(This is a joint blog post from Greg Yardley and myself, that is being published simultaneously on the AttentionTrust.org site)
The initial launch of AttentionTrust.org raised questions, but did not always provide clear answers. Now, with the release of the open-source Attention Extension (ATX), the first attention recorder, we expect more questions to arise. Not all of these questions have immediate answers; like any young organization, we sometimes find the answers through practice. To help increase understanding and spark discussion, the AttentionTrust is featuring individual perspectives on the organization and its Attention Extension. The first two are from Seth Goldstein, Chairman of the AttentionTrust, and Greg Yardley, Product Manager at Root Markets – both were part of the team that put together the Attention Extension. While Seth and Greg both value the Attention Extension, they come at it from different perspectives, think in different ways, and write with different styles; by presenting both essay simultaneously, they hope to reach a greater audience than either essay would individually.
The AttentionTrust is a non-profit organization that is developing and encouraging others to develop open source ‘attention recorders,’ devices that will allow their users to capture what they do and therefore assert some control it. Although later attention recorders will not be so limited, the first is a Firefox extension that saves the user’s clickstream, and gives users the option of forwarding on their clickstreams to services that live up to the AttentionTrust’s high standards – property, mobility, economy, and transparency. In plain English, these principles ensure that you know exactly what’s being recorded about you and how it’s being used, that you own all of that information, and that you have the right to move it around however you like, including the right to delete it completely from each service’s databases. These are not insignificant rights; they’re rarely found online today.
I worked with the AttentionTrust to help create the Attention Recorder primarily because I see it as the start of a new platform, a tool many people can build on top of to create many different types of value. But I also worked with the AttentionTrust because I see it as a fundamentally anti-authoritarian, action-oriented organization, and that appeals to me politically and personally. I appreciate how the AttentionTrust is willing to act - instead of attempting to concretely define every aspect of its mission, its founders simply begun, putting up a rudimentary website and pulling together a talented board of directors.
Although the organization was criticized for its vague public statements, it sparked a process of thought and work that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. The AttentionTrust could have taken those advisors, gone to companies with large data repositories and politely tried to negotiate a little more visibility into how personal data is used. Instead, it began to produce code.
Released as an alpha today, the AttentionTrust’s Attention Recorder allows me to keep a copy of my behavior for myself, regaining some measure of control over it. The Attention Recorder also allows me to share my clickstream with companies committed to upholding the principles of the AttentionTrust – which allows me to retain that control. Clickstreams can tell stories; what I view online is a direct reflection of my aims, desires, and curiosities. Over time, online behavior documents both passing interests and long-term projects, revealing gradual or sudden shifts in mood and behavior. Why would I entrust such a valuable record to another entity, without at least retaining a copy for myself?
Now that the open-source Attention Recorder has been released, it’s my hope that developers will both develop more sophisticated Attention Recorders and create applications for the Attention Recorder’s users. There are wonderful things that can be done with even the limited amount of data sent by the initial Attention Recorder – even I can think of dozens. If developers create compelling applications that the AttentionTrust enables through sophisticated Attention Recorders for them, it’ll give birth to a community – a community where the indiviudal has more control over their recorded activity and is more prone to exercise that control. If this community is large enough, existing organizations will join it. As the community gains momentum and reaches the tipping point, it will transform our Internet from a network of largely ignorant data sources to be aggressively mined to one where individuals are fully-aware participants in two-way transparent relationships with the services they use. This is a change I would love to help bring about.
Of course, that’s easier to say than to do. Right now, the AttentionTrust faces a classic chicken-and-egg problem – the services that make use of AttentionTrust data don’t yet exist, and the services don’t yet exist because there’s not enough installed and transmitting attention recorders to make coding them worthwhile. Yet without an obvious, compelling reason to initially install the recorders, there’s never going to be a large enough user base to make coding a service worth it. Luckily, there are organizations out there committed to creating applications for AttentionTrust data – my company, Root Markets, is one of them. And there are compelling reasons to start using the AttentionTrust recorder now, on every instance of Firefox you run, even in the complete absence of applications. I’m running the Attention Recorder now for two reasons – my fear of lock-in and my fear of forgetting.
Lock-in initially seems like a good problem to have, because it results when services begin to get personalization right. In order to do that, services must make records, so they can see how one user differs from another and adjust the content they show accordingly. Today, I don’t think any one service has mastered personalization – many are useful, but when a new service comes along, we can hop over to it, use it for a short period of time, and get what it has to offer without too much delay. Sure, the services we used in the past know a bit more about us than the new service will, but since the old services weren’t using that information in any particularly in depth way, it’s no great loss. But that may not be the case a year or two from now – I expect it won’t be the case a year or two from now. By then, services on the web should be sophisticated enough to give us quality personalization. And at that point, moving from one service to another begins to carry a switching cost – when your old services get to know a lot about you, any new services you want to try will seem pretty dumb.
When personal vs. impersonal feels like online vs. offline, individuals will become less and less likely to try new services, which will stifle innovation and giving the first movers a tremendous advantage. Unless, of course, an individual could transfer all of the information recorded by their old service to a newer services. If we could simply move our information wholesale from one service to the other, it’d greatly reduce switching costs, allowing us to decide based on features rather than seniority. The Attention Recorder allows me to build up a store of my information today, which I’m hoping will help me avoid lock-in in the future.
I’m also running the Attention Recorder because I’m afraid of forgetting. When I studied Russian history, some time ago, I was struck by just how little remained of people, only a few centuries after their deaths. Only scraps of documentation survive, if any; many individuals have simply ceased to exist. Provided I take care of the data, the Attention Recorder can serve as a record of me, allowing future generations to reconstruct how I thought and when I thought it. Perhaps I’ll be a good Master’s thesis a couple of centuries down the road. Or – more importantly – perhaps I’ll still be around in a couple of centuries. Ray Kurzweill raises the possibility in his The Singularity is Near, a book that’s been on my mind recently – and in case he’s right, and my lifespan is dramatically longer than my ancestors’, I want to make sure I remember who I am and where I came from in the centuries ahead. I wish I could record it all; what I see, what I hear, what I feel. I can’t, yet, although I’m confident I’ll be able to someday, and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to make use of those recorded surroundings some day after that. For now, my clickstream is a good start.
I do anticipate criticisms of the Attention Recorder. I expect that it’ll be called spyware, since it shares some functionality with spyware – it can watch what you do online, and it can transmit that information to a third party. However, the Attention Recorder always remains under the individual’s control. It’s obvious when it’s on and when it’s off – it adds large icons to the browser. It gives the user the ability to pause with a click, add domains to a non-recordable blacklist, and block all pages using the secure https protocol. It allows the user to send their clickstreams only to services approved by the AttentionTrust, which guarantees the user will retain control over the clickstream and how it is used. The Attention Recorder is only spyware if it’s possible to spy on oneself.
I suspect that Attention Recorders may actually provide solutions to the problems of mass surveillance; as storage grows ever cheaper and databases grow more sophisticated, we are approaching the point where it will be possible to record almost everything about almost everything, a recording totality that could completely transform our society. While organizations and individuals have been sorting out how to do this, little concern has been shown for who will do this, and who will benefit from it – the answer by default becomes ‘whoever manages to get there first.’ I suspect that surveillance will continue to come in ever-increasing amounts; the value of the data gathered is simply too great. However, who surveills and how is still undetermined. A half-century’s worth of Orweillian dystopias have assumed the government will reach the recording totality first – or a corporation that has become the government – and the results have not been pleasant for the individual. The AttentionTrust offers a potential alternative to this scenario. If recording of our actions is coming, it should be done by us as individuals, for our benefit, with our knowledge, and under our control. The arrogance of governments and corporations who treat our histories as theirs must be checked; the AttentionTrust may be the tool that lets us check it.
GESTURE PRICE: ATX
"Remember to remember me,
standing still in your past
floating fast, like a hummingbird"
His goal in life was to be an echo.
For the past two months I have been trying to understand the relationship between the following two questions of attention:
- Data cost? What is the actual cost of producing personal data, and how does this add up to be what we lose when we lose our identity online?
- Gesture price? What price could you get for a clear signal of your undivided attention. What do I have to do to prove to you that I am genuinely interested in what you are telling me, selling me or otherwise?
The relationship of data cost to gesture price creates a new exchange ratio for establishing the value of your attention.
We started AttentionTrust.org about six months ago to encourage Internet users that they ought to pay attention to the value of what they pay attention to online. In so far as it was not something that was recognized explicitly anywhere, we simply claimed victory over our data and began to celebrate the win with a bunch of other people who felt the same way about their own data.
The web site we put up was nothing more than a declaration of principles, a list of people involved, and a way to sign up for a badge that you can display as agreeing to the principles and joining the community. There was no distinction between individual and company, as both were recognized to be producers and consumers of attention data.
Then the blog community responded with a strange brew of loud endorsements and loud disses. We realized that we had focused on an important problem and got to work on a potential solution. The fruit of this labor is ATX: the AttentionExtension. ATX is the first open-source, opt-in Internet clickstream recorder. We released this and an associated developer kit on Wednesday October 5, 2005 at a public board meeting for AttentionTrust at the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco.
- Consumers: For those of you that pay attention online, congratulations, you can now spy on yourself! The best defense against spyware is a good offense. We have adware, spyware, malware, researchware, all of which are being done to us. Why not MyWare? ATX is the first of a number of AttentionRecorders that we are planning to help consumers control and communicate their electronic trails. Go here and install a simple Firefox extension that will allow you to turn a switch on and off to record all of your clicks. You can choose whether this information is sent to your own computer or any other server that is AttentionTrust certified. The record includes every url you visit along with a time stamp, redirect and cookie info.
- Developers: For developers that want to invent new Web services based on actual historical clickstream data, you can now spend your time designing killer personalized applications, not worrying about business development deals with corporations. The ATX toolkit offers you a set of scripts that allows any AttentionTrust-certified server to collect clicks from consumers that wish to provide them.
We face a classic bootstrap challenge with ATX: consumers won't invest the effort to record their attention unless there are killer apps that provide tangible value; developers won't invest the effort to design killer apps unless there are enough consumers to make it worth their while. I do not know how we will overcome this challenge. What I do know is that our intentions are authentic and come from a deep empathy for both consumers and developers of Web 2.0. What we lack in terms of adoption now, we will make up later based on our transparency.
DATA COST: MEMEX
It has been 60 years since Vannevar Bush published his concept of the Memex in his article As We May Think in the July 1945 issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Without the benefit of being able to refer to personal computers, the Internet, Google or del.icio.us, Bush nevertheless articulates a vision for Web 2.0 mash-ups as clear and compelling as anything coming out of the blogosphere today:
A record, if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted... This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits from by his inheritence of acquired knowledge... Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him. And his trails do not fade. Wholly new forms of encyclopedia will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified... There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritence from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected. Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race... Presumably, man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.
Bush's presumption that "Man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems." resonates with the agenda of AttentionTrust. I recently read about Amazon's 10th anniversary celebration. I was so impressed by the company's success over time at leveraging such a massive amount of product and people information. What I didnt recognize, however, was that I was celebrating a key anniversary simultaneously: my 10th year as an Amazon customer. And what do I have to show for it? A lot of great books for starters. What does Amazon have to show for it? A fair amount of my money over the years. The symmetry quickly breaks down if you consider how much incremental enterprise value Amazon has generated based on the record of my attention (ie my browsing and purchase history) in the context of other consumers; I however lack an equivalent means of aggregating this and other records to create a similar increase in personal value.
We are clicking away, constantly, more and more, deeper into sites through sponsored links and affiliate redirects. We download things that talk to other things on our computer about us, and we hope this data does not get connected to our user names and passwords on other servers that might connect to our credit and reputation. The data produced by what we pay attention to exists in a lawless environment that encourages companies to do almost anything they can to increase what they know about you to generate more value out of our expressions of interest. Besides, even if we were more careful, how could we keep up with our own records? Our attention is fractured in a way that it never has before, tempted each minute by blackberries, cel phones, and assorted other electronic screens. More and more bloggers are now ignoring the same RSS readers that they are predicting will gain mass market adoption any day now. To what extent does information overload contribute to the surge in attention deficit disorder?
Let us imagine for a moment that there was a transparent, passive means of recording information about every site we visit, every form we fill out, every email we send, every instant message we receive, every call we make. Most of us would acknowledge the extent to which we have exposed ourselves to different people in different ways in recent years, and yet few of us invest the effort to maintain these "trails." Why should we after all? Instead, we have quietly abdicated these memories to multiple 3rd parties that we hope won't have a broad enough picture to relate these personal data fragments to a single electronic, legal, economic identity- otherwise known as me.
At approximately the same time that Bush released his essay on the Memex, Norbert Weiner issued the following warning in his original introduction to Cybernetics (or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine):
There are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous).
Similarly today, the same Internet technology that has liberated us from paper, floppy disks and wires has contributed an unparalleled concentration of power (in the form of information about our trails). It is convenient to assume we have the appropriate checks and balances in place to prevent anything really bad from happending, and yet history has continually proven "hope" to be a poor defense against the will of the "unscrupulous."
Most people carry within them a personal touchstone of evil against which they can distinguish good from bad. For me, it is the stories my Nana Kass would not share with me of the horrors of her experience in the Nazi concentration camps. There is no stronger reminder for me of the dangers of concentration of power in the hands of the unscrupulous than my memory of her pursed lips. You can only imagine my interest when I got the following note in August from Jeremy Norman, a superb collector, curator and dealer of early technology history, from whom I had just purchased an original edition of the 1945 Atlantic Monthly: "Note that the particular issue of the Atlantic Monthly, very rare in its original wrappers, also contains some articles of Holocaust interest." When I finally received the issue, I opened to the following article:
For the Record: Buchenwald, by Lt. Col. Charles R. Codman:
Senior aide to General Patton, Lt. Col. Charles R. Codman was one of the first American officers to see Buchenwald. In his letter to the Editor, Colonel Codman says: "I have written it only because I thought I ought to. I don't like horrors any more than you do. It probably won't be believed- even with the dozens of photographs I had taken. There it is- take it or leave it. Leave it, and there will be another war in ten years.
I was struck then, and continue to be, by the connection between Bush's celebration of the Memex as a recording device and the cautionary title of Lt. Col. Codman's letter which starts: "For the Record."
Perhaps the ultimate cost of not remembering our data trails is far worse than I had imagined. Is it conceivable that our carefree disenfranchisement from the attention data we produce could, left unchecked, lead to some sort of Datacaust? One only has to read through the testimonies of those who have had their identities stolen to realize that this is more than an idle threat. The more we express ourselves electronically, the more residues we leave of ourselves in the network that maintain our identity but not our control. Whereas in the offline world, biology, gravity and optics tend to hold us together, our digital shadows dont always move with us. Pieces often fall off and become lodged in other systems that we don't control. These systems typically belong to companies that sell Internet media and consumer data. This includes the nasty adware, spyware, and email spammers; as well as the hundreds of thousands of legitimate advertisers buying keywords on search engines and purchasing personal information from credit agencies and other data brokers. Companies are selling our data to other companies for billions and billions of dollars each year, frequently without our knowledge much less our consent.
I acknowledge that the servers that I interact with deserve a copy of the record of my attention.
But so do I.
In 1907, German Sociologist Georg Simmel wrote his seminal work the Philosophy of Money. In it, he describes money as a peculiar abstraction of the intellect. But he acknowledges that despite its abstract nature, the determination of monetary value establishes a reality similar to that of the introduction of pocket watches:
The conceivable elements of action become objectively and subjectively calculable rational relationships and in so doing progressively eliminate the emotional reactions and decisions which only attach themselves to the turning points of life, to the final purposes.... The mathematical character of money imbues the relationship of the elements of life with a precision, a reliability in the determination of parity and disparity, an unambiguousness in agreements and arrangements in the same way as the general use of pocket watches has brought about a similar effect in daily life. Like the determination of abstract value by money, the determination of abstract time by clocks provides a system for the most detailed and definite arrangements and measurements that imparts an otherwise unattainable transparency and calculability to the contents of life.
Time, Money, Attention.