Category Archives: the sound of machines

Grodunkley Sprunkley rides again

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Apparently writing these isn't as easy as it looks on xkcd

Congratulations, Jamie!

(Apologies to Charlie and Campbell.)

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Writing frightening verse

The papers have been all over Will Reader‘s presentation at the British Association Festival of Science; the Guardian alone has run two separate stories by James Randerson, headed “Social networking sites don’t deepen friendships” and, more bluntly, “Warning: you can’t make real friends online”.

I’ve been socialising online for over ten years now, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made (and lost) some real friends in that time, so I think that second headline is a bit silly. More to the point, I think presenting the story that way risks creating controversy rather than debate: I know that I’ve made friends online, you know that they can’t have been real friends, we shout at each other in comments boxes for a few days and entertainment results. (Possibly. Traffic results, anyway.)

What Reader is reporting is more nuanced and more tentative than that. From the Graun‘s story (the one with the ‘warning’ headline):

The team asked more than 200 people to fill in questionnaires about their online networking, asking for example how many online friends they had, how many of these were close friends and how many they had met face to face. The team found that although the sites allowed contact with hundreds of acquaintances, as with conventional friendship networks, people tend to have around five close friends.

Ninety per cent of contacts whom the subjects regarded as close friends were people they had met face to face. “People see face to face contact as being absolutely imperative in forming close friendships,” added Dr Reader. He told the British Association Festival of Science in York that social networking sites allow people to broaden their list of nodding acquaintances because staying in touch online is easy. “What social network sites can do is decrease the cost of maintaining and forming these social networks because we can post information to multiple people,” he said.

But to develop a real friendship we need to see that the other person is trustworthy, said Dr Reader. “What we need is to be absolutely sure that a person is really going to invest in us, is really going to be there for us when we need them … It’s very easy to be deceptive on the internet.”

The results are interesting – although ‘more than 200’ sounds like a pretty small sample – and Reader’s interpretation seems pretty reasonable. But I part company with him in the last couple of sentences quoted here: the major problem with online sociality is not the lack of identity verification. I’ve been on a couple of mailing lists for several years; there are fifty or sixty people I’ve known, online, for longer than I’ve known many of my real-world friends. We use our real names on those lists; we talk about work, family and relationships; we occasionally arrange meetings.

All in all, the scope for deliberate deception is very limited. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call every one of those fifty or sixty people a close friend. The point isn’t that online relationships are a fraudulent imitation of emotionally real relationships, which are demanding and require commitment; the point is that online relationships have their own emotional reality, which is relatively uncommitted and relatively undemanding. There’s a broader truth to Clay Shirky’s pessimistic comments about the Howard Dean campaign, which I wrote about back here:

the pleasures of life online are precisely the way they provide a respite from the vagaries of the real world. … the difference between “would you” and “will you” is enormous — when “would you use this product?” changes to “will you use it?”, user behaviour frequently changes dramatically. “Would you vote for Howard Dean?” and “Will you vote for Howard Dean?” are two different questions, and it may be that a lot of people who “would” vote for Dean, in some hypothetical world where you could vote in the same way you can make a political donation on Amazon, didn’t actually vote for him when it meant skipping dinner with friends to drive downtown in the freezing cold and venture into some church basement with people who might prefer some other candidate to Dean.

Similarly, with the best will in the world there’s a difference between Would you put yourself out for a friend? and Will you put yourself out for a friend? – particularly when you’ve never actually met the friend in question. In other words, the point is precisely not that we can’t be absolutely sure that a person is really going to invest in us [and] is really going to be there for us when we need them: the point is that we can’t assume that those two things go together. This disjuncture between emotional investment and binding, push-comes-to-shove mutual obligation isn’t entirely new – think of penfriends or AA groups – but I think it’s fair to say that the spread of online sociality has made it a much more widespread experience.

What’s going on – or rather, what’s specifically not going on – is summed up by the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz, quoted here by Ulises Mejias:

In order to observe a lived experience of my own, I must attend to it reflectively. By no means, however, need I attend reflectively to my lived experience of your lived experience. On the contrary, by merely “looking” I can grasp even those of your lived experiences which you have not yet noticed and which are for you still prephenomenal and undifferentiated. This means that, whereas I can observe my own lived experiences only after they are over and done with, I can observe yours as they actually take place. This in turn implies that you and I are in a specific sense “simultaneous,” that we “coexist,” that our respective stream of consciousness intersect

Simultaneity, the ability to experience our consciousness in parallel, is a defining feature of face-to-face interactions. The outcome of this inter-subjectivity is not that we are able to “read” the other person’s mind. It is simply a realization that ‘I am experiencing a fellow human being.’

I suspect that this experience of continuous mutual presence – what Schutz called the ‘We-relationship’ – is the distinguishing feature of close friendships. It’s a relatively rare experience – and social networking software doesn’t make it any less so.

One final thought. What would a collective We-relationship – the experience of the consciousness of time passing, of an event unfolding, shared and reflected within a group of people – look like and feel like? Something like a really good meeting? (Physical presence, again, is hard to do without. I’ve attended multi-site Access Grid meetings; it’s great being able to see people’s faces, but it’s impossible to meet anybody’s eye.) Or something like this?

Modern religions demand ‘belief’, an act of the imagination; traditional ritual didn’t need to demand any such thing as it offered direct experience of ‘god’, ie, of society, of social solidarity.

Who’s there?

At Many-to-Many, Ross Mayfield reports that Clay Shirky and danah boyd have been thinking about “the lingering questions in our field”, viz. the field of social software. I was a bit surprised to see that

How can communities support veterans going off topic together and newcomers seeking topical information and connections?

still qualifies as a ‘lingering question’; I distinctly remember being involved in thrashing this one out, together with Clay, the best part of nine years ago. But this was the one that really caught my eye, if you’ll pardon the expression:

What level of visual representation of the body is necessary to trigger mirror neurons?

Uh-oh. Sherry Turkle (subscription-only link):

a woman in a nursing home outside Boston is sad. Her son has broken off his relationship with her. Her nursing home is taking part in a study I am conducting on robotics for the elderly. I am recording the woman’s reactions as she sits with the robot Paro, a seal-like creature advertised as the first ‘therapeutic robot’ for its ostensibly positive effects on the ill, the elderly and the emotionally troubled. Paro is able to make eye contact by sensing the direction a human voice is coming from; it is sensitive to touch, and has ‘states of mind’ that are affected by how it is treated – for example, it can sense whether it is being stroked gently or more aggressively. In this session with Paro, the woman, depressed because of her son’s abandonment, comes to believe that the robot is depressed as well. She turns to Paro, strokes him and says: ‘Yes, you’re sad, aren’t you. It’s tough out there. Yes, it’s hard.’ And then she pets the robot once again, attempting to provide it with comfort. And in so doing, she tries to comfort herself.What are we to make of this transaction? When I talk to others about it, their first associations are usually with their pets and the comfort they provide. I don’t know whether a pet could feel or smell or intuit some understanding of what it might mean to be with an old woman whose son has chosen not to see her anymore. But I do know that Paro understood nothing. The woman’s sense of being understood was based on the ability of computational objects like Paro – ‘relational artefacts’, I call them – to convince their users that they are in a relationship by pushing certain ‘Darwinian’ buttons (making eye contact, for example) that cause people to respond as though they were in relationship.

Further reading: see Kathy Sierra on mirror neurons and the contagion of negativity. See also Shelley‘s critique of Kathy’s argument, and of attempts to enforce ‘positive’ feelings by manipulating mood. And see the sidebar at Many-to-Many, which currently reads as follows:

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Started slow, long ago

The other day my son asked to borrow the booklet from my CD of Smile, because he wanted to check the lyrics of “Good Vibrations”; I’d burned it to a CD that I’d given him for Christmas, along with a bunch of other stuff (Oasis, the Shins, Iggy Pop…) I told him the lyrics of the song on Smile were different from the original, and (once I’d persuaded him I wasn’t winding him up) that was that. But it started me thinking.

In the next post I’ll say some more about Smile – which I’d classify as a glorious failure for a number of reasons, some of them (interestingly) out of the control of anyone involved. In this one I’m going to talk about vinyl. Then with any luck there’ll be a third post which will tie it all together, although exactly how as yet I know not. But hey, enough of my yakkin’.

We’re all normal and we want our freedom.
Freedom?
Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom…
All o’ God’s children gotta have their freedom!

The first time I heard Forever Changes, I got up instinctively at the end of “The red telephone” to turn the record over. Then I sat down again, because the first time I heard Forever Changes was about eighteen months ago and I was listening to it on CD. All the same, I knew the end of side one when I heard it.

Like Dan, I miss the LP format. What I miss isn’t the LPs, which haven’t entirely gone – I’ve got a functioning turntable & still occasionally buy new music on vinyl – but the album format which they gave us. Consider: a heavy cardboard sleeve twelve inches square. There are the visuals, for a start: 12″ x 12″ is a handy format for artwork, not to mention the 24″ x 12″ of the gatefold. There are track listings, production credits, details of who played what and who wrote what; then there’s an inner sleeve, which may have more artwork and may have more information, or perhaps song lyrics. The whole thing is a rich, dense artifact, in a similar scale to a glossy magazine – a handy size to hold and contemplate, whether you’re listening to the music or anticipating it as you come home on the bus. At the same time, as packaging it’s deeply functional: it’s wrapped – fairly closely in some cases – around the record itself.

The record, let’s not forget, embodies the music. The record has a certain irreducible fetishistic appeal, which alternative recording technologies (partly because they were alternatives) never really acquired. You hold a black vinyl disc in your hands, and you’re holding crystallised music: that physical object is your only way of hearing that music. It’s divided into two sides – two sets of tracks. In itself, the way the tracks divide up tells you something about the music you were going to hear – particularly if there’s only one track on each side (or, for that matter, if there are ten). Either way, there’s an inevitable pause between side one and side two, giving you the chance to gather your thoughts and renew your attention.

Maintenant c’est joué. There’s a lot that’s good about the music-listening experiences which have effectively supplanted the LP. Indeed, their sheer convenience makes it slightly academic to talk about their drawbacks: as George Orwell said, travelling from London to Brighton by walking alongside a mule would certainly give you a better experience of the country than taking the train, but that didn’t mean anybody would actually do it. Still, something has been lost. I think there are three main factors. There’s the sheer length of the 80-minute CD format; it may suit Beethoven, but it’s death to the album format. The tracks multiply or sprawl; without the minimal structure provided by that end-of-side-one breather, the album turns into a big bag of tracks, inviting the listener to skip or resequence. (Top tip for Beck’s Sea change: 1,2,3,5,4,6, then 8-12. Try it.)

This technological erosion of the album format has both followed and reinforced the rise of a radio-like, track-based way of listening to music and thinking about music. In the piece I referenced earlier (which really is superb, by the way – if you’re going to follow any of these links, follow this one) Dan laments the poverty of musical metadata offered by iTunes: you can put names to the track, the album and the artist, and, er, that’s it. For me this suggests a conceptual shift rather than (or as well as) skimpy work by software engineers. On the radio, after all, you never expected to hear the name of the producer or the dates of the session or the jokey credit for the studio runner. You heard the music, you got the basic information and you could go out and track it down – it in this case being the vehicle of the real musical experience, the graspable object of beauty and store of information that was the album. That extra stage has more or less vanished now: what you hear is what you get, there is nothing else. Which means that the album becomes less important than the mix – your own mix, mined from the music you’ve accumulated. (Last year CD album sales actually rose in the UK – but sales of compilation albums fell sharply.) Malcolm McLaren, of all people, saw most of this coming years ago.

The third big change is one that Uncle Mal didn’t foresee, and it’s the clincher. With a portable cassette player – by which I don’t necessarily mean a Walkman (although it certainly made life easier when you didn’t have to tote around something the size of a shoulderbag) – with a portable tape player, anyway, your music could become as portable and as ubiquitous as music on the radio, at the cost of also becoming as light, disembodied and information-poor as music on the radio. But there was another cost, suggested by the lyrics to that song:

hit it, pause it, record it and play
turn it, rewind, and rub it away

A spool of tape is an extraordinarily inefficient medium for storing a series of separate tracks – more so than a vinyl LP, in some ways. You get into storage/retrieval tradeoffs straight away: the easiest tape to play is the one that consists solely of stuff you’re into right now, but that’s also the hardest tape to maintain. Of course, you could take the tape out and put another one in, but that only delays dealing with the problem – after all, how many tapes are you going to want to carry around?

So the third big change has been the rise of digital players. Sure, Malcolm had Annabella sing

now I don’t need no album rack
I carry my collection over my back

but I think the significant word in that is ‘back’: if you seriously intended to carry your entire album collection around on tape you’d need a sizeable rucksack. (I once taped one track from every album I owned – a project of quite Shandean irrationality. I’ve still got the tapes – they take up a whole drawer of my cassette box.) Now you can get your entire CD collection into a box the size of a fag packet in considerably less time than it takes to play them; you don’t get the same economy of time with vinyl albums, but it’s still perfectly doable. And then that’s it – that is your music collection. You can plug it into your audio system, you can plug it into your car stereo, you can hang it round your neck and go rollerblading if you’ve a mind to. You don’t need no album rack – wherever you are, your music is there.

This effect is exacerbated by the way music now seems to stay in fashion indefinitely: the Led Zeppelin of the fourth album and the Pink Floyd of Dark Side are still there – still our contemporaries. This is a very recent phenomenon; at the time of Dark side it would have seemed absurd to talk in this way about music that was 33 years old, or 13 years old for that matter. ‘Progressive’ rock wasn’t a genre to us then – it represented rock that had progressed, had left the past behind. (A few years later, many of us had similar views about the New Wave.) Most pop music from before the late 1960s is still over the horizon – there’s no appetite for replica reissues of Herman’s Hermits albums, and very little appetite for anything by the likes of Vince Taylor or Cliff Bennett – but once you get to about 1967 the clock has effectively stopped. (The Smile sessions were in 1966.)

You can have your music anywhere; not only that, but you can have all the music there is. On Desert Island Discs recently, John Sutherland chose his eight records to salvage from a shipwreck, but spoiled the effect rather with his choice of luxury item: a 60GB iPod, which would potentially give him the choice of another 14,992 pieces of music. Everyone’s a librarian – but it’s not a library of albums, with all their freight of musical metadata and art-work and in-jokes and period design and misprints; it’s a collection of tracks, each one as light and bodyless as the stuff they play on the radio, each interchangeable with any other. (Ultimate realisation of this vision: the iPod Shuffle, which picks its own random route from track to track, and doesn’t even deign to tell you which track you’re listening to.)

All of which makes this a strange time to be hearing Smile for the first time… But I’ll come on to that.

Postscript I was halfway through writing this post when I discovered I wasn’t the first person to think along these lines: in the February 2004 Salon article quoted here, Paul Williams of Crawdaddy comments, “It’s ironic that we’re talking about the [first] great album that never was at a time that the very form of the pop album is itself falling on hard times.” Spooky. Another one of those reverse premonitions, I guess.

Soft enough for you

Anne:

Is it reasonable to have to learn to ride a bike but expect a computer to be as simple to figure out as a toaster? (Not the perfect analogy I know, but you know what I’m getting at…) Some days I think that user-friendliness was/is a really bad idea, not least because it’s obdurate, so hard to change.

If you have to work at using a technology, in other words, you necessarily end up working with it and through it. You work to adapt it to your needs – and you adapt it. Technologies which offer ease of use, by contrast, make it easy to work in certain pre-defined ways – and resist adaptation by the individual user. (There are, of course, technologies which are both easy to use and flexible – ask any Flickr user. But I think the ‘user-friendliness’ Anne is talking about here is more like the comment a tutor of mine once made on the BBC and ‘open access’ broadcasting: “They say they’ll come and help you, show you how to do it. They don’t, of course – what they do is show you how to do what you do because that’s how you do it.” User-friendliness is very often a matter of HTDWYDBTHYDI.)

But there’s more to it than that. What is this thing called obduracy? Anne again:

[Anique Hommels] argues that one way to emphasise the material aspects [of technologies in society] is to focus on their obduracy or resistance to change. (Imagine what it would *actually* take to replace the infrastructure that currently provides our electricity with something more sustainable.) The notion of obduracy is inextricably connected to embeddedness – a matter of interest to any kind of computing that seeks to become part of something else, be it an event, a habit, a skirt, a chair, a building, a street, a city. As Hommels reminds us, obduracy (or embeddedness) is a relational concept: “Because the elements of a network are closely interrelated, the changing of one element requires the adaptation of other elements. The extent to which an artifact has become embedded determines its resistance to efforts aimed at changing it.”

An embedded technology, then, would be one which has behind it a community of people who do a certain thing in a certain way. Becoming a user entails enrolment in that community. In short, the technology adapts you.

Where does this leave user-friendliness? Perhaps we could think of the embedding of a new technology as a process, which can continue to the point of the collapse of the possible ends and uses inherent in the technology and its reduction to the status of tool: a toaster, not a bicycle. And perhaps a ‘user-friendly’ technology – at least in the HTDWYD sense – is one designed to enlist a tool-using community and collapse its own potential into instrumentality.

(Relatedly, from Dan Hills’ essential critique of digital music: “there is a powerful necessity to think long term; to not take such short cuts which may inadvertently delete possible outcomes; to enable the flexibility and endless modifications seen in previous generations of music devices”. Dan has a lovely quote from William Gibson: “That which is overdesigned, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace.”)

More broadly, what all this highlights is the value of difficulty, incompatibility, misunderstanding. Dan also led me (indirectly) to this quote from the late Derek Bailey:

There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility [with a partner]. Otherwise, what are you improvising for? What are you improvising with or around? You’ve got to find somewhere where you can work. If there are no difficulties, it seems to me that there’s pretty much no point in playing. I find that the things that excite me are trying to make something work. And when it does work, it’s the most fantastic thing.

One of the great frustrations in my work with ontologies and e-social science is the recurrent assumption that the concepts used in social science data can be documented cleanly and consistently – or, conversely, that if they can’t be documented cleanly and consistently they’re not worth documenting. The point, surely, is to find ways of recording both the logic of individual classifications and the incompatibilities between them – and the (qualified, partial) correspondences between them. And, of course, to make this documentation changeable over time, without effacing the historical traces which contribute to its meaning. Parenthetically, it’s worth noting here that preservation of historical data has nothing to do with obduracy. History is not obdurate, having no power to resist and (by and large) no enrolled community; the erasure of history can facilitate embeddedness and instrumentality, while the preservation of an artifact’s history may actually preserve resources of flexibility. (That’s enough abstractions – Ed.)

We’re never together

Back here, I wrote:

Social software may start with connecting data, but what it’s really about is connecting people – and connecting them in dialogue, on a basis of equality. If this goal gets lost, joining the dots may do more harm than good.

It’s not about connecting machines, either – and the same caveat applies. Via Thomas, I recently read this item about location-based services (which, I remember, were going to be quite the thing a couple of years ago, although they seem to have faded since people started actually getting their hands on 3G technology). Anyway, here are the quotes:

This project focuses on [location-based technology’s] collaborative uses: how group of people benefits from knowing others’ whereabouts when working together on a joint activity … we set up a collaborative mobile environment called CatchBob! in which we will test how a location awareness tool modifies the group interactions and communications, the way they perform a joint task as well as how they rely on this spatial information to coordinate.

And how did that work out?

“We found that players who were automatically aware of their partners’ location did not perform the task better than other participants. In addition, they communicated less and had troubles reminding their partners’ whereabouts (which was surprising). These results can be explained by the messages exchanged. First the amount of messages is more important in the group without the location-awareness tool: players had then more traces to rely on in order to recall the others’ trails. And when we look at the content, we see that players without the location-awareness tool sent more messages about position, direction or strategy. They also wrote more questions.”

Really, we’re back with ‘push’ technology – which was going to be quite the thing round about 1998, as I remember. Give people device for talking to each other: works. Give people device which gives them a constant stream of information: doesn’t work.

The trouble is, we’ve got the technology. The problems with social software are social; see this deeply depressing Register story.

Alongside video on demand TV services from Homechoice, the SDB [Shoreditch Digital Bridge] will offer a “Community Safety Channel” which will allow residents “to monitor estate CCTV cameras from their own living rooms, view a ‘Usual Suspects’ ASBO line up, and receive live community safety alerts.”

Other aspects of the Shoreditch Digital Bridge are less controversial, but likely to be considerably harder to execute. The SDB proposes an education channel, “allowing children and adults to take classes, complete on-line homework assignments and log-on to ‘virtual tutors'”, a “Health Channel” allowing patients to book GP appointments, and providing “virtual Dr/Nurse consultations and on-line health and diagnosis information”, a “Consumer Channel, allowing on-line group buying of common services such as gas, electricity and mobile phone tariffs”, and an “Employment Channel, providing on-line NVQ courses, local jobs website and virtual interview mentoring.”So within that little lot, the educational aspects will require substantial input from, and involvement of, existing schools and colleges, the Health Channel will need a whole new interface to NHS systems that are already struggling to implement their own new electronic booking systems, and the Consumer Channel will merely have to reinvent the co-operative movement electronically.

But CCTV – ah, now, we’ve got CCTV…

Will:

Yet again, the technology arrives promising us a vibrant civic and economic future … then beds down as a means of protecting us from each other.

Or rather, as a means of protecting us from Them (caution – sweary link).

If we’re talking about social software or social networks, let’s be clear that we’re talking about connecting people rather than dividing them. Connecting machines doesn’t necessarily help connect people.

We are your friends

I recently attended an “e-Government Question Time” session, organised in connection with this conference. There were some good points made: one speaker stressed the importance of engaging with the narratives which people build rather than assuming that the important facts can be read off from an accumulation of data; one questioner called the whole concept of ‘e-government’ into question, pointing out that the stress seemed to be entirely on using the Web/email/digital TV/texting/etc as a mechanism for delivering services rather than as a medium for democratic exchanges. Much more typical, though, was the spin which the mediator put on this question as he passed it on to the panel:

That’s a very good question – what about democracy? And conversely, if it’s all democracy where does that leave leadership?

The evening was much less about democracy than it was about leadership – or rather, management. This starting-point produced some strikingly fallacious arguments, particularly in the field of privacy. The following statements were all made by one panellist; I won’t single him out, as they were all endorsed by other panellists – and, in some cases, members of the audience. (And no, identifying him as male doesn’t narrow it down a great deal. The people in the hall were 3:1 male to female (approximately), the people on stage 6:1 (precisely).)

I like to protect my own privacy, but I’m in the privileged position of having assets to protect. When you’re looking at people who have got nothing, and in many cases aren’t claiming benefits to which they’re entitled, I don’t think safeguarding their privacy should be our main concern.

At first blush this argument echoes the classic Marxist critique of the bourgeois definition of human rights – if we have the right to privacy, what about the right to a living wage? But instead of going from universalism to a broader (and hence more genuine) universalism, we’ve ended up with the opposite of universalism: you and I can worry about privacy, but it doesn’t apply to them. Superficially radical, or at least populist – you can just hear David Blunkett coming out with something similar – this is actually a deeply reactionary argument: it treats the managed as a different breed from the people who manage them (I like to protect my own privacy, but…). Management Fallacy 1: ‘they’re not like us’.

We’re talking about improving people’s life chances. We need to make personal information more accessible – to put more access to personal information in the hands of the people who can change people’s lives for the better.

Management Fallacy 2: ‘we mean well’. If every intervention by a public servant were motivated by the best interests of the citizens, safeguards against improper intervention would not be required. And if police officers never stepped out of line, there’d be no need for a Police Complaints Commission. In reality, good intentions cannot be assumed: partly because the possibility of a corrupt or malicious individual getting at your data cannot be ruled out; partly because government agencies have other functions as well as safeguarding the citizen’s interests, and those priorities may occasionally come into conflict; and partly because a government agency’s idea of your best interests may not be the same as yours (see Fallacy 3). All of which means that the problem needs to be addressed at the other end, by protecting your data from people who don’t have a specific reason to use it – however well-intentioned those people may be. One questioner spoke wistfully of the Data Protection Act getting in the way of creative, innovative uses of data. It’s true that data mining technology now makes it possible to join the dots in some very creative and innovative ways. But if it’s data about me, I don’t think prior consent is too much to ask – and I don’t think other people are all that different (see Fallacy 1).

I’ve got no objection to surrendering some of my civil liberties, so-called

Have to stop you there. Management Fallacy 3: ‘it looks all right to me’. The speaker was a local government employee: a private individual. His policy for handling his own private data doesn’t concern me. But I would hope that, before he came to apply that policy more generally, he would reflect on how the people who would be affected might feel about surrendering their civil liberties, so-called. (Perhaps he could consult them, even.)

Carry on:

I’ve got no objection to surrendering some of my civil liberties, so-called, if it’s going to prevent another Victoria Climbie case.

Management Fallacy 4: ‘numbers don’t lie’. (Or: ‘Everything is measurable and what can be measured can be managed’.) This specific example is a common error with statistics, which can be illustrated with the example of a hypothetical test for the AIDS virus. Let’s say that you’ve got an HIV test which is 95% accurate – that is, out of every 100 people with HIV it will correctly identify 95 and mis-identify 5, and similarly for people who do not carry the virus. And let’s say that you believe, from other sources, that 1,000 people in a town of 100,000 carry the virus. You administer the test to the entire town. If your initial assumption is correct, how many positive results will you get? And how confident can you be, in percentage terms, that someone who tests positive is actually HIV-positive?

The answers are 5900 and 16.1%. The test would identify 950 of the 1000 people with the virus, but it would also misidentify 4950 people who did not have it: consequently, anyone receiving a positive test result would have a five in six chance of actually being HIV-negative. What this points to is a fundamental problem with any attempt to identify rare phenomena in large volumes of data. If the frequency of the phenomenon you’re looking for is, in effect, lower than the predictable rate of error, any positive result is more likely to be an error than not.

Contra McKinsey, I would argue that not everything can or should be measured, let alone managed on the basis of measurement. (If the data-driven approach to preventing another Climbie case sounds bad, imagine it with the addition of performance targets.) Some phenomena – particularly social phenomena – are not amenable to being captured through the collection of quantitative data, and shouldn’t be treated as if they were.

What all these fallacies have in common is a self-enclosed, almost solipsistic conception of the task of management. With few exceptions, the speakers (and the questioners) talked in terms of meeting people’s needs by delivering a pre-defined service with pre-defined goals, pre-defined techniques, pre-defined identities (me service provider, you service recipient). There were only occasional references to the exploratory, dialogic approach of asking people what their needs were and how they would like them to be met – despite the possibilities for work in this area which new technologies have created. But then, management is not dialogue.

Social software may start with connecting data, but what it’s really about is connecting people – and connecting them in dialogue, on a basis of equality. If this goal gets lost, joining the dots may do more harm than good.

Good neighbors

[Updated 20/10 – tidying-up, response to Adam, Malik quote ect ect]

Shelley:

Through the various link services, last week I found that my RSS entries were being published to a GreatestJournal site. I’d never heard of GreatestJournal, and when I went to contact the site to ask them to remove the feed, there is no contact information. I did find, though, a trouble ticket area and submitted a ticket asking the site to remove the account.

In reply, “GreatestJournal” (whoever they are) told Shelley that her RSS feed was in the public domain, so they could do whatever they liked with it. (“You might wish to take your feed down if you don’t want people to use it.” That’s helpful.)

One other thing: the email in which they conveyed this information had a copyright notice at the bottom. (Shelley reprinted it anyway.)

Coincidentally, I’d recently been reading this post on EconoMeta, in which Adam talks about our changing relationship with our personal data:

one important part of Web 2.0 is the separation of user data from the applications that use it, and the idea that users should own and control this data.

the switching costs imposed by Web 1.0 companies to get a competitive advantage are being replaced by different switching costs created by the *users* of Web 2.0 companies … [e.g.] the switching costs created by the value of a social network at MySpace or a reputation on eBay, as opposed to the switching cost created by the email address and “walled garden” at AOL.

Separation of user data from applications? Check. User ownership and control? Um, not so much.

It seems to me that this is (depending on how charitable you’re feeling) a naive oversight, a lurking contradiction or a dirty little secret at the heart of the “Web 2.0” vision: it’s not about the users. Here’s Tim O’Reilly, no less:

Let’s close, therefore, by summarizing what we believe to be the core competencies of Web 2.0 companies:

  • Services, not packaged software, with cost-effective scalability
  • Control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them
  • Trusting users as co-developers
  • Harnessing collective intelligence
  • Leveraging the long tail through customer self-service
  • Software above the level of a single device
  • Lightweight user interfaces, development models, AND business models

So we’ve got software companies harnessing collective intelligence, leveraging the Snaggly Fence* – and, of course, exercising control over unique data. Unique and hard-to-recreate data. Unique data that’s continually enriched by its users. We’re talking social software, aren’t we?

It seems increasingly clear that there are two sides to Web 2.0. The sunny side – the ‘social software’ side – is where we ask questions like:

Q: How will the data sources become unique and impossible to recreate?
A: By being enriched!
Q: How will the data be enriched?
A: Through being used by people!
Q: How will people use the data?
A: Quickly, easily, intuitively and in their thousands!

That’s also the easy side of Web 2.0 – there aren’t too many posers there, as you can see.

But there’s another side, where we ask questions like “Who will own those data sources?” – and, increasingly, “How will they get hold of them to begin with?” Which, I think, is where GreatestJournal comes in. In comments at Shelley’s post, Roger Benningfield made the Web 2.0 connection:

I came across a whole swarm of Web 2.0 stuff in my aggregator. “Microformats, XHTML, death to walled gardens!” they cried.And I thought, “Oh, you guys are *fucked*.” Because ultimately, the business models they’re envisioning are going to make GreatestJournal’s response look friendly in comparison. If they ever manage to build any momentum (questionable), they’re going to hit a brick wall of posts like this one… a *big* wall.

Case in point: a thoroughly odd development called Sxore. Adina: “The idea is that if a user signs up to comment on one blog, they’ll be able to comment on other blogs. … Sxore creates an RSS feed for each user. Presumably you can follow comments made by that user across different blogs. So, if you think someone has good ideas about blog visualizations, you get to read what they also think about President Bush.” Hmmm. What was that about users owning and controlling their data again?

Om Malik has been having similar thoughts:

if we tag, bookmark or share, and help del.icio.us or Technorati or Yahoo become better commercial entities, aren’t we seemingly commoditizing our most valuable asset – time. We become the outsourced workforce, the collective, though it is still unclear what is the pay-off. While we may (or may not) gain something from the collective efforts, the odds are whatever “the collective efforts” are, they are going to boost the economic value of those entities. Will they share in their upside? Not likely!Take Skype as an example – it rides on our broadband pipes, for which we a hefty monthly charge. It uses our computers and pipes to replace a network that cost phone companies billions to build. In exchange we can make free phone calls to other Skype users. I have no problems with that. I had no problems with Skype charging me for SkypeIN and SkypeOUT calls as well, for this was only a premium service only to be used if and when needed.

However, now that it is part of eBay, I do cringe a little.

It seems to me that the Web 2.0 hype is about social software, but only in the sense that it’s about monetising social software: in Marxist terms it’s a form of primitive accumulation. In non-Marxist terms, it’s enclosure: appropriating something that exists outside the circuit of trading and ownership and managing the supply so that it can only be obtained within that circuit. Or: stealing it and selling it back. I don’t know what the GreatestJournal business model is, or how Sxore are planning on making their money; probably something perfectly obvious and straightforward. But it seems to involve turning our work into their assets. I’m not too keen.

In response to Adam (in comments), my concern isn’t that it’s impossible to draw a line where the benefits of social software can coexist with monetisation (I myself use and endorse the fine products of Blogger.com, after all). What worries me, firstly, is that the drive for monetisation is producing pressures for closure (and enclosure). Secondly, that half the people who advocate Web 2.0 seem to share the company perspective to the point of positively welcoming these developments (see the O’Reilly sermon linked above) – while a lot of the rest are so committed to the vision as to be spectacularly ill-prepared to put up any resistance.

My immediate reaction to Shelley’s GreatestJournal post was to leap to the defence of walled gardens – “Walled gardens are full of people!”. It’s a nice line, but on reflection I don’t think it’s quite right. What we’re hearing is a sublime (although far from unprecedented) example of chutzpah – a critique of barriers by advocates of enclosure. The blogosphere isn’t a walled garden, it’s a wide-open common where nobody has ownership rights. An enclave which can’t be strip-mined isn’t walled in; all that’s happened is that the predators – who would put their own fences around it if they could – have been walled out. Long may they remain so.

(The Americanism in the title is deliberate, incidentally.)

*There Is No Long Tail

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