Archive for November, 2010

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Opening A New Interaction Surface: Microsoft and Kinect

It’s an unexpected moment for Microsoft. What was formerly called Project Natal, and is now called Kinect, has opened a new interaction surface to the Network. I’m trying to think of another example of Microsoft introducing and providing stewardship for an interaction model with this kind of uptake. Generally Mr. Softy has been a follower, an embracer and extender of pre-established modes.

You can tell that Kinect has connected because it’s immediately overflowed its use cases and taken up residence in a whole series of unanticipated projects. It’s an interaction surface that has corporate competitors starting up their copy machines and trying to find the best position as a fast follower. Somehow it’s hard to imagine Microsoft actually getting something out of their labs and on to the street for around $200.00. I suppose it could be the harbinger of a pipeline finally unclogged. At least that’s the marketing spin I’d put on it.

After an initial misstep, Microsoft seems to have embraced the so-called “hacking kinect” movement. What they seemed to think was new kind of game controller turns out to be a general purpose interaction modality with use cases all up and down the Network. It’ll be interesting to see how Microsoft handles the stewardship of this new device. Running a race from the lead position is an entirely different kind of game.

The Echoing Green

Thanksgiving day calls for a little poetry. Here’s one from William Blake’s “The Songs of Innocence”:

William Blake : The Echoing Green

The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the spring.
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the echoing green.

Old John with white hair
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth-time were seen
On the echoing green.’

Till the little ones weary
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mother
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest;
And sport no more seen
On the darkening green.

Allen Ginsberg set Blake’s poem to music, and I often hear Ginsberg’s voice as I sit reading silently.

The Makropulos Case and the Religion of Engineers

We look at time in an abstract way and see it stretching out to the horizon, leaping off the edge of the world and galloping on without limit into the wilds of the universe. In a sense, we view the infinity of time as a limitless extension of a space. A line the continues beyond the boundaries of human sight. The analog watch puts time on a leash and walks it around a dial on our wrist.

One of the many thoughts that flooded through my mind while watching San Francisco Opera‘s production of Leos Janacek‘s The Makropulos Case had to do with the religion of the engineers. This idea of the singularity, of shedding this mortal coil in favor of an electronic/digital instantiation of whatever it is we call our lives. The advantage, at least from an engineering perspective, is that, in silicon, we live forever. Or at least that’s the idea in so-called transhumanist circles.

The original story of Janacek’s opera was written by Karel Capek, who is probably better known as the author of the play R.U.R.— a story that featured and coined the term, robot. The engineering version of paradise and eternal life takes the form of inhabiting the robot, where all that was irreplaceable in our mortality can be put on a charge card at the hardware store. Worn parts easily replaced or upgraded.

Janacek’s The Makropulos Case takes a look at what immortality does to the morality of its anti-heroine, Elina Makropulos. Perpetual youth leaves her nothing but apathy and disconnection from the people around her. She’s lived many lifetimes and seen all the people around her grow old and die. The pain and suffering of others has ceased to matter, she’s seen it all before. In the San Francisco Opera production, soprano Karita Matilla, offers a stunningly dramatic performance showing the weight and weariness brought on by eternal youth. The opera, written in 1926, provides a very modern look into the dark side of living an endless series of lifetimes. We often look at the misbehavior of the Greek gods, and wonder how the immortals can be so foolish. Janacek and Capek show us that eternal youth changes the basic equation of human life. All human values are revalued on a payment plan that stretches out to infinity. Something essential is lost in the translation. We’re left with an entity that is too big to fail.

Shadows in the Crevices of CRM and VRM

Two sides of an equation, or perhaps mirror images. Narcissus bent over the glimmering pool of water trying to catch a glimpse. CRM and VRM attempt hyperrealist representations of humanity. There’s a reduced set of data about a person that describes their propensity to transact in a certain way. The vendor keeps this record in their own private, secure space; constantly sifting through the corpus of data looking for patterns that might change the probabilities. The vendor expends a measured amount of energy nudging the humans represented by each data record toward a configuration of traits that tumble over into a transaction.

Reading Zadie Smith‘s ruminations on the filmThe Social Network” in the New York Review, I was particularly interested in the section where she begins to weave the thoughts of Jaron Lanier into the picture:

Lanier is interested in the ways in which people ‘reduce themselves’ in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. ‘Information systems,’ he writes, ‘need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality (Zadie’s italics).’ In Lanier’s view, there is no perfect computer analogue for what we call a ‘person.’ In life, we all profess to know this, but when we get online it becomes easy to forget.

Doc Searls’s Vendor Relationship Management project is to some extent a reaction to the phenomena and dominance of Customer Relationship Management. We look at the picture of ourselves coming out of the CRM process and find it unrecognizable. That’s not me, I don’t look like that. The vendor has a secured, private data picture of you with probabilities assigned to the possibility that you’ll become or remain a customer. The vendor’s data picture also outputs a list of nudges that can be deployed against you to move you over into the normalized happy customer data picture.

VRM attempts to reclaim the data picture and house it in the customer’s own private, secure data space. When the desire for a transaction emerges in the customer, she can choose to share some minimal amount of personal data with the vendors who might bid on her services. The result is a rational and efficient collaboration on a transaction.

The rational argument says that the nudges used by vendors, in the form of advertising, are off target. They’re out of context, they miss the mark. They think they know something about me, but constantly make inappropriate offers. This new rational approach does away with the inefficiency of advertising and limits the communication surrounding the transaction to willing partners and consenting adults.

But negotiating the terms of the transaction has always been a rational process. The exchange of capital for goods has been finely honed through the years in the marketplaces of the world. Advertising has both a rational and an irrational component. An exceptional advertisement produces the desire to own a product because of the image, dream or story it draws you into. Irrational desires may outnumber rational desires as a motive for commercial transactions. In the VRM model, you’ve already sold yourself based on some rational criteria you’ve set forth. The vendor, through its advertising, wants in to the conversation taking place before the decision is made, perhaps even before you know whether a desire is present.

This irrational element that draws desire from the shadows of the unconscious is difficult to encode in a customer database profile. We attempt to capture this with demographics, psychographics and behavior tracking. Correlating other personal/public data streams, geographic data in particular,  with private vendor data pictures is the new method generating a groundswell of excitement. As Jeff Jonas puts it, the more pieces of the picture you have the less compute time it’ll take to create a legible image. Social CRM is another way of talking about this, Facebook becomes an extension of the vendor’s CRM record.

So, when we want to reclaim the data picture of ourselves from the CRM machines and move them from the vendor’s part of the cloud to our personal cloud data store, what is it that we have? Do the little shards of data (both present and represented through indirection) that we’ve collected, and release to the chosen few, really represent us any better? Don’t we simply become the CRM vendor who doesn’t understand how to properly represent ourselves. Are we mirror images, VRM and CRM, building representations out of the same materials? And what would it mean if we were actually able to ‘hit the mark?’

Once again here’s Zadie Smith, with an assist from Jaron Lanier:

For most users over 35, Facebook represents only their email accounts turned outward to face the world. A simple tool, not an avatar. We are not embedded in this software in the same way. 1.0 people still instinctively believe, as Lanier has it, that ‘what makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.’ But what if 2.0 people feel their socially networked selves genuinely represent them to completion?

I sense in VRM a desire to get right what is missing from CRM. There’s an idea that by combining the two systems in collaboration, the picture will be completed. We boldly use the Pareto Principle to bridge the gap to completion, 80% becomes 100%; and close to zero becomes zero. We spin up a world without shadows, complete and self contained.

From T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
and the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

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