June 2008

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Dave Weinberger is blogging bits of the valuably fecund “Reboot” conference this week. Included is a nice summary of Jaiku-founder Jyri Engestrom’s talk. In the past, he’s been very influential among social design folk for pushing the idea of “social objects” — a powerful notion that helps clarify why people do what they do socially (usually it’s around some artifact, subject or object).

This time, Jyri pulls the frame out a bit to look at the bigger picture of social patterns and talks about “nodal points” — there’s more explanation on the post, but here’s a taste:

“Social peripheral vision” lets you see what’s next. If you are unaware of other people’s intentions, you can’t make plans. “Imagine a physical world where we have as much peripheral information at our disposal as in WoW.” Not just “boring update feeds.” Innovate, especially on mobiles. We will see this stuff in the next 24 months. Some examples: Maps: Where my friends are. Phonebook: what are people up to. Email: prioritized. Photos: Face recognition.

light childrenThe terrifically talented Kyle T Webster and cohort Andy Horner have completed the first full edition of their graphic novel Light Children. It looks to be gorgeous and enthralling. Go check it out!

From the site:

On the eve of graduation, six friends struggle with the fact that two of their oldest are about to graduate and leave the others behind. But just as they devise an exciting plan for one last memorable adventure, a bizarre secret is uncovered. Fascination turns to fear when they realize this discovery may mean that Eli, a sick child new to the orphanage, may be in great danger.

The girls rush to warn Eli and re-gather their friends, but have yet to realize the worst day of their lives has just begun.

Within a larger, and more political, point in his column, George Will explains something about structuring systems so as to “nudge” people toward a particular behavior pattern, without mandating anything: George F. Will: Nudge Against the Fudge

Such is the power of inertia in human behavior, and the tendency of individuals to emulate others’ behavior, that there can be huge social consequences from the clever framing of the choices that nudgeable people—almost all of us—make. Choice architects understand that every choice is made in a context, and that contexts are not “neutral”—they inevitably encourage certain outcomes. Organizing the context can promote outcomes beneficial to choosers and, cumulatively, to society.

It’s describing a thesis behind the book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness” from a couple of people who just happen to also be advising Obama.

Will’s examples are things like automatic-yet-optional enrollment in an employer’s 401k, or automatic-yet-optional defaulting organ-donor checkboxes on drivers’ licenses.

But, beyond the implications for government (which I think are fascinating, but don’t have time to get into right now), I think this is an excellent way of articulating something I’ve been trying to explain for quite a while about digital environments. Basically, that even in digital environments, there are ways to ‘nudge’ people’s decisions — both explicit and tacit — with the way you shape the focus of an interface, the default choices, the recommended paths. But you still give them plenty of freedom.

To the more libertarian or paranoid folks, this might sound horribly big-brother. But that’s only if you have a choice between a system and no system at all. The assumption is that — as with government — anarchy isn’t an option and you have to build *something*. Once you acknowledge that you have to build it, then you have to make these decisions anyway. Why not make them with some coherent, whole understanding of the healthiest, most beneficial outcomes?

The question then becomes, what is “beneficial” and to whom? That’ll be driven by a given organization’s mortgage default hollywood and values. But the technique is neutral — and should be considered in the design of any system.

I don’t know how I missed this before, but I’m glad I ran across it.

If you haven’t seen this very brief clip of Edward Tufte critiquing the iPhone interface, check it out.

A couple of salient quotes:

“The idea is that the content is the interface, the information is the interface, not computer-administrative debris.”

“Here’s the general theory: To clarify, add detail. Imagine that. To clarify, add detail. And … clutter and overload are not an attribute of information, they are failures of design. If the information is in chaos, don’t foreclosure defense hollywood throwing out information, instead fix the design.”

Chris Brogan has a great post about 100 Personal Branding Tactics Using Social Media, with some helpful tips on creating that thing we keep hearing about “the Personal Brand.”

I’ve always struggled with this, though. I’ve been doing this “blogging” thing a long time. In fact, my first “home page” was a text-only index file. Why? Because there weren’t any graphical Web browsers yet. And even once there were, the only people who were online to look at any such thing were net-heads like myself. There was already a sense of informality and mutual understanding, and “netizens” seemed to prize a level of authenticity above almost anything else. Anything that looked like a personal “brand” was suspect.

cattlebrand.jpg

So, something about the DNA of my initial forays into personal expression on the ‘net has stuck with me. Namely, that it’s my little corner of the world, where I say what’s on my mind, take it or leave it, with very little concern about my brand or what-not. I am not saying this is a good thing. It just is.

Over the years, though, I’ve become more conscious of the shift in context. It’s like I had a little corner lot in a small town, with a ramshackle house and flotsam in the yard, and ten years later I look out to see somebody developed a new subdivision around me, with McMansions, chemically enhanced lawns, and joggers wearing those special clothes that you only wear if you’re really *into* jogging. You know what I mean.

And now I’m just not sure where my blog stands in all this. I don’t keep up with it often, but if I do it’s not because I’ve set a goal for myself, it’s just because my brainfartery is more active (and long-form) than usual. I feel the need to have a more polished, disciplined blog-presence, with fire watch new york the right trimmings … but then I’d miss having this thing here. And I know for a fact that if I had both, I’d be so short-circuited about which I should post on, I’d end up doing nothing with either of them.

Or maybe I’m just lazy?

Note: One of Brogan’s awesome tips is to add some visual interest with each post; hence a CC licensed image from mharrsch.

The Hyperlink

Whenever I say that the Hyperlink changed the world, people look at me like “huh?” The lowly hyperlink is often overlooked as just a ‘feature’ of the Internet or the Web in particular. But I’ve always thought that was a bit backwards. The hyperlink is what made the web possible — it is for the Web what carbon is for carbon-based life-forms.

So I was tickled to find that Alex Wright’s excellent article on The Mundaneum Museum has this gem of a quotation from Kevin Kelly:

“The hyperlink is one of the most underappreciated inventions of the last century,” Mr. Kelly said. “It will go down with radio in the pantheon of great inventions.”

When I first heard about the Kozinski story (some mature content in the story), it was on NPR’s All Things Considered. The interviewer spoke with the LA Times reporter, who went on about how the judge had “published” offensive material on a “public website.”

I won’t go into detail on the story itself. But I urge anyone to take the LA Times article with a grain or two of salt. Evidently, the thing got started when someone who had an ax to grind with the judge sent links and info to the media, and said media went on to make it all look as horrible as possible. However, the more we learn about the details in the case, the more it sounds like the LA Times is twisting the truth a great deal. **

To me, though, the content issue isn’t as interesting (or challenging) as the “public website” idea.

Basically, this was a web server with an IP and URL on the Internet that was intended for family to share files on, and whatever else (possibly email server too? I don’t know). It’s the sort of thing that many thousands of people run — I lease one of my own that hosts this blog. But the difference is that Kozinski (or, evidently, his grown son) set it up to be private for just their use. Or at least he thought he had — he didn’t count on a disgruntled individual looking beyond the “index” page (that clearly signaled it as a private site) and discovering other directories where images and what-not were listed.

Lawrence Lessig has a great post here: The Kozinski mess (Lessig Blog). He makes the case that this wasn’t a ‘public’ site at all, since it wasn’t intended to be public. You could only see this content if you typed various additional directories onto the base URL. Lessig likens it to having a faulty lock on your front door, and someone snooping in your private stuff and then telling about it. (Saying it was an improperly installed lock would be more accurate, IMHO.)

The comments on the page go on and on — much debate about the content and the context, private and public and what those things mean in this situation.

One point I don’t see being made (possibly because I didn’t read it all) is that there’s now a difference between “public” and “published.”

It used to be that anything extremely public — that is, able to be seen by more than just a handful of people — could only be there if it was published that way on purpose. It was impossible for more than just the people in physical proximity to hear you, see you or look at your stuff unless you put a lot of time and money into making it that way: publishing a book, setting up a radio or TV station and broadcasting, or (on the low end) using something like a CB radio to purposely send out a public signal (and even then, laws limited the power and reach of such a device).

But the Internet has obliterated that assumption. Now, we can do all kinds of things that are intended for a private context that unwittingly end up more public than we intended. By now almost everyone online has sent an email to more people than they meant to, or accidentally sent a private note to everyone on Twitter. Or perhaps you’ve published a blog article that you only thought a few regular readers would see, but find out that others have read it who were offended because they didn’t get the context?

We need to distinguish between “public” and “published.” We may even need to distinguish between various shades of “published” — the same way we legally distinguish between anti bullying video of personal injury — by determining intent.

There’s an informative thread over at Groklaw as well.

**About the supposedly pornographic content, I’ll only say that it sounds like there was no “pornography” as typically understood on the judge’s server, but only content that had accumulated from the many “bad-taste jokes” that get passed around the net all the time. That is, nothing more offensive than you’d see on an episode of Jackass or South Park. Whether or not that sort of thing is your cup of tea, and whether or not you think it is harmfully degrading to any segment of society, is certainly your right. Some of the items described are things that I roll my eyes at as silly, vulgar humor, and then forget about. But describing a video (which is currently on YouTube) where an amorously confused donkey tries mount a guy who was (inadvisedly) trying to relieve himself in a field as “bestiality” is pretty absurd. Monty Python it ain’t; but Caligula it ain’t either.

Everybody’s linking to this article today, but I had to share a chunk of it that gave me goosebumps. It’s this bit from Leonard Kleinrock:

: September 2, 1969, is when the first I.M.P. was connected to the first host, and that happened at U.C.L.A. We didn’t even have a camera or a tape recorder or a written record of that event. I mean, who noticed? Nobody did. . . . on October 29, 1969, at 10:30 in the evening, you will find in a log, a notebook log that I have in my office at U.C.L.A., an entry which says, “Talked to SRI host to host.” If you want to be, shall I say, poetic about it, the September event was when foreclosure defense hollywood infant Internet took its first breath.

IDEA 2008

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I’d like to encourage everyone to attend IDEA 2008, a conference (organized by the IA Institute) that’s been getting rave reviews from attendees since it started in 2006. It’s described as “A conference on designing complex information spaces of all kinds” — and it’s happening in grand old Chicago, October 7-8, 2008.

Speakers on the roster include people from game design, interaction design and new-generation advertising/marketing, and the list is growing, including (for some reason) my own self. I think I’m going to be talking about how context works in digital spaces … but I have until October, so who knows what it’ll turn into?

IDEA is less about the speakers, though, than the topics they spark, and the intimate setting of a few hundred folks all seeing the same presentations and having emergency action plan nyc of excuses to converse, dialog and generally brou some haha.