Archive for March, 2011

A Sudden Reversal Of Flow On The Network

Goodman described the moment where Cooper and Gupta, embedded in the disaster zone of Japan, looked into the camera with an expression that said “what are we supposed to be doing?” Cooper is well known for showing up with cameras into scenes of chaos and disaster. It was a brief moment of silence on the cable network, the kind of silence that professional broadcasters are trained to never let happen.

Cooper is used to imposing his will on scenes of disaster. He turns the chaos into stories for the folks back home. Japan was different, it isn’t a third-world country, and it’s perfectly capable of telling its own story. Japan is the third largest economy in the world—this was more like looking directly in the mirror. Cooper had traveled halfway across the world to find that he was unable to establish a distance between himself and the scenes unfolding around him.

As usual, in a crisis, Cooper sits at the focal point of a vast array of real-time feeds. Reporters, invited experts, other news feeds, along with everything else on the Network is at his disposal. Historically, Cooper has had the best view of what’s going on right now. In Japan, he seemed behind the curve, he didn’t know where to focus or how to tell a story about what had happened. Cooper never seemed to find a vantage point high enough to create a narrative that scooped up the whole story.

What used to be called the audience also sits at the focal point of an array of real-time sources. “Viewers” can tell when Cooper is just thrashing around, muddying the waters rather than providing a clear view. Udell, listening to reports about radiation levels, was confused about the scale of the problem. He was able to ask Wolfram Alpha to translate the units discussed into the broadcast into a something that he could use to make a reasonable assessment of the situation. Cooper’s blankness caused the audience to start surfing the Network, building a picture from a variety of other sources.

It seemed like he’d done this a thousand times before, but here Cooper was confronted by the fact that this wasn’t a single event that could be isolated and characterized. An earthquake linked to a tsunami linked to a nuclear power plant disaster–and then more earthquakes. The mesh of events in Japan were not only linked to each other, but linked to things all over the world. The events raced through the network of the earth’s fault lines, through the wave forms and currents of the ocean, through the network of systems producing electric power, through the manufacturing systems with just-in-time global supply chains, through the global capital markets, through the network of luxury goods producers and retailers. Cooper was embedded in the middle of the wreckage of the tsunami monitoring the events at the nuclear power plant, but he could have been reporting from anywhere. The events were without a bounded human sense of locality, they were global and simultaneous.

It was in Cooper’s thrashing, that for a brief moment, the peer-to-peer nature of the broadcast was brought into view. His overall contribution to the real-time picture of unfolding events was substantially less than other nodes on the Network. And in the moment that Goodman describes, Cooper’s productive output of information approached zero, he stared, became blurry, unfocused—”What are we supposed to be doing?” Foreground and background exchanged places, the flow of information suddenly reversed direction. And in that moment of silence, the background surged forward and washed over the news anchors, and flowed out of screens all over the world. Another tsunami.

Delusions of Reference: They’re Not Talking To You

It was the most plausible explanation for the banal content of many of the tweets flowing through the real-time stream. As Clay Shirky explained, in his book Here Comes Everybody, it’s simple, they’re not talking to you.

And it’s easy to deride this sort of thing as self-absorbed publishing—why would anyone put out such drivel in public. It’s simple. They’re not talking to you.

The confusion comes from the mash-up of personal communication systems and broadcast systems. It’s like mixing up the radio and the telephone. In this new hybrid medium, person-to-person, or person-to-group, messages are generally broadcast, but specifically targeted. While you can hear them if you eavesdrop, they’re not talking to you. Lacking the context, relationship and history, the 140 character revelation about what someone had for lunch appears to be pure drivel. But why should I care? You shouldn’t, they’re not talking to you. You’re just within earshot.

Shirky’s explanation seemed to make the world safe for drivel, even un-targeted drivel is an act of production rather than one of passive consumption. Saying anything at all appears to be better than consuming mass quantities in silence.

In the mash up of radio and telephone, each has taken qualities and capabilities from the other. So while we may now safely disregard random comments about lunch, we still have a creeping feeling that maybe they are talking to us. At least someone, or something, seems to know an awful lot about us. And they say they’ve put together a special message just for us.

Avitel Ronell, writes in The Telephone Book, about technology, schizophrenia and electric speech — The telephone rings and creates a debt of obligation. The sound of the bell has a sense of urgency, it asks you to get up out of your chair and pick up the receiver. Now broadcast systems seem to ring: it’s for you…

…And yet, you’re saying yes, almost automatically, suddenly, sometimes irreversibly. Your picking it up means the call has come through. It means more: you’re its beneficiary, rising to meet its demand, to pay a debt. You don’t know who’s calling or what you are going to called upon to do, and still, you are lending your ear, giving something up, receiving an order. It is a question of answerability. Who answers the call of the telephone, the call of duty, and accounts for the taxes it appears to impose?

In the new radio-telephone combined medium, the Network is placing a call to you. Is that what that ringing sound is? Is that why we feel an obligation to process the overwhelming torrent of the real-time stream? The meme of floods of information engendering paralysis and unhappiness is at its zenith. Your voice mail is full and the phone keeps ringing. All the lines in the system are ringing, impatiently waiting for you to meet your obligation.

Walking down the candy aisle in a chain drugstore, the selection is immense. Are all the candy bars placing personal calls to me? What do my augmented reality goggles say? What about the people in my follow cloud, can they provide a reference for any of these candy bars? Let me check my personal data locker, have I tried and liked any of these treats before? Do I qualify for any discounts if I check in and register my location? Candy bar selection is just a matter of having the proper filters in place for the real-time stream of information that encloses the world.

In the real-time, always-on Network, there’s a simple test we can take to see if we’re operating normally and optimally in the new environment.

1. Have you ever heard voices or other sounds when no one is around?

2. Have you ever heard voices commenting on what you are thinking or doing?

3. Have you heard two or more voices talking with each other?

4. Has anyone been watching or monitoring you?

5. Have you seen things in the media that seem to refer to you or contain a special message for you?

6. Have you ever felt your thoughts were broadcast so other people could hear them?

7. Have you ever felt thoughts were being put into your head by some outside force?

You might recognize some of these test questions. They’re from the Scale For The Assessment of Positive Symptoms. The scale is designed to assess positive symptoms, principally in schizophrenia. Prior to the advent of the real-time multi-touch ubi-comp Network, positive responses to these questions may have been considered a sign of illness. Now they’re common user experiences for those operating within social network hubs.

In fact, as Jeffery Sconce notes, we may soon be given thorazine if we believe that the world isn’t broadcasting special messages just for us. What was once called a delusion of reference is the new normal.

We walk around with an entourage and the world organizes itself to flatter our egos. We are celebrities of the Network, everyone and everything wants just a moment of our time. They’ve given our thoughts and desires special attention and have a special offer to give us at just the right moment. Because, you know, it’s not advertising if its the right offer at the right time. It’s simply the fulfillment of a desire. And if it’s a desire you didn’t know you had, so much the better. The Network knows what you want before you do. Just because celebrity is now a commodity doesn’t mean that you’re any less special.

One way to manage the vast expanse of this new personalized Network is to apply Sturgeon’s law. The law simply observes that 90% of everything is crap. Even a filter that randomly deleted 90% this new wave of information would probably improve its overall quality. Since we publish everything and edit later, perhaps we’ll just hang up on nine out of ten callers and see what happens. If it’s important, I’m sure they’ll call back.

Of course we could just flip the model on its head, rather than accepting any incoming calls, I could only place outgoing calls to the things that match up with my true desires. Of course, this assumes that I am the author of my own desires, and that I know what I want.

Slavoj Žižek, in an analysis of Donald Rumsfeld, comes up with the crucial observation here:

In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know-which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say.

The name space of the Network seems to put everything on equal footing. Everything has a unique identifier, a phone number you can call. Everything is illuminated, everything is a known known. But in fact, the reason we can’t simply place calls to satisfy our true desires is because our desires are not perfectly illuminated. We are filled with unknown knowns. How do we place a call to fill an unconscious desire? Once we’ve checked everything off our list, how is it that there’s still a longing for something more?

We exercise a form of blindness as we categorize the Id as just another special interest group in the long tail of the Network—another keyword, another search term. While Google’s SafeSearch plays the role of the Super Ego, cordoning off the Id from children and polite company, the Network fills up with our unconscious desires. The calculated self, the simulacra derived from the patterns of our information exhaust, misses the dangerous, passionate undercurrents that flow beneath our rational conversations, negotiations and transactions. Some see the Network as a global mind, but they never speak of, or to, its unconscious.

We’ve passed from delusions of reference to personal phone calls from the Network. Yes, they really are talking to you. But like the alien characters in the science fiction film Forbidden Planet, we misunderestimate our own unconscious (beware the monsters from the id).  We’ve gone from the delusional idea that the world is sending us special messages to an augmented reality where the world really is sending us special messages. We’ve undergone a strange normalization to schizophrenic reality. The unconscious writing on the world is replaced with a system printout. And yet there still seems to be a problem with the messages. They only coordinate with the gadget in us—the part that can be fully expressed with a database entry—never taking into account the darkness at the edge of town.

Tyranny, Stealing Office Supplies and Arbitrage Among Networks

Tools give us leverage, they augment our human capabilities. In the corporate business environment, software tools continue to increase productivity at ever growing rates. In many occupations, the employee’s primary tools consist of some type of computer, an office software suite and network connection. Much of the existence of the corporate enterprise is now inscribed in software. And for the most part, the people who manage the enterprise have little or no idea how the software works. They see better productivity and increased visibility into business processes—and that’s sufficient. The hardware and software toolset is owned by the IT department. This group knows about hardware and software, but generally, not about running a business. But they have power over the toolset and its provisioning—in essence the vehicle of augmentation and therefore leveraged productivity.

When tools are working well they disappear, we don’t think about them. Software disappears into our working lives to the extent that it works well. When it breaks or frustrates us, we see the critical dependencies that have formed and how we’ve become embedded in a system of software. The leverage we gain from augmenting our productive capabilities is critical to satisfying the demand for ever more growth from our corporations. One can do what it took many to accomplish in the past, or as it’s sometimes called revenue per unit of headcount. It could be said that for many businesses it’s only by increased leverage through networked software that productivity gains will be achieved.

Before the iPhone opened a port to the Network from anywhere with public WiFi or cellular coverage, I often wanted a personal network overlaying the corporate network. I missed the ability to pivot from one network to the other. This isn’t multitasking, but rather fast switching among different networks, electronic and otherwise. Quarantine to a single network is an unnatural state of affairs—it’s the reduction of the human to gadget or prisoner. Because of the arrival of Network access through the cellular system, the personal network now overlays the professional network—and it’s resulted in an interesting change in the balance of power.

Scott Brinker, in his Marketing Technologist blog, pulled a quote by Dave Codack, vice president of employee technology at TD Bank, from a ComputerWorld story. Codack indicated that he’d coined the phrase “the tyranny of consumerization.”

He called the process a form a tyranny because “the enterprise is not dictating technology with these devices, the revolt is coming from the end user community

Codack’s comment refers to the launch of the iPad2 and the excitement that it caused within his department and in the enterprise in general. The feature set combined with its ease of use makes the very existence of the iPad a challenge to corporate IT departments. These devices provide workers with working leverage from outside of the standard issue corporate toolkit.

Sociology professor Mark Granovetter, in his paper The Impact of Social Structure on Economic Outcomes, talks about the idea of social embeddedness of the economy. This has to do with the fact that economic action lives within the mesh of social networks, culture, politics and religion.

The notion that people often deploy resources from outside the economy to enjoy cost advantages in producing goods and services raises important questions, usually sidestepped in social theory, about how the economy interacts with other social institutions. Such deployment resembles arbitrage in using resources acquired cheaply in one setting for profit in another. As with classic arbitrage, it need not create economic profits for any particular actor, since if all are able to make the same use of non-economic resources, none has any cost advantage over any other. Yet, overall efficiency may then be improved by reducing everyone’s costs and freeing some resources for other users.

… But despite intimate connections between social networks and the modern economy, the two have not merged or become identical. Indeed, norms often develop that limit the merger of sectors. For example, when economic actors buy and sell political influence, threatening to merge political and economic institutions, this is condemned as “corruption.” Such condemnation invokes the norm that political officials are responsible to their constituents rather than to the highest bidder, and that the goals and procedures of the polity are and should be different and separate from those of the economy.

Personal consumer networks now overlay professional business networks, and the arbitrage moves from the personal and public to the corporate. We now steal office supplies from home to use at work. We’re still looking for leverage, for new ways to augment our capabilities, to get more done with less effort. And just as in the example of the merging of political and economic networks, the corporate IT department sees this as an illegitimate exercise of power and an undermining of the chain of command.

Person-to-person video calls used to be the province of science fiction. When we imagined what it would be like, we assumed it would start in the halls of government and the biggest corporations and eventually make its way to the broad consumer markets. If you’ve ever tried to use a corporate video conferencing system you’ll understand that’s not what will happen. While it looks good on paper, it’s never delivered on the promise. Corporate video conferencing is the equivalent of an operator-assisted phone call. The parties must always be connected by a representative of the corporate IT department. Compare this to the simplicity of Apple’s FaceTime—mobile video conferencing built into the device. Select, connect, talk. More office supplies taken from home and leveraged to make business work better.

How can the corporate IT department respond to the Tyranny of Consumerization? It’s too late to lock the personal network out of the corporate network. The castle walls have already been breached. And while the iPad and real-time message streams can be adopted as corporate tools, that’s only part of the arbitrage taking place. If economic growth can only be achieved through increased augmentation and leverage, the power of the personal network will have to be legitimized. But this won’t be a case of the corporate IT fish eating the personal IT fish, something else has come along to eat them both.