Archive for March, 2009

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Your Cookies Have Already Been Sold

hand_in_cookie_jar

If I’m interested in buying a car, soon advertisers will know it. When I surf the web, I’ll see nothing but car ads. As my preferences for car type are revealed in my online behavior, the ads will become more focused, I’ll just see ads for blue hybrids with 4-doors and GPS. As my transactional intentions across a number of threads surface, my advertising environment will mirror the state of my desire. They’ll see me coming a mile away.

Under the rubric of an evolutionary improvement in the targeting of advertising, Stephanie Clifford, of the NY Times, writes about two firms: BlueKai and eXelate that want to buy your cookies— although not from you. As part of their session management and optimization processes, most commercial websites record user interactions with web pages and some of that data is stored in a cookie that serves to identify the behavior of unique users.

xrayglasses

These new firms are setting up an intermediary market for user cookies. They’ll buy the cookies from firms that have set them on your behalf, and then sell them on to other sites that want to sell you things based on the implied intentions contained in your cookie. Your gestures are being sold and you’ve been cut out of the take. Saul Hansell of the NY Times Bit Blog puts some more context around the issue, especially as it’s implemented through the Google/DoubleClick combination. And of course Steve Gillmor conceptualized all this stuff about five years ago.

In order to maintain the common good and a civil society, there’s a rule that says that both scripts and cookies may not operate across domains. But as is often noted, there’s no problem in software engineering that can’t be solved by another level of indirection. While another site may not directly read the cookies I’ve set on behalf of a user, apparently this doesn’t stop me from selling that cookie to a third-party who can then create a market to sell it to the highest bidder.

surveillance2

We assert that the user owns her own data– and presumably this means that the user should benefit from any value derived from that data. This new breed of “service” will sell your data and you’ll never know it happened. The whole thing will be quite painless. There’s nothing to be afraid of. And yes, of course they take your privacy very seriously. That’s why they’ll let you opt out of their service. The usability of their opt-out process, no doubt, is one of their top priorities. Explicit licensing of user data by users, along the lines of creative commons, may ultimately be part of how this story plays out.

Turning this model around, there’s Phil Windley’s new company, Kynetx. In this model, the user has the capability of sharing information with a web site through information cards and possibly other means. Ambient data like a user’s location as implied by an IP address are also fed into the mix. A site, knowing you live in Chicago, might offer you a special discount. In Windley’s model, the user has a much higher degree of control. He discussed his new firm with Jon Udell on an episode of IT Conversations‘ Interviews with Innovators:

Contextual Browsing w/ Phil Windley – Contextual Browsing

The user experience industry has been working hard on developing consistent and simple user interaction experiences within particular web properties. Many companies, financial institutions in particular, with multiple web properties with divergent websites and experiences are endeavoring to merge them into a single visual and interaction design with a common authentication/identity system. There’s ample evidence that next horizon of cross-domain user experience is gaining traction.

A person’s intention to buy a car isn’t limited to a single web domain. Her search will take her through many physical locations (recorded w/ GPS?) and many different online locations.  The capability to address the cross-domain/multi-domain gesture set that expresses a user’s transactional intention is the next frontier of commerce on the Network. The question is: who will be doing the targeting, the customer or the vendor?

It’s a discussion that should happen out in the open. Perhaps the next Internet Identity Workshop in May could provide a forum for a discussion that could include Omar Tawakol of BlueKai, someone from eXelate, Phil Windley and Doc Searls from the VRM point of view. If cookies become valuable, companies will increase their revenue opportunity by putting more and more behavioral information into them. There’s a hand in your cookie jar, the question is, are you going to do anything about it?

Steps To An Ecology of Journalism

darwins_finches

Newspapers and news-gathering are breaking up. The information ecosystem is changing — has already changed — and a migration must occur. The food and water that sustained the journalist is drying up. The climate has undergone a drastic change. If the environment they inhabited had remained largely stable, the kinds of calibrations they’re currently attempting might have been successful. Central to the conditions necessary for a stable ecosystem are flows of sustaining energy across established trophic dynamics. The sustaining energy flow of the newspaper system has been fundamentally disrupted. No amount of calibration will halt the transformation of the verdant forest into a scorching desert.

Central to the ecosystem concept is the idea that living organisms interact with every other element in their local environment. Eugene Odum, a founder of ecology, stated: “Any unit that includes all of the organisms (ie: the “community”) in a given area interacting with the physical environment so that a flow of energy leads to clearly defined trophic structure, biotic diversity, and material cycles (ie: exchange of materials between living and nonliving parts) within the system is an ecosystem.The human ecosystem concept is then grounded in the deconstruction of the human/nature dichotomy and the premise that all species are ecologically integrated with each other, as well as with the abiotic constituents of their biotope.

Following the threads initiated by Richard Dawkins, we’ve come to think of the life of memes independently from human life and society. Memes can be thought of as having a will of their own to both live and replicate. It’s through this lens that the news distribution system is often viewed. In this model, journalists are not the source of news stories (memes), these information units are spontaneously generated from the social activity of the environment and dispurse through the Network. While this perspective is useful for certain kinds of analysis, it’s too constrained of an approach to shed much light on this problem. We need to take a few steps back and find a view that brings the human element back into the picture.

Did journalists create the ecosystem they currently inhabit? Will they create the ecosystem to which they must migrate? No member of an ecosystem creates, or can create, a new ecosystem. But clearly both journalists and what used to be called “newspapers” will need to evolve to survive and prosper as the next ecosystem emerges.

Natural selection will dictate that the skill set of the journalist change to match the media through which stories and information are transmitted. Text, audio and video have previously been divided into separate streams of production based on the available technologies. The digital doesn’t distinguish among these modes. Text, audio and video are all bits traveling through the Network; and the page is no longer just hypertext, but hypermedia. Even the static document is giving way to the dynamic textual environment of wikis, blogs and other modes of version-based publication.

The editorial function has been displaced from its position as a quality control agent prior to publication, and now must find its role as a post-publication filter. The energy required to use traditional editorial filters after the fact is very high, so new methods will need to be found (Track). The walls of the newsroom have become transparent and permeable on their way to disappearing all together. New hierarchies and inter-dependent systems (meshworks) will need to emerge from the digital environment to form a new ecosystem.

The organizations formerly called “newspapers” will need to come to terms with the new digital environment as well. Geography, locality and the publication of syndicated content are no longer differentiating advantages. These things have a different meaning in the current context. Those that are able to, will need to migrate into the real time multimedia news space with distribution through the Network to fixed and mobile endpoints (microportals). Dramatically lower cost structures will allow them to disrupt the cable news networks. Soon the flat screen will come in a number of sizes and will be able to connect to any node broadcasting on the Network from any location. Yes, even the living room and the kitchen table.

And what used to be called the audience, or the readership, has organized itself into social media clouds. What was a one way, one-to-many relationship has become a two-way, many-to-many relationship. The capacity to connect where ever necessary and discriminate between high and low value real time message streams has become a necessary adaptive trait for both individuals and organizations.

We are in the unique position to be able to contemplate and effect the ecosystems within which we reside. And yet the nature of an ecosystem is such that our understanding of it is always partial. In his essay “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,” Gregory Bateson discusses the human dilemma with regard to trying to direct our own ecology:

…We are not outside the ecology for which we plan– we are always inevitably part of it.

Herein lies the charm and the terror of ecology–that the ideas of this science are irreversibly becoming part of our own ecosocial system.

We live then in a world different from that of the mountain lion– he is neither bothered nor blessed by having ideas about ecology. We are.

What are the signs that the new ecosystem is starting to take hold and stabilize? Look to the new systems within the Network environment that transform labor into capital. Apple’s appstore, the Kindle, Google’s adsense and affiliate networks are a few of the early players. This process happens in a number of modes, sometimes it’s quite subtle. Until an economics that supports a sustained transforming energy flow emerges, the news and news-gathering ecosystem will remain in flux.

Preserving Ambiguity

rene-magritte-castle_roots

“Design is preserving ambiguity.” This fragment recently surfaced and won’t leave my current playlist. It was a thought expressed by Larry Leifer in a talk called “Dancing with Ambiguity, Design Thinking in Practice and Theory. ” Today it finally collided with a blog post on StopDesign.com. Douglas Bowman is leaving Google, where he was employed as a visual designer. He summed up his reason thusly: “I won’t miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.”

Our human interactions with the Network swim in a sea of data. Each stroke of a key or click of a mouse leaves a trace somewhere. The business of analyzing these traces to plot the trajectory of our activity streams powers the internet economy. And while past performance is no guarantee of future results, it’s apparently close enough.

dogcow2

This begs the question that was asked of Mr. Bowman. If design and ambiguity are intimately intertwined, can ambiguity be preserved through the sword of data? In this particular skirmish, the answer appears to be no.

panopticon4

Ambiguity is the enemy of economics in the Network’s current equation. The ratio of clarity to ambiguity must always be advancing in favor of clarity. Value is equated with unimpeded visibility, its end goal a kind of panopticon. What then of poor ‘ambiguity?’ — linked in this context to the opposite of value. In the grips of such an economy, why should ambiguity be preserved?

If design has value, then ambiguity must have value. What, then, is the nature of the value of ambiguity? A thing that is ambiguous may have more than one meaning, and may have many meanings. Proponents of logic would have us push ambiguity in the direction of nonsense.

But we can also move in the direction of the dream and poetical thinking. The design object is overdetermined, overflowing with meaning. It connects with the emotions of each individual and the diverse set of circumstances that are linked to those emotions. Imagine a graph linking the design object to the emotions of each person and then the circumstances that provided the ground for those emotions.

Clarity produces value in a restricted economy, in a controlled vocabulary. Ambiguity produces value in a general economy, in a language open to play. Just as with clarity, not all ambiguity is created equally. The poet’s pen, the designer’s pencil, the painter’s brush make the clear mark that overflows with meaning.

Of course these thoughts have been batted back and forth over the tennis net for years upon years. Ambiguity continually undervalued, the underdog, beaten at every turn, it continues to limp along. Although, never fully disposed of, for to get to where you’ve never been, there is no clear road. To see what you’ve never seen requires a different kind of vision.

From T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets:

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

iPhone 3.0: The Steve Jobs Interview

beginnersmind

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

In sorting through the coverage of Apple’s iPhone 3.0 software announcement as it dribbled in through the refreshes and streams of the various tabs on my web browser, I returned to the thought that the iPhone both is, and is not, a telephone. This major upgrade to the operating system had little or no new information about the telephonic capabilities of the device. And the connaisseurs of the mobile telephone often tell me that the iPhone really isn’t a very good telephone. Still, the upgrade to 3.0 brings some significant new possibilities for this device, whatever it might be:

  • Cut, Copy and Paste
  • Push Notification via Apple’s relay cloud
  • Peer-to-Peer wireless connectivity among iPhones
  • Programming interfaces to iPhone Accessories (Medical, etc.)
  • Access to Core Location within Applications
  • Spotlight-style search
  • In application follow-on purchasing

Those who stand by and compare the iPhone’s feature/function set to other mobile phones will complain there’s not much new there. In some form or another, all of these things exist on other phones. Here’s where I have to return to my thought that the iPhone is a phone that isn’t a phone; to the idea that it’s a closed device that is more open to both existing and potential connections than many open devices, that it’s created a vibrant ecosystem with a fully-functioning economy where none existed before. That apples and oranges can be compared, but how fruitfully?

To explore this idea I went back through some interviews given by Steve Jobs and created a mashup. Here’s my imaginary interview with Steve Jobs, where I ask him from a product design perspective what it means to ‘rethink’ the activity of using a telephone; about the importance of software in the integrated design of the post-pc consumer device; and why the iPhone, and not the computer, will be the vehicle of the most radical change in the augmenting of human capabilities through networked computing.

steve-jobs

“There’s a phrase in Buddhism,”Beginner’s mind.” It’s wonderful to have a beginner’s mind.”

***

“I don’t want people to think of this as a computer, I think of it as reinventing the phone.?

***

“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”

“One of our biggest insights [years ago] was that we didn’t want to get into any business where we didn’t own or control the primary technology because you’ll get your head handed to you.”

“We realized that almost all – maybe all – of future consumer electronics, the primary technology was going to be software. And we were pretty good at software. We could do the operating system software. We could write applications on the Mac or even PC, like iTunes. We could write the software in the device, like you might put in an iPod or an iPhone or something. And we could write the back-end software that runs on a cloud, like iTunes.”

“So we could write all these different kinds of software and make it work seamlessly. And you ask yourself, What other companies can do that? It’s a pretty short list. The reason that we were very excited about the phone, beyond that fact that we all hated our phones, was that we didn’t see anyone else who could make that kind of contribution. None of the handset manufacturers really are strong in software.”

***

“Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.”

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have. ”

***

“Look at the design of a lot of consumer products—they’re really complicated surfaces. We tried make something much more holistic and simple. When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there. We believe that customers are smart, and want objects which are well thought through.”

***

“I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. The clearest example was when we were pressured for years to do a PDA, and I realized one day that 90% of the people who use a PDA only take information out of it on the road. They don’t put information into it. Pretty soon cellphones are going to do that, so the PDA market’s going to get reduced to a fraction of its current size, and it won’t really be sustainable. So we decided not to get into it. If we had gotten into it, we wouldn’t have had the resources to do the iPod. We probably wouldn’t have seen it coming.”

***

“Well, Apple has a core set of talents, and those talents are: We do, I think, very good hardware design; we do very good industrial design; and we write very good system and application software. And we’re really good at packaging that all together into a product. We’re the only people left in the computer industry that do that. And we’re really the only people in the consumer-electronics industry that go deep in software in consumer products. So those talents can be used to make personal computers, and they can also be used to make things like iPods. And we’re doing both, and we’ll find out what the future holds.”

***

“I know, it’s not fair. But I think the question is a very simple one, which is how much of the really revolutionary things people are going to do in the next five years are done on the PCs or how much of it is really focused on the post-PC devices. And there’s a real temptation to focus it on the post-PC devices because it’s a clean slate and because they’re more focused devices and because, you know, they don’t have the legacy of these zillions of apps that have to run in zillions of markets.”

“And so I think there’s going to be tremendous revolution, you know, in the experiences of the post-PC devices. Now, the question is how much to do in the PCs. And I think I’m sure Microsoft is–we’re working on some really cool stuff, but some of it has to be tempered a little bit because you do have, you know, these tens of millions, in our case, or hundreds of millions in Bill’s case, users that are familiar with something that, you know, they don’t want a car with six wheels. They like the car with four wheels. They don’t want to drive with a joystick. They like the steering wheel.”

“And so, you know, you have to, as Bill was saying, in some cases, you have to augment what exists there and in some cases, you can replace things. But I think the radical rethinking of things is going to happen in a lot of these post-PC devices.”

***

“There’s a phrase in Buddhism,”Beginner’s mind.” It’s wonderful to have a beginner’s mind.”

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