Archive for October, 2009

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The Context of the Search: Public and Private Identities

The widget is beginning to supercede the hyperlink as a proper response to a search query. You can start to see this with the deals Google and Bing are making, the search engine results page (SERP) can no longer satisfy as just a prioritized page of hyperlinks.

Search returns public social gestures in real time. But clicking a link isn’t necessarily what’s needed in this context, perhaps it’s a ‘like’ or a ‘retweet.’ Maybe it’s a reply. The SERP interface will extend the requisite affordances to enable these gestures.

Search returns videos that are playable inline. Perhaps they can be directed to a playlist which can be shared. Perhaps it finds the news clips and streams that relate to the healthcare debate or the Web conference that’s going on in real time or the public video streams from the protest march. Search returns that quote from a movie and cues the video up to exactly the right spot

Search returns music (Google’s deal with Lala.com) with an option to buy a web-only version or a file download. And, of course, you can listen to it one time for free just to get a sense of whether you really like it or not. Or perhaps it reminds you that you own a copy already and you can play it from your cloud-based record collection. Perhaps you want to add it to a playlist, or see what kind of genius list it generates. Perhaps you want to see who in your directed social graph also has this song in her playlist.

Search finds the debate around the news of the day. The journalism is pulled apart and acted out by the participants in the discussion. The discovery is not separated from the debate.

Search is becoming two-way, social and contextual. It’s not just a connector to a page— it is the connection itself, and it’s exposed through the response to the query. Search is no longer search. It’s a browsing activity, zig-zagging across the Network, it’s berry picking, it’s a bullshit session over a cup coffee, it’s researching and working through a problem, it’s finding out if anything worthwhile is going on right now. It’s not about the efficiency of the link, but the pleasure of the journey and the company we keep. It’s asking a question anonymously, but it’s also shifting modes and filtering the response based on personal identity and social graph. It’s asking in public, but it’s also asking in private.

We sometimes search for context among the things we index. But it’s not things that are semantic, it’s the people. As Wittgenstein notes, the meaning of a word is in its use. And the use of a word is in its social exchange, search begins to search for the real-time moment of exchange– and in that instant search is transformed.

Salome: An Ultra-Dissonant Biblical Spectacle

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Tonight I’ll be attending a performance of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome at the San Francisco Opera. Despite the sacrilegious themes and radical music, I doubt there will be any protests. Somehow, opera –in the United States at least– has the ability to present some of the most radical art in the guise of the most conservative. Alex Ross, in his excellent book The Rest is Noise, recounts the circumstances surrounding the second performance of the opera which Strauss himself conducted on May 16, 1906 in Graz, Austria:

…word had got out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale–an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle, based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not to be mentioned in polite company, a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.

The British degenerate they were referring to was a fellow named Oscar Wilde. The opera is based on his play, written in French, called Salomé. In attendance at that performance were Giacomo Puccini, Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg, the fictional character Adrian Leverhkühn from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and very possibly a 17 year old Adolf Hitler. The performance was one of the defining moments at the dawn of modern 20th century music.

One hundred and three years later, the work still has the power to shock and disturb people. While the dance of the seven veils may get most of the press, the moment where Salome declares her love for the severed head of John the Baptist is complex blend of power, lust, religion and madness. So dust off your tux, opera, as we all know, is a civilized affair.

The Loopiness of Identity

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We’ve perhaps thought of our lives as a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. We’ve thought of our identity as the vessel that traces that path from the starting point to the endpoint. From Descartes we import the idea that our identity can be reduced to single point and be put in opposition to the world. All of an individual’s connections to the world can be snipped, one by one, through the use of radical doubt and skepticism. The doubting, questioning voice is the remainder– by process of elimination, it is human identity. But it is identity without context, without world. It’s nowhere.

This idea continues to play out in the story of the rugged individualist. The person to whom no connection cannot be cut, and no connection is essential. Culture, society and government have no hold on this person, he does as he chooses regardless of the ties that bind. It’s in the film genre of the Western that this story is most completely explored. The man at the edge of society, called on to save society, nonetheless he’s not part of the network of connections that make up society. In John Ford’s The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (as portrayed by John Wayne), his mission complete, doesn’t join the family circle, but instead walks out into the deserted plain alone.

Another formulation was provided by Groucho Marx in a telegram he sent to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills:

“PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER”

In this narrative, our identity is not defined by our difference, but by our capacity for disconnection. However, as we begin to surface in the Network, we find ourselves in a landscape composed entirely of connections. While some connections are private and some public, unconnected nodes are a contradiction in terms. In some sense, we view it as problematic that our identity is splintered across so many containers. We’d like to connect up all the pieces to create some whole that we might call our internet identity. We look at all those things scattered about and say: those are mine, or those are me.

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And here’s where we come to the loopiness of identity. We often talk of internet identity as the assignment, and use, of a unique identifier for individual agency. Some fixed token that can serve to differentiate an individual from all other individuals in a name space. But there’s a different sense of identity emerging in the Network. In any number of different online services we see an image of ourselves beginning to come into focus. Social networks provide an obvious example, but these data images also are forming based on our financial data, our medical records, and our purchase histories. There are traces of us everywhere.

We might use an iPod and a special Nike sneaker to establish and update a data loop that models our exercise activity. Our investment portfolio or 401k models our financial state. Perhaps we use a bathroom scale that sends data to a system that tracks the fluctuations in our weight. Or we collect data on how well we sleep at night and transmit it to a system that puts it into the context of other sleepers. In the public sphere, we might contribute to blogs, microblogs and comment systems. The identity we take part in creating unfolds over time, it’s a feedback loop that grows and deepens.

This is where identity and digital product begin to merge. This idea occurred to me while listening to a recording of Adam Bosworth talk about his new health maintenance company Keas. More and more companies are seeking customers who will participate in the creation of an identity loop. As someone who as spent a fair amount of time trying to interest employees in participating in their 401ks, I understand that some loops are very attractive and others are like eating your vegetables. And while this looks like an evolution of the idea of  CRM, perhaps a system where customers also have an account; it might well take the form of VRM or Purpose-Centric web browsing. The core requirement is that data has to come from both sides of the glass with a sense of joint ownership of the loop.

And that’s where we loop back to the identity of the rugged individual. This kind of “connecting” behavior seems to run counter to cultural patterns. Rather than seeking to deepen loops of engagement, we tend to define our identity by what we can disconnect ourselves from (privacy). And the loops we’re most familiar with are the neurotic ones — addiction, compulsion, binging and purging. As our material digital identities begin to emerge in the Network around us, it will be interesting to see whether we will establish ecosystems and engage them in healthy feedback loops, or whether we will reverse course entirely and outlaw them as an invasion of privacy and as inconsistent with our cultural mores.

Stigmergy: Writing is a Real-Time Gesture

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My notebook is filling up with musings on the real-time web. I keep trying to boil things down to the simplest formulation, the simplest expression of why the Network is moving into a real-time mode. It’s more difficult than one would imagine to create a palatable reduction. While we can apply Occam’s razor at a certain level, so much flavor is lost when the particular is replaced with the abstraction.

Occam’s razor states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory. The principle is often expressed in Latin as the lex parsimoniae (translating to the law of parsimony, law of economy or law of succinctness). When competing hypotheses are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selection of the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question.

When the web was an exercise in reading, there was no need for real-time. The professional infrastructure of writing and publishing didn’t require much change in the move from offline to online. There was a bright line between professionally produced writing and the amateur personal home page. The pace of publication was a function of the competition between professional writing organizations. The reading of professionally produced writing has always been a distributed affair. A scarce number of writers produce writing for the abundant population of readers. Economics and value ensue from these kinds of ratios.

Search engines are largely based on the traditional economic model of the production of writing. What is returned for a search query should not only be what you’re looking for, but should be authoritative on the subject. Historically we’ve associated the kind of writing product emitted from the professional writing and publishing infrastructure as the most authoritative. While there’s not an explicit provenance, there is an implicit one based on the gesture of the citation link.

As originally conceived, the world wide web was a read-write environment. But clearly the two gestures did not occupy equivalent environments. Reading required a computer, web browser and a connection; writing required so much more. This difference in friction determined the early patterns of development for the Network. To some extent it also deferred the disruption of the established writing and publishing infrastructure.

Writing existed on the Network, but it was contained in the backwaters of the UseNet, Mailing List and the BBS. Real-time writing was limited to instant messenger, internet relay chat and the UNIX talk application. Isolated networks like the Plato System provided a highly sophisticated read-write environment that modeled many of the challenges that today’s Network is confronting.

Reducing the friction in writing to the Network, and here I’m referring to the world wide web, really began with the advent of widely available blogging software. This movement was accelerated by Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, FriendFeed and others. Twitter, in particular, lowered the level of friction to almost zero. This is why a person can now write about what they had for lunch and publish it to the Network. Each of these services is a read-write social environment with public and private publication/broadcast modes. On the level of public gestures, they provide the same level of connectivity as any other public node on the Network.

So let’s loop back to the real-time web. It’s simply the gesture of writing, of making a mark on the Network, that has necessitated the move to real time. But here when we speak of writing, it is a different writing. We don’t refer to the industrially produced writing product created for mass consumption. Instead we refer to making a mark, a gesture, in a dynamic networked environment. The rather clumsy word Stigmergy has been used to draw a circle around some of these ideas.

Stigmergy is a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, apparently intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even awareness of each other.

It is derived from the Greek words stigma (mark, sign) and ergon (work, action), and captures the notion that an agent’s actions leave signs in the environment, signs that it and other agents sense and that determine and incite their subsequent actions

It’s the gesture that necessitates the real-time web. Through public gestures, we make marks in the environment that others can sense and to which they can respond. The latency in the Network needs to be low enough for a flow to occur. The time of the real-time web is a technical speed that enables this flow of marks, traces, actions, gestures to dynamically connect to other marks, traces, actions and gestures in an ongoing loop and become visible to a micro-community that defines the larger emergent social objects.

Writing, in this sense of the word, is no longer about something. It is the thing itself.

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