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Category: mobile

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?


Tailgating Apple

The philosopher George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” seems to underlie many of the stories bubbling up around the leap from fixed computing to mobile computing. Especially with regard to Apple’s role in forming the ecosystem, the market and some of the decisions they’ve taken about what to leave behind. Santayana’s aphorism has been restated in a number of ways, another popular formulation is: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” At any rate, there’s an implication that history, the past, should never be repeated— doing so is the occupation of the doomed. There’s also a sense of coming upon a node, as we move through time, that contains the possibility of looping back to a previously experienced stretch of history. Although we don’t replay it note for note, the chord changes seem follow the same pattern.

There are two stories that run through the minds of observers:

1. The Apple and Microsoft story. An integrated computing system that pushed the boundaries of human-computer interaction into the realm of usefulness, and the lower-cost modular computing system (DOS paired with any manufacturer) that provided a ‘good enough’ experience and a solid return on investment. In the end, Microsoft’s Windows became the dominant personal and business computing platform.

2. The Monopoly and Anti-Trust story. From its position of market dominance, Microsoft used its position to maintain power. The law is fine with the use of soft power (you choose it because it’s best, whatever best means to you); but steps in when hard power is exercised (you choose it because it’s the only choice). A settlement was reached: Microsoft’s brand suffered damage, some APIs were opened up and market dominance was largely maintained. The second act of this story has developers starting to route around Microsoft by creating cloud-based applications of ever-increasing sophistication.

And so, as the mobile computing space comes into focus we see:

1. Apple and iPhone/iPad Touch/iPad as an integrated platform and device

2. Google and Android/Chrome across multiple manufacturers

3. Microsoft and Silverlight/Windows Phone across multiple manufacturers

Tech pundits expect an exact replay of The Apple and Microsoft story. Although, Google has been cast in the role of Microsoft this time. Steve Jobs, they say, has not learned from history. Apple will eventually be overtaken by a more “open” and commodified horizontal platform. On the other hand, both Google and Microsoft have learned from Apple and have bought in to integrated design practices while maintaining a multiple-manufacturer production model. And while Apple is thought to be repeating its mistakes on the one hand, on the other, they’ve been cast in the role of Microsoft based on their dominance and control of the new mobile market. On a recent Gillmor Gang, Blaine Cook suggested that Apple is courting an anti-trust action based on their recent behavior. The implication being that there is no choice but the iPhone/iPad, and that competition is hindered by Apple controlling their own device platform.

Google and Microsoft have understood that more control and tighter design integration will be required to compete with Apple. Google has started down that road with the Nexus One. Microsoft, with their Windows Phone 7 announcements, have shown that they’ll be moving in the same direction. They’re very fast followers, some might even say they’re tailgating Apple. As in any race, drafting into the slipstream of the leader provides many advantages.

The term “slipstreaming” describes an object traveling inside the slipstream of another object (most often objects moving through the air though not necessarily flying). If an object is inside the slipstream behind another object, moving at the same speed, the rear object will require less power to maintain its speed than if it were moving independently. In addition, the leading object will be able to move faster than it could independently because the rear object reduces the effect of the low-pressure region on the leading object.

A fast follower wants to put himself into the position to execute a slingshot pass. By drafting in behind the market leader, the follower can exert less energy while keeping pace. The slingshot allows the follower to generate passing speed by optimizing the aerodynamics of their relative positions. The leader wants to adjust position to block this kind of move. The analysis and play-by-play has been based entirely on the assumption the lessons of history have been locked in, and this new race will play out with exactly the same dynamics. The lesson Apple may have learned is that a post-PC approach and strong portfolio of patents could change the outcome of some key points of the narrative.

A subplot to the main story involves Adobe and its Flash runtime. Adobe’s Flash is playing the role of Netscape in the current transition. Although Hal Varian was referring to Netscape in his 1999 book Information Rules, the thought applies equally well to Adobe. They face a classic problem of interconnection. Their competitors control the operating environment in which they are but one component. Adobe owes its current level of success in the fixed computing environment to Microsoft’s dominance.

At a key point, Microsoft had no competitive product and agreed to distribute the Flash runtime along with its operating system and browser. This put Flash on a high percentage of the installed personal computing user base. This kind of market penetration probably could not have been achieved if users had been required to download and install the plugin on their own. Once the Flash player was in place, apps could be pushed over the wire, and there was a high likelihood that they would operate. The Flash runtime could even update itself once it was established on the local Windows machine. The Macintosh and Linux platforms were filled in by Adobe, but were given a much lower priority based on market share.

Adobe has two problems in this transitional environment. The first is that their competitors control both their operating environment— and the distribution channel. Secondly, where they once had a willing partner, Microsoft now has Silverlight which competes directly. Because Adobe has had a high penetration percentage, they claim as much a 99%, they feel entitled to ship with any new operating environment. It used to be that way, but things have changed. The problem that Adobe’s Flash solved now has other solutions in each of the mobile stacks.

In the post-PC mobile computing world all of the original assumptions and agreements are being reassessed. This new environment isn’t an extension or an evolution of the fixed desktop environment– the blackboard has been erased and the project has been built up from scratch. That means you don’t assume Adobe’s Flash runtime, you don’t even assume copy and paste, multi-tasking or a file system.  The first couple of things you might put on the blackboard are 10 hour battery life and always-on wireless network connectivity— that’s what makes the device usable in a mobile context. From there we can add location and streaming services, real-time responsiveness and the rest. But it’s battery life that’s the limiting factor. It’s the invisible tether that eventually draws us back to the power source to recharge. Where silicon once ruled, we now look to lithium.

The assumption that history will repeat itself relieves us of the burden of figuring out what’s going on, of understanding out the differences that make a difference. No doubt some threads of history will repeat themselves, but they may not be the ones we expect. When we come upon a node, as we move through time, a moment that contains the possibility of looping back to a previously experienced stretch of history. We also have the opportunity to take a familiar melody and go off and explore unexpected directions.

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