Everybody’s gone surfin’

I thought I’d take a shot at riffing on Google Wave, “a new tool for communication and collaboration on the web”, according to its creators. But before we get into the details, just to get into the mood, check out this BBC video — a gorgeous slow motion view of a surfer on the perfect wave. Wow:

Or see the high definition (HD) version here. It’s worth it.

That was also my first reaction to Google Wave, well, “wow” in lower case. It’s an evolutionary step that rhymes with so many parallel developments all around the net that it already seems inevitable just a week after its presentation.

I am most interested in watching just how open source the Wave platform will actually be. And just how open the API’s and protocols will be. I think we have good reason to be optimistic that they will remain true to the spirit of openness because it is also in their interest to do so.

Why is that? Well, the more that Wave’s protocols and syntax are open, the faster it will grow with a developer community going out there and building tools, containers and services with wild abandon. Do you think that Google might be positioned rather well to provide search within the Wave universe? Messages, media, documents, location and social graphs all crawlable. This looks to be an, um, a challenge for our privacy protection. Can we get some of you smart developers thinking about that now? Thanks, and please revert soonest!

Compare this scenario to today’s realtime darling Twitter. (Sarcasm? yeah just a little bit, but I am a Twitter member and have gotten a huge amount of value from it.) The Twitterverse consists of a central platform, a basic hosted service on the platform and an extremely active ecosystem of third party clients and applications that make it just barely usable.

In what other environment is there great competition among free client applications? Email comes first to mind and let’s not forget instant messaging. In both cases there is huge value obtained from the fact that the protocol is standard and open. It was not always so in instant messaging land, and still not universally the case, but today I can use Pidgin, Meebo, Digsby, Adium or Trillian to talk to my Jabber, MSN, ICQ, Yahoo, iChat and AOL friends on one roster. So that seems to be where Twitter is headed — to be a protocol, and the biggest platform on the block adhering to that protocol.

I am hoping that Wave will be the catalyst to bring about the birth of a thousand new Twitters, truly open protocol and evolving realtime micro-messaging services, accessible through third party clients. XMPP has worked this way for years and it’s not for nothing that underneath Wave you find the XMPP protocol.

The Ingénue

I was thinking about my own naïveté in all matters computer-related just after I bought my first computer (a MacII, OS 2.0, circa 1987). I distinctly remember my profound disappointment when my shiny new computer did not live up to the myth that I had created for it! I was raised on the Jetsons and, dammit, computers were supposed to be powerful and simple to use.

Mary Pickford, perpetual ingénue

I bought my first copy of Microsoft Word (I think it was v.3). I fired up the program and soon learned that in order to do a simple mail merge (to send out identical, but personalized letters, to my mailing list) required me to read a brick of a guide book and spend many hours in frustrating trial and terror.

Similarly, I recall my first impression of hyperlinks, hypertext and hypermedia. It was such an utterly cool and liberating idea — that the organization of information need not be linear or strictly hierarchal, but could be determined by the clickstream of the operator. The idea of siloed content was anethema to this concept and was unimaginable to me at the birth of the Web.

AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve came along and changed my mind about that in a hurry.

Fastforward to 2009. Unless something comes along to derail the future, it seems pretty clear that the internets will develop into an environment with more open protocols designed to let you and me use whatever platform, device or application to play with our stuff. Our digital assets will be accessible via multiple pathways driven by our own intents and commands.

The point is that we are just now building the architecture worthy of a newbie’s dreams, fulfilling the original promise of hypermedia as conceived by Ted Nelson.

In order to get there, we need to be a lot more radical in making things that are easy to understand; they need to respond to who we are as creatures. Nelson said, “a user interface should be so simple that a beginner in an emergency can understand it within ten seconds.”

Open Stack service layer

Open Stack service layer

Looking at the state of the Open Stack (and here), and this is not to diminish the hard work being done by a lot of talented and well-meaning people, we seem light years away from this goal. The mashup tools allowing us to cross-post, to participate in and aggregate conversations, to deeply manage our social graphs and online identities are very primitive, and unusable by most people who have access to the Internet.

I am trying to recapture that blessed state in which computer-mediated actions seem magical and, most of all, useful and fun. It’s strange that the more supposedly advanced I become, the more easily wowed I am by new features that are not really all that cool to anyone outside of the high tech crowd. We spend way too much time talking among ourselves.


The holy grail of human-computer interface design must be the DWIW function. I communicate with the machine and the machine just Does What I Want.

Do what I want!

Do what I want!

I was thinking about this after having played around with Wolfram Alpha. Actually what sparked this post was having seen so many tweets about it mistaking it for a search engine. The tagline of Wolfram Alpha is “computational knowledge engine”, not something like “find what you are looking for” or “let me find that for you?”

But people don’t read taglines very carefully and when they do they don’t think about them too seriously. They use past experience to parse the service and charge ahead accordingly.

In trying to keep it simple, and to develop a more natural language approach to the input field, the designers of the interface present a single text entry field followed by the plus sign [=] to communicate put your input here, click to see what we can compute from that.

The problem is that most people associate a plain input field with a submit button as = Google, not a computational knowledge engine. If you scan complaining tweets you will notice that the authors hit the [=] with a DWIW intention, expecting a search result, not computational knowledge.

We are living in the pre-dawn of a new age of human-computer interaction. Eventually we will get to the point at which a single input field (with textual, audio or even electro-neurological input) will  be semantically, behaviorally and contextually (time, place, device) aware — getting us that much closer to a true DWIW command. This will require a lot of groundwork, but seeing as though folks like Wolfram, Tim Berners-Lee and an army of others are on the case, I expect to see really cool developments becoming more commonplace over the next 5-20 years :-)

Anonymity in a connected world

I was reading this article Your Morning Commute is Unique: On the Anonymity of Home/Work Location Pairs, by Arvind Narayanan, and it got me thinking. (Thanks to @jamespage for pointing to this article.)

He starts out by citing this study by two PARC researchers and concluding that “for the average person, knowing their approximate home and work locations — to a block level — identifies them uniquely.” Isn’t it amazing how fast anonymity breaks down?

Cover art for new Penguin edition of Orwell's 1984 (Shepard Fairey)

Now just having those two data points alone would leave your anonymity intact, but the potential danger comes in if this information is able to be shared by or among mobile connectivity providers, credit card companies, government agencies, advertisers and social networking services.

It could be that my paranoia level was increased after having seen this article in New York Times describing the amount of data mining and interpretation currently being used by the credit card industry.

The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year… Martin’s measurements were so precise that he could tell you the “riskiest” drinking establishment in Canada — Sharx Pool Bar in Montreal, where 47 percent of the patrons who used their Canadian Tire card missed four payments over 12 months. He could also tell you the “safest” products — premium birdseed and a device called a “snow roof rake” that homeowners use to remove high-up snowdrifts so they don’t fall on pedestrians.

By the time he publicized his findings, a small industry of math fanatics — many of them former credit-card executives — had started consulting for the major banks that issued cards, and they began using Martin’s findings and other research to build psychological profiles.

So when people start to use their cell phones to pay for merchandise, location information will be added to the database, too. Conspiracy theorists, novelists and filmmakers, rejoice! There are some great storylines to be made from this stuff. But, seriously, should we be worried about these developments?

Late breaking: With respect to U.S. constitutional law, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that tracking a suspect via the global positioning system without a warrant violated his right to privacy. A stalker could be uniquely linked to the victim by GPS tracking, for instance. Hat tip to @stoweboyd for the lead. [Added 15 May 12:30 CET]

Familiar strangers

I came across this slide deck today and thought I’d post it here and make a few comments. David Reed is the Reed of Reed’s Law, a person with genuine visionary status.
He sketches how the technologically-mediated public social fabric might look in the future. In slide 2 he postulates that in order to be well-connected we will need to feel safe, establish trust with “familiar strangers” and to share and collaborate with people in the same location. I am particularly interested in the term “familar strangers,” a seeming oxymoron.
I was first reminded of a quote by Diane Arbus, “Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize.” But then I learned that it’s a term is commonly used in studying social networks and is generally defined as “an individual who is recognized from regular activities, but with whom one does not interact.”
In the future, however, I think the definition can be extended. The recognition can take place via machine-readable data. It all comes down to context, what elements we pour into the concept of context and how we weigh these elements in relation to each other. But it will never be really useful or trustworthy until our digital lives are tagged with open metadata and semantic protocols.
Since the people we don’t know will always be more numerous than those we do, we can gain much more from social search and discovery tools that tap into the knowledge of familiar strangers, applying rules learned from examining our declared identity and our relationships with people we do know and applying them to people that we don’t know.

Always on!

Many of you will remember the early days of the web when The Next Big Thing was “always on” — fast, cheap bandwidth that would liberate us from the curse of dialup and would naturally enable new business models to emerge. We normally thought about this in terms of Internet connectivity, separate from mobile telephony. Since those days we have seen the blurring of the lines between voice and data due to the emergence of VoIP, 3G mobile, smartphones and (still too expensive) flat rate data pricing.

I just came across this article in the NYT, A Pocket-Size Leveler in an Outsize Land, by Anand Giridharadas. And it really hammered home the reality of where we are heading as a planet as far as digital connectivity is concerned.

But the technology has seeped down the social strata, into slums and small towns and villages, becoming that rare Indian possession to traverse the walls of caste and region and class; a majority of subscribers are now outside the major cities and wealthiest states. And while the average bill, of less than $5 per month, represents 7 percent of the average Indian’s income, enough Indians apparently consider the sacrifice worth it: if present trends continue, in five years every Indian will have a cellphone… There are 65 times more cellphone connections than broadband Internet links, and the gap is widening.

A huge percentage of the world’s population is coming online not through PC-based Internet, but through their cell phones. There are 3 billion active mobile device users in the world, 92% of them outside of the US market. (Stats are from Tomi Ahonen.)

What does the social web look like, how does it feel, when your first and only window into that world is a handheld mobile device? Like the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant, your perception is determined by where you touch the animal.

A mobile device is by its very nature always on. Since there is little doubt that even the cheapest cell phones will be able to send and receive pictures and videos, listen to and share music and navigate the so-called mobile web in the not too distant future (as many already do), it is fascinating to think about what kind of new social networking businesses will be built to scale to, um, billions of members.

‘Pataphysics, say what?

Some of you may be puzzled by the title of this blog, so here’s a brief explanation for the curious.

‘Pataphysics (‘Pataphysique in the original), is a term coined by Alfred Jarry in 1893. It is to metaphysics, as metaphysics is to physics, AKA the science of exceptions.

Ubu done in Pongo

Ubu done in Pongo

I became enamored of Alfred Jarry in college after having been recruited to play a bit role in Ubu Roi. I had never heard of him before and was awestruck by its rawness, its power, its vehemence and the modernity of the piece. It premiered in 1896. I could go on at length about Jarry’s take no prisoners artistic position, but suffice it to say he remains a seminal figure for me.

I recently discovered that the word ‘Pataphyics was written into Maxwell’s Silver Hammer by Paul McCartney – “Joan was quizzical, studied ‘pataphysical science in the home…” and immediately loved the image and decided to adopt it here. First, because my train of thought runs on a ‘pataphysical track (Eadem mutata resurgo: “Although changed, I shall arise the same”) and second I am always attracted to the esoteric and ambiguous. The song itself is no great shakes, but I couldn’t resist the Jarry reference.

It will certainly take me a few weeks (months??) to get back into blogging and to dress the blog up with appropriate widgets, decent blog roll and all the other doodads. This is my experience with a self-hosted WordPress blog. So far, so good and this K2 template is the cat’s meow.

Over and out.