May 31st, 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.
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.