Archive for May, 2010

Human Factors: Zero, One, Infinity

Software is often designed with three “numbers” in mind: zero, one and infinity. In this case, infinity tends to mean that a value can be any number. There’s no reason to put random or artificial limits on what a number might be. This idea that any number might do is at the bottom of what some people call information overload. For instance, we can very easily build a User Managed Access (UMA) system with infinite reach and granularity. Facebook, while trying to respond to a broad set of use cases, produced an access control / authorization system that answered these use cases with a complex control panel. Facebook users largely ignored it, choosing instead to wait until something smaller and more usable came along.

Allow none of foo, one of foo, or any number of foo.

Privacy is another way of saying access control or authorization. We tend to think about privacy as personal information that is unconnected, kept in a vault that we control. When information escapes across these boundaries without our knowledge, we call this a data breach. This model of thinking is suitable for secrets that are physically encoded on paper or the surface of some other physical object. Drama is injected into this model when a message is converted to a secret code and transmitted. The other dramatic model is played out in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, where a secret is committed to human memory.

Personal information encoded in electronic communications systems on the Network is always already outside of your personal control. This idea of vaults and breaching boundaries is a metaphor imported from a alien landscape. When we talk about privacy in the context of the Network, it’s more a matter of knowing who or what has access to your personal information; who or what can authorize access to your personal information; and how this leg is connected to the rest of the Network. Of course, one need only Google oneself, or take advantage of any of the numerous identity search engines to see how much of the cat is already out of the bag.

The question arises, how much control do we want over our electronic personal information residing on the Network? Each day we throw off streams of data as we watch cable television, buy things with credit cards, use our discount cards at the grocery, transfer money from one account to another, use Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare. The appliances in our homes have unique electrical energy-use signatures that can be recorded as we turn on the blender, the toaster or the lights in the hallway.

In some sense, we might be attempting to recreate a Total Information Awareness (TIA) system that correlates all data that can be linked to our identity. Can you imagine managing the access controls for all these streams of data? It would be rather like having to consciously manage all the biological systems of our body. A single person probably couldn’t manage the task, we’d need to bring on a staff to take care of all the millions of details.

Total Information Awareness would be achieved by creating enormous computer databases to gather and store the personal information of everyone in the United States, including personal e-mails, social network analysis, credit card records, phone calls, medical records, and numerous other sources, without any requirement for a search warrant. This information would then be analyzed to look for suspicious activities, connections between individuals, and “threats”. Additionally, the program included funding for biometric surveillance technologies that could identify and track individuals using surveillance cameras, and other methods.

Here we need to begin thinking about human numbers, rather than abstract numbers. When we talk about human factors in a human-computer interaction, generally we’re wondering how flexible humans might be in adapting to the requirements of a computer system. The reason for this is that humans are more flexible and adapt much more quickly than computers. Tracing the adaptation of computers to humans shows that computers haven’t really made much progress.

Think about how humans process the visual information entering our system through our eyes. We ignore a very high percentage of it. We have to or we would be completely unable to focus on the tasks of survival. When you think about the things we can truly focus our attention on at any one time, they’re fewer than the fingers on one hand. We don’t want total consciousness of the ocean of data in which we swim. Much like the Total Information Awareness system, we really only care about threats and opportunities. And the reality, as Jeff Jonas notes, is that while we can record and store boundless amounts of data— we have very little ability to make sense of it.

Man continues to chase the notion that systems should be capable of digesting daunting volumes of data and making sufficient sense of this data such that novel, specific, and accurate insight can be derived without direct human involvement.  While there are many major breakthroughs in computation and storage, advances in sensemaking systems have not enjoyed the same significant gains.

When we admire simplicity in design, we enjoy finding a set of interactions with a human scale. We see an elegant proportion between the conscious and the unconscious elements of a system. The unconscious aspects of the system only surface at the right moment, in the right context. A newly surfaced aspect displaces another item to keep the size of focus roughly the same. Jeff Jonas advocates designing systems that engage in perpetual analytics, always observing the context to understand what’s changed, the unconscious cloud is always changing to reflect the possibilities of the conscious context.

We’re starting to see the beginnings of this model emerge in location-aware devices like the iPhone and iPad. Mobile computing applications are constantly asking about location context in order to find relevant information streams. Generally, an app provides a focused context in which to orchestrate unconscious clouds of data. It’s this balance between the conscious and the unconscious that will define the new era of applications. We’ll be drawn to applications and platforms, that are built with human dimensions— that mimic, in their structure, the way the human mind works.

Our lives are filled with infinities, but we can only live them because they are hidden.

The Nature Of The Good And The Neutrality Of The ‘Check-In’ Gesture

“Just checking in.” It’s such a neutral phrase. It doesn’t imply any engagement or transaction— the connection has been opened and tested, but no activity is required or expected. From a Unix command line, the ping serves a similar function. The social geo-location services have brought the “check in” into common parlance on the Network. The FourSquare check in can be a neutral communication— no message attached, merely a statement that I’m at such-and-such a location.

The neutrality of the “check in” gesture began to interest me as I started thinking about the explicit gesture of giving a star rating to a restaurant. While I was recently visiting New York City, I decided to try and make use of the Siri and FourSquare apps on my iPhone. I could be observed sitting on a park bench saying ‘good pizza place near here’ into my iPhone and eagerly waiting for Siri to populate a list of restaurant options. I also checked in using FourSquare from several locations around Manhattan. When Siri returned its list of ‘good pizza places’ near me, it used the services of partner web sites that let users rate restaurants and other businesses on a one to five star system. When I asked for good pizza places that translated into the restaurants with the most stars.

The interesting thing about user ratings of businesses by way of the Network is that it’s completely unnecessary for the user to actually visit, or be a customer of, the business. The rating can be entirely fictional. Unless you personally know the reviewer and the context in which the review is proffered— a good, bad or ugly review may be the result of some alternate agenda. There’s no way to determine the authenticity of an unknown, or anonymous, reviewer. Systems like eBay have tried to solve this problem using reputation systems. Newspapers have tried to solve this problem by hiring food critics who have earned the respect of the restaurant ecosystem.

So, while Siri did end up recommending a good Italian restaurant, the Chinese restaurant it recommended was below par. Both restaurants had the same star ratings and number of positive reviews. This got me thinking about the securitization of the networked social gesture. Once a gesture has even a vaguely defined monetary value there’s a motivation to game the system. If more stars equals a higher ranking on Siri’s good pizza place list, then how can a business get more stars? What’s the cost?

I ran across a tweet that summed up the dilemma of wanting a list of ‘good pizza places’ rather than simply ‘pizza places.’ I use FriendFeed as a Twitter client, and while watching the real-time stream I saw an interesting item float by. Tara Hunt retweeted a micro-message from Deanna Zandt referring to a presentation by Randy Farmer at the Web 2.0 conference on Building Web Reputation systems. Deanna’s message read: “If you show ppl their karma, they abuse it.” When reputation is assigned a tradable value, it will be traded. In this case, ‘abuse’ means traded in an unintended market.

Another example of this dilemma cropped up in a story Clay Shirky told at the Gov 2.0 summit about a day care center. The day care center had a problem with parents who arrived late to pick up their children. Wanting to nip the problem in the bud, they instituted a fine for late pick up. What had been a social contract around respecting the value of another person’s time was transformed into a new service with a set price tag. “Late pick up” became a new feature of the day care center, and those parents who could afford it welcomed the flexibility it offered them. Late pick ups tripled, the new feature was selling like hot cakes. Assigning a dollar value to the bad behavior of late pick ups changed the context from one of mutual respect to a payment for service. Interestingly, even when the fines were eliminated, the higher rate of bad behavior continued.

Now let’s tie this back to the neutral gesture of the check in. While in some respect the reporting of geolocation coordinates is a mere statement of fact— there’s also the fact that you’ve chosen to go to the place from which you’ve checked in. There’s a sense in which a neutral check in from a restaurant is a better indicator of its quality than a star rating accompanied by explicit user reviews. If a person in my geo-social network checks in from a restaurant every two weeks, or so, I’d have to assume that they liked the restaurant. The fact that they chose to go there more than once is a valuable piece of information to me. However when game mechanics are assigned to the neutral check in gesture, a separate economics is overlaid. If the game play, rather than the food, provides the motivation for selecting a restaurant, then the signal has been diluted by another agenda.

By binding the check in to the place via the geolocation technology of the device, a dependable, authentic piece of information is produced. Social purchase publishing services, like Blippy, take this to the next level. Members of this network agree to publish a audit trail of their actual purchases. By linking their credit card transaction report in real time to a publishing tool, followers know what a person is actually deciding to purchase. A pattern of purchases would indicate some positive level of satisfaction with a product or service.

The pattern revealed in these examples is that the speech of the agent cannot be trusted. So instead we look to the evidence of the transactions initiated by the agent, and we examine the chain of custody across the wire. A check in, a credit card purchase— these are the authentic raw data from which an algorithm amalgamates some probability of the good. We try to structure the interaction data such that it has the form of a falsifiable proposition. The degree to which a statement of quality can be expressed as an on or off bit defines a machine’s ability to compute with it. A statement that is overdetermined, radiating multiple meanings across multiple contexts doesn’t compute well and results in ambiguous output. The pizza place seems to occupy multiple locations simultaneously across the spectrum of good to bad.

Can speech be rehabilitated as a review gesture? I had a short conversation with Randy Farmer at the recent Internet Identity Workshop (IIW 10) about what he calls the “to: field” in networked communications. The basic idea is that all speech should be directed to some individual or group. A review transmitted to a particular social group acquires the context of the social relations within the group. Outside of that context its value is ambiguous while purporting to be clear. Farmer combines restricted social networks and falsifiable propositions in his post ‘The Cake is a Lie” to get closer to an authentic review gesture and therefore a more trustworthy reputation for a social object.

Moving through this thought experiment one can see the attempt to reduce human behavior and social relations to falsifiable, and therefore computable, statements. Just as a highly complex digital world has been built up out of ones and zeros, the search for a similar fundamental element of The Good is unfolding in laboratories, research centers and start ups across the globe. Capturing the authentic review gesture in a bottle is the new alchemy of the Network.

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?
Nick Lowe

As I walk through
This wicked world
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity.

I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?

And each time I feel like this inside,
There’s one thing I wanna know:
What’s so funny about peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What’s so funny about peace love & understanding?

And as I walked on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

Cause each time I feel it slipping away, just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding?

So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

Cause each time I feel it slippin away, just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What’s so funny bout peace love & understanding?

Surface Tension: Touching codes

I’m generally not enthusiastic about photography in museums. Walking through New York’s Metropolitan Museum last week, I could have easily passed by a show of contemporary photography called ‘Surface Tension.’ I found something about the title intriguing and decided to walk through the exhibit. While there were a number of pieces that merited further exploration, it was Ann Hamilton’s piece ‘abc‘ that stuck with me. At the dawn of a new era of multi-touch interactive personal computing, there’s something about Hamilton’s video image that has a haunting resonance. It’s a kind of visual poetry, even visual thinking, that connects on so many levels.