Archive for October, 2009

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Shadows & Light: Privacy in the Panopticon


Before the turn of the millennium, Scott McNealy declared privacy dead:

The chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems said Monday that consumer privacy issues are a “red herring.”

“You have zero privacy anyway,” Scott McNealy told a group of reporters and analysts Monday night at an event to launch his company’s new Jini technology.

“Get over it.”

McNealy’s comments came only hours after competitor Intel (INTC) reversed course under pressure and disabled identification features in its forthcoming Pentium III chip.

At one time, privacy was a function of a general laziness and the unlinked quality of information. While there may have been lots of publicly available information about a person, it was rather difficult to track down and assemble. We’ve developed a whole mythology around the kind of person who can root out the details about a person and put the pieces together into a picture that makes some kind of sense.


There was a kind of power in the invisibility we once had. Oddly, it was a kind of anonymity that was derived from the density of the urban environment. The city was a place you could go to get lost, to start over, to create a new identity. That’s why it took a detective to find the traces and clues that filled out the picture of a person. Today, that kind of invisibility has mostly vanished. If I want to know something about Sergey Brin, I can use any number of services that will scour the Network looking of publicly available information, and then I can pay for information that’s more obscure or privately held. Shoe leather is no longer a requirement.

Just as there’s a kind of ‘security through obscurity,’ there was a kind of privacy through obscurity. The methods by which information about a person used to be stored were enshrouded in shadow, even darkness. One piece of information wasn’t linked to the next. The trail was obscured, you had to stumble through the darkness to get from one piece of information to the next. Now information is linked into a web– it’s created, searched, and collated. In the UK, surveillance cameras are used to create a visual real-time mesh of video that can track you through your day. You are being recorded, it’s just a question of whether anyone is currently looking at the data or not.

…under a law enacted in 2000 to regulate surveillance powers, it is legal for localities to follow residents secretly. Local governments regularly use these surveillance powers — which they “self-authorize,? without oversight from judges or law enforcement officers — to investigate malfeasance like illegally dumping industrial waste, loan-sharking and falsely claiming welfare benefits.

The private moment, that little space between this and that, the in-between time when no one is looking— this invisible space is growing smaller and smaller, the more connected we become. Privacy through obscurity is no longer a dependable strategy. The things that were hidden in plain sight, are now easily found.

There is some data that remains private. Our medical records and financial records are two examples of personal data that is actively encrypted and kept private. Generally a court order is required to pry open these vaults of information. In some sense, that’s the new definition of privacy. It’s data that can be accessed by the individual, the data custodian, and, by court order, the government. In addition, should this data inadvertently leak out from the data custodian, the individual has a well-established legal recourse against the custodian.

In order for the private to remain truly secret, it would need to be unconnected. As the connections between us are made visible by our electronically networked environment, we begin to see that we have always inhabited networks of one kind or another. To be unconnected to all networks is to no longer be among the living. The private is something that we are prohibited from sharing based on a social or legal contract. Viewed as a system, the private requires more energy to maintain its contracts regarding the non-sharing of information. Linking private personal data among private systems of record while still honoring the non-sharing contract takes even more energy. The network itself doesn’t distinguish between private and public information packets.

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

And just as we can deduce the nature of hidden facts based on the dog who didn’t bark in the night, the private can often be deduced by correlating public gestures/connections to and through the locus of personal identity. But privacy isn’t dead, it’s just as it always was– an agreement among a group of people to enact useful boundaries on the sharing of information.

The Page and the Item: The Dynamics of Context and Collection


In thinking about building things on the web, I stopped to consider the raw materials from which we build. HTML markup retrieved from a web server and rendered by a browser, that’s where it all started. But even at that early moment, there was the implied structure of the document. The markup that existed was there to render visible the form of the academic paper. Headings, paragraphs, quotations, tabular data display– these are the formal elements of the document.

And very early on, the metaphor of the page gained purchase. We nodded our heads and spoke of the ‘web page.’ The static web page and the static book page have similar kinds of boundaries. The web page could theoretically be infinitely long, but the usability experts indicated that users didn’t scroll much beyond the length of a book’s page. And just like that, an infinity was tamed. The edge of the world was discovered.

As the content on a web page became dynamic, infinity migrated to the combinations and permutations a database could produce. As long as the data continued to grow and change, the items presented in a particular page could be of an infinite variety. The boundaries to the north, south, east and west remained consistent with the book’s page, but the objects emerging from the depths of the backend could be practically without end.

The document and the page have been structurally ingrained into the architecture of content management systems such that the smallest building block becomes a page linked to a hierarchical document tree. The elements that can be placed into a page are those for which the system has templates. And while most systems allow the manual writing and insertion of raw HTML, it’s a practice that is discouraged because it ruins the uniformity of the CMS’s output. The content management system is an industrial machine for creating hierarchically organized sets of pages.

The other major organizational structure on the web is time-sequenced content. To some extent, news media takes this approach to organization, new material is published each day to replace the material from the previous day. What’s lacking in the model is the continuity of sequence. Yesterday’s news is fish wrap, rather than the next step in a sequence. Blog posts and Tweets (micromessages) have the form of a sequenced set of texts by an author or group of authors. In this sense they are more like the output of a columnist or the writer of serial fiction. Blog posts can also be assigned categories and tags so that they can be sequenced across other conceptual frames. Tweets don’t have the extra infrastructure to house categories and tags, so the practice of adding a hashtag has been bolted on. More elegant solutions like the original track feature have failed to resurface.

Rather than referring to time-sequenced pages, here we more commonly talk about items in a feed. We’re interested in the source of the feed in order to gauge its authority, along with it’s velocity and trajectory. And unlike a hierarchical organization of pages, the items in a time-sequenced feed need have no semantic relationship to each other. The items are such that they can be organized in an arbitrary large variety of collections either within a particular feed or among a diverse set of feeds.


The page and the item converge at the URL (Uniform Resource Locator). Because of our page-centric view of the web, here we’d like to say this is the point where the item becomes a page. And yet, the web becomes much more interesting if we resist this temptation. The item has no native context, the page wants to own its context. The item allows the user to create a collection, a playlist, a feed that suits her own needs, wants and desires. The page needs to reinforce the hierarchy of which it is a part. The key to the dynamic context of the item is that it both has a URL and can contain a URL, and it doesn’t have a single right context.

Information architecture has largely concerned itself with pages and hierarchies, and the economics of the web have centered around the page-view model. As the item begins to emerge as a basic building block, it will be very interesting to see what kind of economics and architectural patterns arise. The containers, the playlists, where we assemble items will command an interesting new role in the assignment of context. And in this landscape, the item and the context are always already social, two-way and dynamic.

Real-Time Collaboration, Serious Play and the Enterprise


With the advent of Windows 7 and the upgrades to the MS Office franchise, the talk is that there’ll be a big round of corporate upgrades. Many corporations are still running Windows XP, Internet Explorer 6.x and Office 2003 (or lower). Vista didn’t tempt them, but the good press for Windows 7 is supposed to do the trick. After all, they have to upgrade at some point, right?

If corporate America takes the plunge, one has to wonder if this will be the last upgrade cycle of this kind. The distribution and installation of software on to desktop and laptop computers is a messy business. Businesses require a very compelling reason to upgrade given the current model.

Google has put forward the model of the browser as operating system by working backwards from the Chrome browser to the Chrome OS. The integration of the Office Suite into the hardware starts in the cloud and moves to the local machine. When Microsoft tried a similar move in the other direction, the government stepped in.

Both Google and Microsoft have developed cloud-based Office Suite offerings moving from opposite directions. Looking down the road a bit, we can see that the next upgrade cycle will be “software + services” for Microsoft, and “services + software” for Google. The obvious motivation will be cloud-based software’s cost savings over the current model of distribution, installation, compatibility, upgrade and service of software installed on a local system. The sheer cost and pain of a firm-wide software upgrade is so frightening that most corporations defer it as long as possible. It’s entirely possible that some firms will skip the last installation and jump directly to the cloud.

Collaboration within the enterprise takes place via email, attached documents and shared network drives. The productivity software footprint defines the boundaries of the modes of collaboration. The big real-time innovation was the introduction of mobile push email via the Blackberry. This innovation reduced latency in the work process by detaching email from the desktop and allowing it to accompany a person wherever she might go. The introduction of Sharepoint and network-stored group editable documents is slowly seeping into the work process. But most corporate workers don’t know how to collaborate outside of the existing models of Microsoft’s Office products. Generally, this just an acceleration of the switch from production of hard copies to soft copies (typewriters to word processors). When confronted with Sharepoint, they view it as a new front-end to shared network drives, a different kind of filing cabinet.

Meanwhile in the so-called consumer space, Facebook, Twitter and a host of real-time social media services have radically reduced the latency of group communication and collaboration. In addition to text– photos, audio and video have begun to play an important role in this collaboration stream. For the most part the corporate computing environment has been left behind. This is due to two factors, the desire to maintain a certain kind of command and control of information construction and distribution within the walls of the corporation; and the desire of IT departments to avoid risk by maintaining a legacy architecture. The real-time productivity of the Blackberry has been working its way down from the top of organizations; but the tool set remains the word processor, powerpoint and excel. The only accelerant in the mix is faster mobile email of soft copies of documents.

Ray Ozzie discusses the “3 screens and a cloud” model as the pattern for the development of human-computer interactions across both the consumer and enterprise computing spaces. The missing element from this model is the input device, screens are no longer simply an interface for reading. Bits are moving in both directions, and email is being de-centered as the primary message carrier.

As we look at innovations like Yammer and Google Wave, the question becomes how will the corporate worker learn how to collaborate in real time? Accelerating network-stored documents and their transmittal via email moves the current model to near maximum efficiency. Further productivity gains will need to expand and change the model. Generally these kinds of innovations enter through the back door, or through a skunk works project, within small autonomous teams. But at some point, the bottom up innovation needs top down acceptance and support.

Luke Hohman of Enthiosys works with the concept of serious games in the management and development of software products. The collaboration processes he describes in his presentation to BayCHI may be the foundation for real-time collaboration throughout the enterprise.

The lessons that we can take from Twitter and Facebook are that the leap to real-time collaboration is not one that requires a 4-year college degree and specialized training. It’s not an elite mode of interaction that needs to work its way down from the executive leadership team. It’s an increasingly ordinary mode of interaction that simply needs to be unleashed within the enterprise. But for that to happen, the enterprise will need to learn how to incorporate self-organizing activity. (Oh, and let employees use the video camera and microphone built in to their hardware) This will be a difficult move because the very foundation of the corporation itself is the creation and optimization of managed hierarchical organizational structures. It’s only when the activity of serious play can be reconciled with return on investment that the enterprise will come to terms with real-time collaboration.

Curation, Collections & Cabinets of Curiosity


As we tread water in the flood of information being written into the Network through real-time interfaces, we see the word ‘curation‘ on the lips the VCs and the entrepreneurial classes. The problem was succinctly stated by Clay Shirky as: not one of information overload, but rather of filter failure. The filter of the moment is some form of curation. The firehose of information will be reduced to a rational and manageable collection through a semantic algorithm or a collaborative group filter. The search for the perfect curatorial tool is on– we want the thing that turns our infinite reading list into a prioritized, relevant, manageable collection of consumables.

butterfly collection

Collections can take a number of forms. For instance, varieties of butterflies can be put into a frame. Here we don’t look for a rational taxonomy, instead we desire beauty, rarity and narrative in each member of the collection.


Collections can be healthy or neurotic, the Collyer brothers obsessively collected the ordinary detritus of our culture and stacked it in their house. In the end, they accumulated 130 tons of stuff.


The cabinet of curiosity was an encyclopedic collection of items on the boundary of scientific classification systems. The criteria for inclusion included the rarity, the utterly foreign, and especially the example that broke the rules of classification.


Joseph Cornell made an art form of creating collections that embodied contradiction and the irrational. Where scientists worked diligently in creating a rational taxonomy of the natural world, Cornell created an organized presentation of the unconscious.


That filtering tool that we’re searching for seems to produce a rational collection of items based on relevance and similarity. A firehose of items is categorized and prioritized, similar items are reduced to their exemplars, placed on a tray, and made ready for consumption as a collection of hors d’oeuvrers. The items in a cabinet of curiosity, as they are not easily categorized, would probably slip through the cracks of these collections.

The most common filtering tool is popularity. The best tools of this kind attempt to find popularity before it is too popular. Malcolm Gladwell exposed this pattern of meme acceleration through taste-making nodes of a social network. The tools currently available in online social networks, the retweet and the like are the most common accelerants. Discovery of early signs of velocity is the bread and butter of the news business. Once something is truly popular, we become like Yogi Berra, and quip that “nobody goes there anymore, because it’s too crowded.” In the financial world, this might be called selling on valuation. A stock that reaches its potential and now lacks upside, is sold in favor of a new stock showing signs of velocity to the upside.

Sometimes what you want to locate isn’t what’s the most popular, but rather the edge of the debate. The point where the categories break down and the subject of the discussion hasn’t been decided one way or the other. The purpose here isn’t to read what other people disagree about, it’s to be given an interface into the fray itself. Here we aren’t looking for content about some topic, instead we’re looking for a bi-directional connection to the organic thing itself.

The topology of the Network can be expressed in a variety of lexicons. Popularity follows a focused reading model. But as we begin to think of a real-time, read/write, two-way interface on to the Network, we look for a map of argument, the swarm of attention around an undecided direction, the political discourse of everyday life.

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