A Useful Reminder

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My wife has recently moved back into a full-time job, so we’ve been reworking a lot of the arrangements we’ve had in place to get ourselves and our two kids to the right places at the right times. We don’t generally want to spend unnecessary money on cabs or car services, but last night at dinner we were talking about Tuesdays, where our work schedules and the kids’ afterschool and piano lessons create a tight schedule, and the role that green cabs (a godsend) or a car service could play there.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about Uber recently,” she said.

Having watched the recent Uber kerfluffle evolve over the past few days on Twitter, blogs, the my other standard online news sources, I prepared myself.

“People seem to like it a lot. Do you think it’s worth trying?”

I was floored. After days of what seemed to me like nonstop coverage of what was (putting everything else aside) a public relations disaster for Uber, my wife had seen and heard absolutely nothing about it.

In recent years I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid getting too immersed in the tech scene, and I no longer find it surprising if a friend mentions a company, or huge news about a company, that I know little or nothing about. But the Uber situation felt to me like it was well beyond that stage, like it was common knowledge. And it really, really isn’t. Today I’ve asked half a dozen people at the publishing company where I work about Uber, several of them focused on the online side of the business, and only two had even the most basic idea of what I was talking about.

It doesn’t seem like a problem to me that my wife doesn’t know about the Facebook Groups app, or that Airbnb is starting a magazine, but in this case the gap between geek common knowledge and normal common knowledge is just a little unsettling.

And just for the record, none of the people I talked to today had even heard of the USA Freedom Act.

Unintended Consequences

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A Hyperbolic Gedankenexperiment In Five Acts

I. Modern Times

The industrial revolution began in the 18th century. The steam engine, the cotton gin, the sewing machine, the Bessemer method of processing steel, dynamite; a variety of inventions and subsequent refinements led to an increasingly industrialized, urbanized society.

But by the mid to late 19th century, it was clear that there were undesirable side effects to these changes. Many urban centers were horribly polluted (the famous London fog was in large part a toxic byproduct of industry), traditional modes of living became economically infeasible, and people struggled to adapt to both the new capabilities and the new obligations that arose from those capabilities. 

As the negative side of industrial development became increasingly clear, some people pushed for reform of the most blatant abuses (think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle), and some opted out of the system entirely, seeing in the pre-industrial past a more natural, human way of living. In time, we became more adapted to this industrialized world and culture, and made some changes to ourselves and our society to make this way of life more sustainable.

And then, roughly two centuries into this process, we learned that — even in its somewhat reformed state — our industrialized culture has had an impact not just on our lives, but on the earth itself. We find ourselves struggling with global warming and increasing scarcity of the resources required to support industrial societies. We have learned that the implications of industrialization were larger than we could ever have imagined at the start of the process.

II. Electronic Super Highway

The communications revolution began in the 20th century. The telephone, fax machines, email, text messages, and “social” apps launched from ubiquitous personal communication devices; a variety of inventions and subsequent refinements led to an increasingly connected society.

But by the end of the 20th century, it was clear that there were undesirable side effects to these changes. Many felt overwhelmed by the ever-increasing volume of communication, by the decreasing distinction between work time and personal time, and people struggled to adapt to both the new capabilities and the new obligations that came with those capabilities.

As the negative side of developments in communication became increasingly clear, some people pushed for reform of the most blatant abuses (think companies’ “email-free Fridays” experiments and the “digital sabbath” movement), and some opted out of the system entirely, seeing in the the pre-always-connected past a more natural, human way of living. In time we became more adapted to this ultra-connected world and culture, and made some changes to ourselves and our society to make this way of life more sustainable.

And then…? 

III. A Brief History of [a Recent] Time

Perhaps it’s normal to feel the technological and cultural changes that happen during one’s lifetime are striking, significant changes, but I certainly feel that the degree of change in the technology and cultural norms of communication that has taken place in the past forty three years is unprecedented.

I’m just barely old enough to remember a world where my parents made sure they got to the bank on Friday afternoons to withdraw whatever cash they needed for the weekend. No ATMs: once the banks closed you were out of luck. We made long-distance telephone calls as brief as possible, because of the expense. Once or twice a year we received a fat “round robin” letter in the mail. This letter (or bundle of letters, really) circulated around our extended family with updates on the births, deaths, weddings, graduations, new jobs, and new houses.

My parents spent most of their professional lives in a world where inter-office memos circulated in manila envelopes. Information that needed to get to another organization quickly was sent by courier, or next day air. Correspondence via postal mail was the standard, phone calls for high priority issues.

I didn’t have a personal email account until I got to college, and I was on my third office job before I was given a professional email account. As late as my mid 20s, if I wanted to go out but had not made plans with friends, I would go someplace that I knew they were likely to be, because there was no way to contact them.

Judging by the current norms, we were woefully out of touch, even with the people closest to us.

IV. Back to the Future

On an average day, I receive about 40 emails at work that require some degree of thoughtful, immediate response [about 125 different people emailed recently]. Depending on which organizations we’re working with at a given time I’ll be in and out of Trello [12 users], Basecamp [45 users], Jira [10 users], or Liquidplanner [five users] a dozen or more times to comment or kibitz.

My personal email account is usually three or four messages per day that need a relatively immediate response, with a scattered handful that need some degree of attention. Perhaps half a dozen text messages (except on complicated days, when that number easily quadruples), and — despite my best efforts to discourage it — two or three phone calls.

I check Twitter occasionally throughout the day [following 353 accounts], and will engage with it more often when I receive @replies or direct messages, which trigger a notification on my phone.

Tumblr is no longer installed on my phone, but I tend to check my dashboard [following 385 blogs] two or three times a day when I’m in front of a computer.

It’s virtually impossible to get a true number, but I probably interact in near real-time with several dozen people via one channel or another every single day, and passively accept input from a much larger number. And while I may skew towards one end of the communication spectrum, I don’t believe my numbers would seem out of whack to many of us today. That I deleted my Facebook account years ago probably means that my number is lower than many.

V. Slouching Towards Bethlehem

For a while, eliminating email spam seemed the answer of choice: we wanted the signal, there was just too much noise. But we emerged largely victorious from the spam wars, and still people found it necessary to declare “email bankruptcy” on a regular basis. Then social media services were the answer, particularly of the symmetric variety, because they allowed you to control who was making demands on your attention. But “social media fatigue” became commonplace nonetheless.

We have taken a wide variety of approaches to managing, channelling, and shaping the wave of human interaction (and requests for acknowledgement and interaction) that has been developing over the past couple of decades, and for many of us it’s become something we can more-or-less handle. Normalcy. We’ve got the pollution well enough under control that the toxic smog no longer fills the streets.

But all this — all of it — has happened within my conscious memory. Call it forty years.

Until very, very recently you interacted with the people who were in the room with you, on your street, in the corner bar. The scope and pace of the world, whether business or personal, was limited by physical proximity. A significant part of the relationships human beings had with other human were relationships with the idea of those people, the memory of them, our minds filling in that space until the next letter or visit. For better or worse, we have changed that.

Perhaps I’m wrong that these changes in the volume and nature of human communication are more significant than any that have come before. And maybe I’m wrong to think that there will be unexpected consequences to come as human beings are required to interact with more human beings, more frequently, and more quickly than they ever have before. But I really don’t think so.

For all that I love these tools for communication, for sharing, for all that I’ve spent much of my life immersed in them, I’ve become just a little afraid. Not afraid of the tools themselves, but afraid of where we may be taking ourselves.

I can’t argue that the industrial revolution was a bad thing, but it seems fair to suggest that global warming isn’t good, and the one led us to the other. Not intentionally, of course; we just had no precedent, no frame or reference for even imagining the possible implications of what we were doing.

So, too, I wouldn’t argue that this increasingly connected world is a bad thing in itself, but I still worry that we don’t yet fully understand the bargains that we’re making. I still wonder if we aren’t, unintentionally, of course, setting in motion some fundamental changes.

Death and the Email Account

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My mother-in-law died a few weeks ago, and one of the most surprising things my wife has had to deal with in the process is her mother’s email account. At first it was replying to emails from those who haven’t yet heard, but while difficult, these quickly became few and far between. It was what happened after that that was odd and interesting.

As a “watcher,” there’s no reason to delete emails, or unsubscribe from anything, so little by little the inbox is overtaken by mailing lists, special today-only discounts, and somewhat poignant “come log in and see what your friends are up to” messages from social services. There’s no longer any human, personal content flowing through, but there’s still constant activity.

Watching an email account after the death of its owner is like watching the weeds reclaim an abandoned house.

 

 

3/ The Major Version Update

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[See also part one, Identity and the Internet of Record, and part two, Different, But Also The Same.]

Sure, “Web 2.0″ is mostly a punchline at this point, but there is some truth and some value in the construction. Tim O’Reilly helped bring the phrase into common usage in 2004, so let’s think about what the Web was like a decade ago.

Blogging was in the mainstream consciousness — “blog” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2004 — but blogs were being considered largely as an emerging source of “news” in the traditional sense. LiveJournal had been around for five years already, but personal blogging was still an odd backwater scene.

Thefacebook was less than a year old and still limited to students at a handful of colleges. Twitter would not appear for two more years, and Tumblr was even further out. Six Degrees and Friendster were around, but MySpace was fast becoming the social network that mattered.

YouTube did not exist.

And lest we forget: in 2004 the Internet sat on a desk in your office or living room. You accessed the Internet through a computer, and quite possibly a computer that you shared with others. Your phone was for making phone calls, or the occasional text message. (Average American cell phone users sent about 200 text messages per year in 2004, a number that we blow through in a week or so these days.)

The degree of access to information and people that the Internet offered was incredibly exciting, but by our current standards it was a static, slow, and largely one-directional experience.

Web 2.0 — the rise of the “social Web” — really did represent a massive shift in how we use and how we think about the Internet. We became participants and contributors, rather than an audience. In 2014 the Internet is a thread woven through an ever-increasing part of our lives and relationships, where a decade ago we just browsed the Web sometimes.

Whatever you may think of the label, it’s hard to argue against the proposition that Web 2.0 — the social web — represented a major version upgrade on v1. And while I don’t claim to know what the 3.0 release will look like, I think that the exploration we’re seeing right now represents some pretty late releases in the 2.x series.

Five years. Maybe.

2/ Different, But Also The Same

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[See also part one, Identity and the Internet of Record.]

I see the services mentioned in the first part of this series as evolutionary rather than revolutionary because while they are “not like Facebook” in many ways, they still generally depend heavily on the current Internet’s formulation of identity and community.

Snapchat and Confide are the most traditional in this sense: a user’s identity within these services is fixed, and tied to the user’s offline identity. It’s only the ephemerality of the content being shared that distinguishes them from iMessage or Instagram — you want to share a picture or text with a known friend, but you don’t want that content to reach anyone else.

But there is still a rush — the freedom of lowered inhibitions — that comes with the feeling that the message you’re sending doesn’t go on your permanent record.

It has long since been established that none of the “ephemeral” services provide a real guarantee that the recipient won’t be able to capture and share those messages, but at least you don’t run the risk of accidentally picking the wrong “privacy settings” for that picture. If nothing else, these services provide a clear signal that the sender intends the message to be for the recipient(s) alone.


Sidebar: as I’ve mentioned before, I think that both Snapchat and Confide are more interesting when considered as commentary on our current attention and inbox culture


I have already written about Secret at greater length, but the key issue in this context is that while Secret is an “anonymous” app, it depends on a fixed identity system just as much as Snapchat or Confide.

What is posted to Secret is interesting (to the extent that it is) because we know that the secrets come from people in our general social or professional circles. The rush that the app offers comes from speculating on exactly who posted a particular secret — or from being dead certain that you already know who it was.

But because Secret is tied to the existing fixed identity system, it pushes users towards the kind of “secret” that goes into junior high school slam books. As I noted in the post linked above, without those kinds of secrets in play, I think Secret-the-app has a problem:

In one direction, you’ve got secrets so pedestrian that you don’t care whose they are, and in the other you’ve got secrets from people you have no interest in to begin with.

Secret ends up feeling like the masquerade ball from an 19th century novel: the loss of inhibition that comes with the anonymity is intoxicating for a time, but that anonymity is tightly circumscribed by a rigid social system. And as with a masquerade, the party inevitably ends, and everything that happened while the masks were on may well have consequences back in the “real world” of identity.

I’ve left Whisper for last because while in one sense it’s a very traditional fixed-identity social service, it also has an intriguing, somewhat more radical, twist with physical location coming into play.

A number of people have told me that Whisper seems odd to them because a social network that’s based on physical proximity, rather than pre-existing relationships or interests, feels weird and artificial. But why is a geo-based social network odd? Until very recently, remember, physical proximity to people was the single largest driver for our social relationships.

What intrigues me most about Whisper is that it questions one of the largely unstated assumptions underlying much of the Internet today: what you see when using the service isn’t determined so much by who you are as by where you are. You want to show someone at the office that Whisper you saw at home last night? Too bad, it’s too far away.

But why should what you experience online be the same no matter where you are? It’s assumed that should be the case, but in my view that’s simply because that’s the way we’ve done it thus far.Please note that I’m not suggesting that a geo-centric online experience is particularly better than a purely identity-centric approach, just that there’s no inherent reason that it’s worse, or wrong, either. It’s simply different, and I believe that with the shift to mobile networked devices, it’s a fascinating avenue to explore.

And in a larger sense, questioning whether one’s offline identity must necessarily be the basis for one’s experience online is hugely significant. Location was a relatively obvious candidate to explore as an alternative, but I believe that we will see more — and probably stranger — explorations soon.