On Friday Jan 20 we opened up our doors to about 30 people showed up at our office for /Vaultstock! What was it? Kind of an open meeting for anybody who had trusted us with their clickstream enough to open a /Vault and wanted to spend an afternoon with us to discuss some proposed features and whether they would find them useful. I was really happy with the turn-out as it brought together a wide assortment of geographies, professions and attitudes. Furthest afield was James Crittenden IV of the Fellaheen Radio Network who came all the way from Portland. I had met him through commenting on a blog post he made about attention. James runs a large security network on behalf of a large public school system. He came to NY for the first time ever with his wife, having left their three young children with her mom. Can you imagine his response to seeing the city like this:
In addition to reaching out to users, we also wanted to connect with those who were the most vocally critical or dismissive of AttentionTrust.org and /ROOT Markets. Squarely in this camp was Andrew Teman who, after reading my blog post about AttentionTrust responded with the best dis of all 2005 with: "I honestly believe that if someone like Seth Goldstein farted in a mic, recorded it as a .fart file, call it fartcasting, within 5 minutes, everyone on the open media 100 would be hailing it as world changing." Suffice it to say that he showed up, I gave him a big shout out at the outset, and he later wrote about the event here. Eric Schoenfeld of Business 2.0 / CNNMoney also attended and did a great job summing up the event.
We showed for the first time a working prototype of the new /View of clickstream data that was designed by Web 2.0 visualization rock stars Stamen Design (pictured Tom Apodaca who plays flash, left and Eric Rodenbeck who plays lead vocals, center). Not seen is Michal Migurski who does the server-side dirty work:
What they have done is take the basic interface designed by Jonas:
which looks like this:
and revealed a new level of granularity:
They happened to show my own clickstream in the demo, which not even I was aware of until it confronted me. Immediately, I saw that the top loser of the week was EBay and the top gainer was Crutchfield, which perfectly mirrored my week of shopping for a certain Toshiba TV on EBay only to get frustrated after losing a few auctions and turning to Crutchfield to buy it retail. This was a concrete, if private, answer to the question of "what is attention?" Well, this is attention, a visual representation of my clicks from the past week. It was like one of those science experiments that seemed trivial in and of itself, but demonstrated a broader truth whose implications are just beginning to be felt.
The experience reminded me of Walter Benjamin's reaction to the slow-motion effect enabled by film in the 1930's:
By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. ... With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.” Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses. Walter Benjamin, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
After zooming in and out of my clickstream based on number of days, time of day, most popular sites, etc, I introduced our Chief Scientist roml Lefkowitz:
r0ml reiterated the meme he recently discussed on his blog, namely how at the other side of each commercial interaction you have there is a company's CRM database maintaining a record. What would happen if you had access to a copy of this data and could share, for example, your Barnes and Noble purchase history with Amazon, or your Costco purchase history with Wal-Mart?
Greg Yardley followed r0ml with a stunningly deadpan rendition of "someday my startup will come and (if the powers that be lock in all the user data) nobody will use me."
Based on the feedback we received, and in the context of the recent media focus on data rights, there are a number of critical questions that have emerged:
How would we feel if we were treated physically like our data is currently being treated on the internet?
Is the benefit of maintaining copies of the data you produce self-evident or does it need to be framed in the context of something else (ie convenience, financial reward, etc?)
Will the inevitable government regulation of data brokerage make it easier or harder for me to access my own data?
Is there a legitimate mechanism for me to house my data such that nobody, neither individual, corporate or governmental can access it without my consent?
Against the backdrop of these questions, we are working on a number of significant iterations of both our /Vaults and our broader consumer data /Exchange that we will be presenting in March at ETech and PCForum. Together they represent a new kind of human computing system, one that rests on the principles of AttentionTrust.org and addresses the threat first identified by Norbert Weiner more than 50 years ag in the Introduction to the first edition of The Human Use of Human Beings:
Control, in other words, is nothing but the sending of messages which effectively change the behavior of the recipient... I wish to devote this book to a protest against this inhuman use of human beings; for in my mind, any use of a human being in which less is demanded of him and less is attributed to him than his full status is a degradation and a waste. Norbert Weiner, the Human Use of Human Beings, 1950 (Introduction to the First Edition)
Our challenge as consumers in the age of paid search and performance marketing is how to wrest control back from a synthetic black box that has begun to anticipate our intentions for its proprietary gain. I am not sure exactly what attributing full status to a human being looks like on the Internet, but it likely relates to making the value of private gestures public. Managing the private / public dynamics in any sector is tough, but particularly when it comes to the Internet which was borne of a public good but is seen by some to have become a vehicle for private greed. People are skeptical of getting taken advantage of by companies across the board, but they reserve special cynicism for those online data brokers asking for personal information.
And so the most important skeptic at /Vaultstock was indeed James Crittenden IV who embodied the values of a community who hear "root" and think unix system prompt, without pause. Here we were, a bunch of idealistic New York finance and advertising technology geeks, trying to speak with authority about consumer data rights to Crittenden, a bearded, pierced professional intrusion detection skeptic from Oregon. If we could agree on the same most important problems to solve, then our service would be far more valuable than the sum of a click stream vault and a mortgage leads marketplace.
If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do - get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you've thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one. So yes, you need to keep up. You need to keep up more to find out what the problems are than to read to find the solutions. Richard Hamming, Bellcore, 1986
As Crittenden wrote in his recap of the day:
As a security individual, I felt out of place in the focus groups; I was the only one approaching the conversations from a network security perspective. The groups were primarily marketer’s and professional bloggers. However, I did not feel unimportant or misunderstood. It was a very positive experience; more positive then my own employment situation. In fact, I think that if /ROOT.net pays attention (get it) to the audio recordings of /VAULTSTOCK, not only will they have a clearer understanding of how users might use their service, as it is right now, but they will also have several ideas and options to add into their recorder software; possibly making the recorder a more useful tool for general computing.
This description of general computing reminds me of the Whirdwind, perhaps the first computer to be marketed outside of technical circles, which Jay Forrester designed at MIT in 1951.
As you see from the illustration, they are all corporate, industrial, and military applications. What is missing here is the individual; as if even though a Whirlwind was operated by a human, its applications were always broader than a single individual (or as Bellichek reminds his Patriots, "there is no "I" in team.") But now, fifty years later, we are coming to the realization that so much of the data populating so many of these broader applications is coming from ourselves. There is an "I" in team, and the longer I abdicate control over my data to whomever is facile enough to take it, the more work it is going to be to design a system that registers my unique identity.
A little ditty came to mind that captured-- for a geek crowd at least-- the key benefits that are guiding the development of our service for people:
My unique algorithm
My natural API
My human computer
/ROOT makes me me
A few weeks ago when I was in SF, I met Michael Goldhaber for the first time. In person he had the distinct look of Charleton Heston as Moses returning from seeing the burning bush in the Ten Commandments:
His essay on the Attention Economy was instrumental in focusing the ideas around AttentionTrust. In it, he argued that "Attention is scarce because each of us has only so much of it to give, and it can come only from us -- not machines, computers or anywhere else," which underscores the need for attention-based computing to be ultimately social in nature. He also emphasizes that user value in the attention economy comes through"expressing yourself fully," which may attract the scarce attention of others who identify with you and therefore establish your influence.
Goldhaber is a physicist and has spent more than ten years focused on describing Attention as an organic, essential substance. Our conversation wandered from the formulation of fame, to Wittgenstein's Investigations to the recent discovery of Mirror Neurons. It's the story of an Italian scientist who connects an amplifier to the brain synapse of a monkey. The monkey picks up a piece of fruit to eat and machine makes a sound. The scientist forgets to turn off the machine, and is about to lick from an ice cream cone and the monkey makes the same sound: observed gestures stimulate the same circuitry as those gestures directly performed. One of the consequences is that I can experience new gestures, which I own privately, simply by observing the public gestures of others. This is what I get from celebrities, athletes, and artists when I pay attention to them. In so far as this is in my /Vault, I will be able to gauge which of my interests have the highest signal to noise ratio in terms of optimizing around saving time, increasing my influence, and/or making money, to name just a few benefits.
My attention is increasingly being mediated electronically. This means it can be tracked and traced and potentially refined.
How can this process of attention filtration help us get out of the attention deficit we find ourselves in?
And if we all aspire to having fewer distractions and more uninterrupted focus , then perhaps this is the right problem to be working on.