change it.” A cellphone camera with the capability to instantly publish an image to the Network changes things substantially. A cellular telephone with live video capability changes things further. A cellular telephone with live video capability, GPS and a verifiable timestamp changes things even more.  A real-time witness has a very different standing; many real-time witnesses bring in the social element of corroboration. While the world may not always be listening, real-time capability changes the political equation.

We’re very early in our understanding of the real-time web. As with any technology, this real-time capability can be used for good or evil. And the technology itself will be the target of repressive political forces. We’re already seeing the Taliban threatening to attack cell phone infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan. A real-time infrastructure changes the conversation from ‘what should have been done in the past, and bemoaning our lack of foresight‘ to ‘what’s happening right now, and how can and should we change it?’

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