Open-washing and the CamelOpenCircle …Jerk


(Filed under: sharks jumped.)

Brynn got this in the mail last week and shared it with me. Let’s just say that it struck a nerve.

I’ve worried for some time that “open” as a market differentiator is becoming diluted and washed out, just as “organic” and “green” before. Like “2.0”, companies are coming to see “open” as just the next checkbox-marketing-trend to hitch their fading brands to.

Consider my fears confirmed.

Camel doesn’t really believe in openness — let alone grok the concept — let alone give a shit about openness — but since all the cool kids are doing it, they’re happy to co-opt the label to win points. Let the backfire begin.

At the height of cynicism, we have a company whose primary business is architecting new schemes to kill people with their death products, aligning their brand with “openness”. Consider the line crossed.

Watch Mad Men for five minutes and see if you don’t think that these assholes should be strung up by the balls (since it’s predominantly white men who run these companies) and left for the vultures. Or left to be lynched by the families of the addicted and deceased.

Fuck it, I’m going to go ahead and break Godwin’s Law. In the spirit of openness.

It is estimated that the Nazis killed 20,946,000 people from 1933 to 1945 (R.J. Rummel, Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder, 1993.)

Guess how many people are killed by tobacco-related illnesses every year?

Roughly 20% of that number. Smoking and tobacco-related diseases cause on the order of 4.2 million premature deaths per year (according to the WHO Tobacco Atlas in 2000). That means that tobacco kills in five years what it took the Nazis twelve.

And, according to the World Bank, smoking also contributes a disproportionate number of deaths in the United States over all:

Mortality Ages 35-69/Cause Percent From Smoking
All Cancer, 1985 39%
All Cancer, 1995 42%
Lung Cancer, 1985 91%
Lung Cancer, 1995 91%
COPD, 1985 78%
COPD, 1995 80%
Vascular Disease, 1985 31%
Vascular Disease, 1995 33%
Mouth and Throat Cancers, 1985 67%
Mouth and Throat Cancers, 1995 68%

And the future? The World Health Organization projects that from 2025 to 2030, 10 million people worldwide will die from tobacco-related causes (the majority in developing countries):

WHO Estimated Deaths

So, you want to be part of the “open” revolution, Camel? Welcome!

I presume this means that you’re ready to start coming clean and owning up to the millions of deaths your industry has caused? Or is “CamelOpenCircle” just another marketing gimmick to trick people into thinking that you’re on the up and up of what’s trendy?

Newsflash muthafuckas: openness is hot not because it’s a gimmick, but because it means something to those of us who are tired of being lied to, being mislead, being cajoled and tricked by companies like you. FUCK YOU. Brands like yours could learn a thing or two from openness; too bad everything about you is the direct inverse of everything that we stand for.

Bottom line:

Smoking will fucking kill you

…and aligning yourselves with openness will never change that.


Generation Open

I spent the weekend in DC at TransparencyCamp, an event modeled after BarCamp focused on government transparency and open access to sources of federal data (largely through APIs and web services). Down the street, a social-media savvy conference called PowerShift convened over 12,000 of the nation’s youth to march on Congress to have their concerns about the environment heard. They were largely brought together on social networks.

Last week, after an imbroglio about a change to their terms of service, Facebook published two plain-language documents setting the course for “governing Facebook in an Open and Transparent way“: a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities coupled with a list of ten guiding principles.

The week before last, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) released a set of recommendations for open government that, among other things, called for government data to be available in formats that promote reuse and are available via public APIs.

WTF is going on?

Clearly something has happened since I worked on the Spread Firefox project in 2004 — a time when Mozilla was an easily dismissed outpost for “modern communists” (since meritocracy and sharing equals Communism, apparently).

Seemingly, the culture of “open” has infused even the most conservative and blood-thirsty organizations with companies falling over each other to claim the mantle of being the most open of them all.

So we won, right?

I wouldn’t say that. In fact, I think it’s now when the hard work begins.

. . .

The people within Facebook not only believe in what they’re doing but are on the leading edge of Generation Open. It’s not merely an age thing; it’s a mindset thing. It’s about having all your references come from the land of the internet rather than TV and becoming accustomed to — and taking for granted — bilateral communications in place of unidirectional broadcast forms. Where authority figures used to be able to get away with telling you not to talk back, Generation Open just turns to Twitter and lets the whole world know what they think.

But it’s not just that the means of publishing have been democratized and the new medium is being mastered; change is flowing from the events that have shaped my generation’s understanding of economics, identity, and freedom.

Maybe it started with Pearl Jam (it did for me!). Or perhaps witnessing AOL incinerate Netscape, only to see a vast network emerge to champion the rise of Firefox from its ashes. Maybe being bombarded by stinking piles of Flash and Real Player one too many times lead to a realization that, “yeah, those advertisers ain’t so cool. They’re fuckin’ up my web!” Of course watching Google become a residue on the web itself, imbuing its colorful primaries on HTTP, as a lichen seduces a redwood, becoming inseparable from the host, also suggests a more organic approach to business as usual.

Talking to people who hack on Drupal or Mozilla, I’m not surprised when they presume openness as matter of course. They thrive on the work of those who have come before and in turn, pay it forward. Why wouldn’t their work be open?

Talking to people at Facebook (in light of the arc of their brief history) you might not expect openness to come culturally. Similarly, talking to Microsoft you could presume the same. In the latter case, you’d be right; in the former, I’m not so sure.

See, the people who populate Facebook are largely from Generation Open. They grew up in an era where open source wasn’t just a bygone conclusion, but it was central to how many of them learned to code. It wasn’t in computer science classes at top universities — those folks ended up at Arthur Anderson, Accenture or Oracle (and probably became equally boring). Instead, the hobbyist kids cut their teeth writing WordPress plugins, Firefox extensions, or Greasemonkey scripts. They found success because of openness.

ShareThat Zuckerberg et al talk about making the web a more “open and social place” where it’s easy to “share and connect” is no surprise: it’s the open, social nature of the web that has brought them such success, and will be the domain in which they achieve their magnum opus. They are the original progeny of the open web, and its natural heirs.

. . .

Obama is running smack against the legacy of the baby boomers — the generation whose parents defeated the Nazis. More relevant is that the boomers fought the Nazis. Their children, in turn, inherited a visceral fear of machinery, in large part thanks to IBM’s contributions to the near-extermination of an entire race of people. If you want to know why privacy is important — look to the power of aggregate knowledge in the hands of xenophobes 70 years ago.

But who was alive 70 years ago? Better: who was six years old and terribly impressionable fifty years ago? Our parents, that’s who.

And it’s no wonder why the Facebook newsfeed (now stream) and Twitter make these folks uneasy. The potential for abuse is so great and our generation — our open, open generation — is so beautifully naive.

. . .

We are the generation that will meet Al Qaeda not “head on”, but by the length of each of its tentacles. Unlike our parents’ enemies, ours are not centralized supernations anymore. Our enemies act like malware, infecting people’s brains, and thus behave like a decentralized zombie-bot horde that cannot be stopped unless you shift the environment or shut off the grid.

We are also the generation that watched our government fail to protect the victims of Katrina — before, during and after the event. The emperor’s safety net — sworn nemesis of fiscal conservatives — turned out not to exist despite all their persistent whining. Stranded, hundreds took to their roofs while helicopters hovered over head, broadcasting FEMA’s failure on the nightly news. While Old Media gawked, the open source community solved problems, delivering the Katrina PeopleFinder database, meticulously culled from public records and disparate resources that, at the time, lacked usable APIs.

But that wasn’t the first time “privacy” worked against us. On September 11, 2001 we flooded the cell networks, just wanting to know whether our friends and family were safe. The network, controlled by a few megacorporations, failed under the weight of our anxiety and calls; those supposed consumer protections designed to keep us safe… didn’t, turning technology and secrecy against us.

. . .

Back to this weekend in DC.

You put TransparencyCamp in context — and think about all the abuses that have been perpetrated by humans against humans — throughout time… you have to stop and wonder: “Geez, what on earth will make this generation any different than the ones that have come before? What’s to say that Zuckerberg — once he assembles a mass of personally identifying information on his peers on an order of magnitude never achieved since humans started counting time — won’t he do what everyone in his position has done before?”

Oddly enough, the answer is probably not. The reason is the web. Even weirder is that Facebook, as I write this, seems to be taking steps to embrace the web, seeking to become a part of it — rather than competing against it. It seems, at least in my interactions with folks at Facebook, that a good portion of them genuinely want to work with the web as it today, as they recognize the power that they themselves have derived from it. As they benefitted from it, they shall benefit it in turn.

Seems counterproductive to all those MBAs who study Microsoft as the masterstroke of the 21st century, but to the citizens of the web — we get it.

What Facebook is attempting — like the Obama administration in parallel — is nothing short of a revolution; you simply can’t evolve out of a culture of fear and paranoia that was passed down to us. You have to disrupt the ecosystem, and create a new equilibrium.

If we are Generation Open, then we are the optimistic generation. Ours only comes around every several generations with the resurgence of pure human spirit coupled with the resplendent realization of intent.

There are, however, still plenty who reject this attitude and approach, suffering from the combined malaise of “proprietariness”, “materialism”, and “consumerism”.

But — I shit you not — as the world turns, things are changing. Sharing and giving away all that you can are the best defenses against fear, obsolescence, growing old, and, even, wrinkles. It isn’t always easy, but it’s how we outlive the shackles of biology and transcend the physicality of gravity.

To transcend is to become transparent, clear, open.

Responding to criticisms about OpenID: convenience, security and personal agency

Twitter / Chris Drackett:  openID should be dead... its over-rated.

Chris Dracket responded to one of my tweets the other day, saying that “OpenID should be dead… it’s way over-rated”. I’ve of course heard plenty of criticisms of OpenID, but hadn’t really heard that it was “overrated” (which implies that people have a higher opinion of OpenID than it merits).

Intrigued, I replied, asking him to elaborate, which he did via email:

I don’t know if overrated is the right word.. but I just don’t see OpenID ever catching on.. I think the main reason is that its too complex / scary of an idea for the normal user to understand and accept.

In my opinion the only way to make OpenID seem safe (for people who are worried about privacy online) is if the user has full control over the OpenID provider. While this is possible for people like you and me, my mom is never going to get to this point, and if she wants to use OpenID she is going to have to trust her sensitive data to AOL, MS, Google, etc. I think that people see giving this much “power” to a single provider as scary.

Lastly I think that OpenID is too complex to properly explain to someone and get them to use it. People understand usernames and passwords right away, and even OAuth, but OpenID in itself I think is too hard to grasp. I dunno, just a quick opinion.. I think there is a reason that we don’t have a single key on our key rings that opens our house, car, office and mailbox, not that that is a perfect/accurate analogy, but its close to how some people I’ve talked to think OpenID works.

Rather than respond privately, I asked whether it’d be okay if I posted his follow-up and replied on my blog. He obliged.

To summarize my interpretation of his points: OpenID is too complex and scary, potentially too insecure, and too confined to the hands of a few companies.

The summary of my rebuttals:


OpenID should not be judged by today’s technological environment alone, but rather should be considered in the context of the migration to “cloud computing”, where people no longer access files on their local harddrive, but increasingly need to access data stored by web services.

All early technologies face criticism based on current trends and dominant behaviors, and OpenID is no different. At one time, people didn’t grok sending email between different services (in fact, you couldn’t). At one time, people didn’t grok IMing their AOL buddies using Google Talk (in fact, you couldn’t). At one time, you had one computer and your browser stored all of your passwords on the client-side (this is basically where we are today) and at one time, people accessed their photos, videos, and documents locally on their desktop (as is still the case for most people).

Cloud computing represents a shift in how people access and share data. Already, people rely less and less on physical media to store data and more and more on internet-based web services.

As a consequence, people will need a mechanism for referencing their data and services as convenient as the c: prompt. An OpenID, therefore, should become the referent people use to indicate where their data is “stored”.

An OpenID is not just about identification and blog comments; nor is it about reducing the number of passwords you have (that’s a by-product of user-centered design). Consider:

  • if I ask you where your photos are, you could say Flickr, and then prove it, because Flickr supports OpenID.
  • if I ask you where friends are, you might say MySpace, and then prove it, because MySpace will support OpenID.
  • if you host your own blog or website, you will be able to provide your address and then prove it, because you are OpenID-enabled.

The long-term benefit of OpenID is being able to refer to all the facets of your online identity and data sources with one handy — ideally memorable — web-friendly identifier. Rather than relying on my email addresses alone to identify myself, I would use my OpenIDs, and link to all the things that represent me online: from my resume to my photos to my current projects to my friends, web services and so on.

The big picture of cloud computing points to OpenIDs simplifying how people access, share and connect data to people and services.


I’ve heard many people complain that if your OpenID gets hacked, then you’re screwed. They claim that it’s like putting all your eggs in one basket.

But that’s really no different than your email account getting hacked. Since your email address is used to reset your password, any or all of your accounts could have their passwords reset and changed; worse, the password and the account email address could be changed, locking you out completely.

At minimum, OpenID is no worse than the status quo.

At best, combined with OAuth, third-parties never need your account password, defeating the password anti-pattern and providing a more secure way to share your data.

Furthermore, because securing your OpenID is outside of the purview of the spec, you can choose an OpenID provider (or set up your own) with a level of security that fits your needs. So while many OpenID providers currently stick with the traditional username and password combo, others offer more sophisticated approaches, from client-side certificates and hardware keys to biometrics and image-based password shields (as in the case of my employer, Vidoop).

One added benefit of OpenID is the ability to audit and manage access to your account, just as you do with a credit card account. This means that you have a record of every time someone (hopefully you!) signs in to one of your accounts with your OpenID, as well as how frequently sign-ins occur, from which IP addresses and on what devices. From a security perspective, this is a major advantage over basic usernames and passwords, as collecting this information from each service provider would prove inconvenient and time-consuming, if even possible.

Given this benefit, it’s worth considering that identity technologies
are being pushed on the government. If you’re worried about putting all your eggs in one basket, would you think differently if the government owned that basket?

OpenID won’t force anyone to change their current behavior, certainly not right away. But wouldn’t it be better to have the option to choose an alternative way to secure your accounts if you wanted it? OpenID starts with the status quo and, coupled with OAuth, provides an opportunity to make things better.

We’re not going to make online computing more secure overnight, but it seems like a prudent place to start.

Personal agency for web citizens

Looking over the landscape of existing social software applications, I see very few (if any) that could not be enhanced by OpenID support.

OpenID is a cornerstone technology of the emerging social web, and adds value anywhere users have profiles, accounts or need access to remote data.

Historically, we’ve seen similar attempts at providing a universal login account. Microsoft even got the name right with “Passport”, but screwed up the network model. Any identity system, if it’s going to succeed on the open web, needs to be designed with user choice at its core, in order to facilitate marketplace competition. A single-origin federated identity network will always fail on the internet (as Joseph Smarr and John McCrea like to say of Facebook Connect: We’ve seen this movie before).

As such, selecting an identity provider should not be relegated to a default choice. Where you come from (what I call provenance) has meaning.

For example, if you connect to a service using your Facebook account, the relying party can presume that the profile information that Facebook supplies will be authentic, since Facebook works hard to ferret out fake accounts from its network (unlike MySpace). Similarly, signing in with a Google Account provides a verified email address.

Just like the issuing country of your passport may say something about you to the immigration official reviewing your documents, the OpenID provider that you use may also say something about you to the relying party that you’re signing in to. It is therefore critical that people make an informed choice about who provides (and protects) their identity online, and that the enabling technologies are built with the option for individuals to vouch for themselves.

In the network model where anyone can host their own independent OpenID (just like anyone can set up their own email server), competition may thrive. Where competition thrives, an ecosystem may arise, developed under the rubric of market dynamics and Darwinian survivalism. And in this model, the individual is at the center, rather than the services he or she uses.

This the citizen-centric model of the web, and each of us are sovereign citizens of the web. Since I define and host my own identity, I do not need to worry about services like Pownce being sold or I Want Sandy users left wanting. I have choice, I have bargaining power, and I have agency, and this is critical to the viability of the social web at scale.

Final words

OpenID is not overrated, it’s just early. We’re just getting started with writing the rules of social software on the web, and we’ve got a lot of bad habits to correct.

As cloud computing goes mainstream (evidenced in part by the growing popularity of Netbooks this holiday season!), we’re going to need a consumer-facing technology and brand like OpenID to help unify this new, more virtualized world, in order to make it universally accessible.

Fortunately, as we stack more and more technologies and services on our OpenIDs, we can independently innovate the security layer, developing increasingly sophisticated solutions as necessary to make sure that only the right people have access to our accounts and our data.

It is with with these changes that we must evaluate OpenID — not as a technology for 2008’s problems — but as a formative building block for 2009 and the future of the social web.

My argument against Proposition 8

Politics is something that I normally don’t cover on my blog, but not for any particularly reason. I typically get more [publicly] worked up about technology and the economics and politics of technological development than I do about directly human-facing issues, but that’s not because I’ve ever lost sight of the fact that ultimately all this technology is intended to serve people, or that there are more important, and more visceral, issues that could be tackled for greater, or longer lasting effect. It’s just that I haven’t really felt like I had an articulate contribution to make.

Perhaps until now.

If you’re not interested in political discourse, that’s of course your prerogative and you certainly can skip this post. Personally, however, I’ve become increasingly interested in what’s going on in this country (my country), and increasingly enamored of political dialogue (however bereft of content as it sometimes is) as well as our representative democracy — an imperfect system to be sure, but one that at least, by and large, affords its constituents a voice in matters local, state and federal. And personal.

Here in California, we have a cagey system of democracy where voters are provided the opportunity to consider multiple arguments for and against several propositions presented on a ballot to determine numerous policies at both the state and local level. I voted absentee yesterday (as I’ll be traveling to Oceania later this week) and along with the ballot for the presidential election, there were two accompanying ballots, one for the state and one for the city of San Francisco, where I am a resident.

On the state ballot is Proposition 8, effectively an amendment to the California state constitution that would ban gay marriage by defining it strictly as a union of a heterosexual couple: one man, one woman.

I voted against this proposition. And I’ll tell you why.

Voting no Proposition 8

Back in the day…

When I was a senior in high school (in conservative “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire), I supported an initiative to create a gay-straight student alliance, or GSA. At the time, I was on the staff of the newspaper and was more informed of the various controversies affecting my classmates, but I’ll admit, I was also pretty ignorant of other “lifestyles”. Still, if my parents taught me anything, tolerance and self-respect were a few of the more subtle lessons that must have stuck, which led me to support the effort.

As I had done for many of the school’s student clubs, I created a homepage with information on the GSA initiative and hosted it on my own website. I had also single-handed built my high school’s website (even though I couldn’t get any educator besides the dorky librarian to care) and inserted a banner ad into the site’s rotating pool of four or five ads promoting the other school club sites that I’d designed.

The ad for the GSA, which didn’t say much more than “Find out more” with a link off-site, was in rotation for several weeks when I was called down to the principal’s office to explain why I was announcing school policy without authorization. So it goes in the petri-dish of adolescent high school politics and unbalanced power relationships.

Rather than use this as an educational opportunity, the principal, who later became mayor of the city, decided instead to use this situation as a reeducational opportunity and externally suspended me for six days, meaning I wouldn’t be able to graduate.

I’ll cut to the chase in a moment, but in response, I took down the GSA ad — as well as the entire high school’s site (I was hosting that on my own server too — back in 1999 schools didn’t know what a “web server” was). I vowed that I wouldn’t turn over the site files until they’d written up rules governing what students were and weren’t allowed to post to the school’s site; meanwhile my mom threatened to sue the school.

My infraction was small beans (and eventually overturned) compared with the lawsuit that GLAD and the ACLU filed against the school district barring discrimination against school clubs. By the time the lawsuit was decided in favor of the students, I had graduated and moved off to Pittsburgh, but the experience, and impression that it left on me, has resonated since.

…history repeating

None of these contested issues really consume you until you’re personally affected, as I was in high school, and today I feel equally affected by this proposition, but more capable of doing something about it.

The arguments for and against are fairly straight forward, but for me it comes down to two things:

  • First, I don’t believe that laws should codify discrimination. Our history as a nation has been blighted by both gender and racial discrimination, and now we’re facing discrimination against the makeup of certain families — specifically those of same-sex couples. Good law should strive to be non-ideological; discrimination is nearly always ideologically driven.
  • Second, if marriage as an institution stems from a religious foundation, but is represented in law, by the principle of the separation of church and state and presuming the importance of tolerance to culture, we should cleft out the religious underpinnings of marriage from law and return it to the domain of the church, especially if the church mandates that the definition of marriage is strictly between a man and a woman. The state should therefore only be in the business of recognizing in law civil unions, or the lawful coming together of two people in union. Marriage itself would be a separate religious institution, having no basis in civil law.

In other words, should marriage persist in law, then it should not be discriminatory against same-sex couples. If marriage must only be for heterosexual couples, then it should be removed from the state constitution and replaced with civil unions, which would be available to any two willing citizens.

The examples that have informed my thinking on this come from real people — friends whom I’ve now known for some time, and who I could not imagine being legally separated from their partners because of religious zealotry and illogical reasoning.

Hillary and AnnaThe first is Hillary Hartley, a good friend and fellow coworker at Citizen Space, who has been with her partner for eight years, having known her for 15. They were recently (finally!) able to get married in California, but the vote on November 4 threatens to annul their marriage. Think about that: the potential of this decision could dissolve the legal recognition of a perfectly happy, stable and loving relationship. I can’t even imagine what that must feel like, and because I am a heterosexual male, I never will. And that’s completely unjust.

marnieMarnie Webb is a also good friend of mine, who has been active in the non-profit technology space for years, and who I met through Compumentor, NetSquared and TechSoup (she’s co-CEO of TechSoup). Marnie faces the same fate as Hillary, but in her case, it would mean that Marnie’s daughter, Lucy, would grow up with parents who were legally not allowed to recognize their union, nor have rights for hospital visitation among other benefits of marriage.

The low-pressure ask

So here’s what I’m asking for. I’ll give you three options.

First, THINK about this. Talk to people about it. I’m certainly not going to make up your mind for you, but if you were (or are) in a heterosexual marriage and it was threatened to be annulled by changes in law, how would you feel about it? What would you do? The problem with discrimination is that someone’s always losing out; next time it could be you.

Second, VOTE. When you see Proposition 8 on the ballot, vote your conscience, not your ideology. Belief systems are powerful and complex, but they’re not always right. And times do change. It’s counter-intuitive to me that we’ve spent seven years and untold billions fighting for “Iraqi Freedom” when in our country we’re threatening to take civil liberties away from natural-born citizens.

Third, GIVE something. Obviously the presidential campaigns have probably tapped you out, especially given the uncertainly in the market, but you can give more than just money: you can give your time, or you can give mindshare and voice to these issues by widening the conversation, retweeting this post, blogging about it, or taking a video to record your own sentiments.

If you do want to donate money, both Hillary and Marnie have set up respective donation pages. The challenge we’re facing is that proponents of Prop 8 are better-funded and are able to put more ads on TV and make more phone calls. Money in this case can be directly turned into awareness, and into action. If you’ve got $5, it can make a difference, especially now, as your contribution will be matched dollar for dollar. It’s up to you.

Obama Phone!

Obama PhoneIf you haven’t heard about this yet, the Obama campaign today released an iPhone app that, among other features, enables you to call your friends prioritized by their location in battleground states.

This is critical.

There’s nothing more important, or more influential, than friends encouraging friends to vote, and when it comes to getting informed on the issues and what’s at stake, nothing is more effective than getting an impassioned plea from a personal contact or relative.

Providing a tool that allows people to get in touch with people who they personally know is so much better than cold-calling phone banking (the importance of that tactic notwithstanding given the need to reach out beyond the friends of iPhone owners).

You can get the app in the iTunes App Store.

Obama Phone CreditsThe Obama ’08 app development was spearheaded by personal friends of mine — co-organizers of the popular iPhoneDevCamps that we held the past two years at Adobe’s offices in San Francisco (which are now spreading, like all good *camp events should!). Specifically, props go to Dom Sagolla and Raven Zachary, without whom this application might never have happened. But credit is also due to the entire top-tier team that spent countless hours over the past month putting this app together (*iPhoneDevCamp alumni):

What’s significant is not only the application, but what this move represents for those of us who live and breathe the web and open source: this app is born of both, reusing a number of open source components and, from the outset, leverages the web with presence on social networks like Facebook. This is the Obama campaign reaching out to the open source and iPhone development communities and working with us to do what we know how to do best, and giving us a space in which we can make a difference for the campaign.

We’re nearly a month a way from the election, and that means that if you want to participate, you’re going to need be registered to vote beforehand. It also means that if you’ve been waiting, or holding out, and looking for an opening to get involved, now’s your chance. As Raven says, making a few simple calls with this app enables even ‘The Two Minute Volunteer’ to make a substantial difference by personally involving friends and family in the election.

Seeing this work inspires and gives me hope; if we can keep up this kind of innovative thinking for the next 30 days, I think it’s clear that the best candidate is going to come out on top and get the country back on its proper footing.

After 1984

iTunes Genius

iTunes 8 has added a new feature called “Genius” that harnesses the collective behavior of iTunes Music Store shoppers to generate “perfect” playlists.

Had an interesting email exchange with my mom earlier today about Monica Hesse’s story Bytes of Life. The crux of the story is that more and more people are self-monitoring and collecting data about themselves, in many cases, because, well, it’s gotten so much easier, so, why not?

Well, yes, it is easier, but just because it is easier, doesn’t automatically mean that one should do it, so let’s look at this a little more deeply.

First, my mom asked about the amount of effort involved in tracking all this data:

I still have a hard time even considering all that time and effort spent in detailing every moment of one’s life, and then the other side of it which is that it all has to be read and processed in order to “know oneself”. I think I like the Jon Cabot Zinn philosophy better — just BE in the moment, being mindful of each second doesn’t require one to log or blog it, I don’t think. Just BE in it.

Monica didn’t really touch on too many tools that we use to self-monitor. It’s true that, depending on the kind of data we’re collecting, the effort will vary. But so will the benefits.

MyMileMarkerIf you take a look at MyMileMarker’s iPhone interface, you’ll see how quick and painless it is to record this information. Why bother? Well, for one thing, over time you get to see not only how much fuel you’re consuming, but how much it’s going to cost you to keep running your car in the future:

View my Honda Civic - My Mile Marker

Without collecting this data, you might guess at your MPG, or take the manufacturer’s rating as given, but when you record what actually is happening, you can prove to yourself whether filling up your tires really does save you money (or the planet).

On the topic of the environment, recording my trips on Dopplr gives me an actual view of my carbon footprint (pretty damning, indeed):


As my mom pointed out, perhaps having access to this data will encourage me to cut back excess travel — or to consolidate my trips. Ross Mayfield suggests that he could potentially quit smoking if his habit were made more plainly visible to him.

What’s also interesting is how passive monitors, or semi-passive monitoring tools, can also inform, educate or predict — and on this point I’m thinking of where of course my music taste is aggregated, or location-based sites like Brightkite, where my locative behavior is tracked (albeit, manually — though Fire Eagle + Spot changes that).

My mom’s other point about the ability to just BE in the moment is also important — because self-tracking should ideally be non-invasive. In other words, it shouldn’t be the tracking that changes your behavior, but your analysis and reflection after the fact.

One of the stronger points I might make about this is that data, especially when collected regularly and when the right indicators are recorded, you can reduce a great amount of distortion from your self-serving biases. Monica writes:

“We all have the tendency to see our behaviors in a little bit of a halo,” says Jayne Gackenbach, who researches the psychology of the Internet at Grant MacEwan College in Alberta, Canada. It’s why dieters underestimate their food intake, why smokers say they go through fewer cigarettes than they do. “If people can get at some objective criteria, it would be wonderfully informative.” That’s the brilliance, she says, of new technology.

big-brotherSo that’s great and all, but all of this, at least for my mom, raises the spectre of George Orwell’s ubiquitous and all-knowing “Big Brother” from Nineteen Eighty-Four and neo-Taylorism:

I do agree that people lie, or misperceive, and that data is a truer bearer of actualities. I guess I don’t care. Story telling is an art form, too. There’s something sort of 1984ish about all this data collection – – as if the accumulated data could eventually turn us all into robotic creatures too self-programmed to suck the real juice out of life.

I certainly am sympathetic to that view, especially because the characterization of life in 1984 was so compelling and visceral. The problem is that this analogy invariably falls short, especially in other conversations when you’re talking about the likes of Google and other web-based companies.

In 1984, Big Brother symbolized the encroachment of the government on the life of the private citizen. Since the government had the ability to lock you up or take you away based on your behavior, you can imagine that this kind of dystopic vision would resonate in a time when increasingly fewer people probably understand the guts of technology and yet increasingly rely on it, shoveling more and more of their data into online repositories, or having it collected about them as they visit various websites. Never before has the human race had so much data about itself, and yet (likely) so little understanding.

The difference, as I explained to my mom, comes down to access to — and leverage over — the data:

I want to write more about this, but I don’t think 1984 is an apt analogy here. In the book, the government knows everything about the citizenry, and makes decisions using that data, towards maximizing efficiency for some unknown — or spiritually void — end. In this case, we’re flipping 1984 on its head! In this case we’re collecting the data on OURSELVES — empowering ourselves to know more than the credit card companies and banks! It’s certainly a daunting and scary thought to realize how much data OTHER people have about us — but what better way to get a leg up then to start looking at ourselves, and collecting that information for our own benefit?

I used to be pretty skeptical of all this too… but since I’ve seen the tools, and I’ve seen the value of data — I just don’t want other people to profit off of my behaviors… I want to be able to benefit from it as well — in ways that I dictate — on my terms!

In any case, Tim O’Reilly is right: data is the new Intel inside. But shouldn’t we be getting a piece of the action if we’re talking about data about us? Shouldn’t we write the book on what 2014 is going to look like so we can put the tired 1984 analogies to rest for awhile and take advantage of what is unfolding today? I’m certainly weary of large corporate behemoths usurping the role the government played in 1984, but frankly, I think we’ve gone beyond that point.

So open it hurts

So open it hurts

Bernice Yeung’s character piece (“So Open it Hurts“) about my relationship with Tara is now available online (feels somewhat awkward using her full name, as she used mine in her post on the story, so I’ll take liberties and presume some familiarity on the part of you, my dear reader).

On the one hand, I feel a bit embarrassed and reluctant having had the entrails of our relationship splayed out over 15 digital pages or 13 print pages starting on page 57 of this month’s San Francisco Magazine (which I recommend, given modern reading habits).

On the other, it’s quite an honor that someone as talented as Bernice would take an interest in us and our work and spend over eight months gathering information, anecdotes and ideas through the tumult of our two-plus-year relationship. It is worth noting that the story began modestly about the germination of the coworking movement, but after several other media outlets beat her to the scoop, Bernice decided to bring the backstory of our relationship to the forefront. In other words, when Bernice started talking to us, our conversations were about coworking, not our relationship. I can’t even imagine how many times Bernice had to rewrite the piece, especially since, months into her research, as you know, Tara and I broke up. But in the end, that’s what Bernice decided to focus on and write about.

In trying to piece together what to make of this story and how to feel about it, in some ways I’ve been more interested in other people’s varied reactions to it — not quite in the same way that Tara described as “vulnerability” leading to defensiveness (though I recognize that effect in myself occasionally), but more from the perspective of a bystander witnessing other people thinking out loud about other people leading more public lives.

Some people seem to really support the choice (or ability) to live openly. Others question it, or even lambast the choice, calling it “egocentric” or “juvenile” or “self-important navel-gazing“. That’s cool. Some people are apparently able to devote more of their cognitive surplus ogling and critiquing the lives of others. Whatevs.

That our relationship was something of a spectacle is not beyond my grasp. I do see it — even if throughout the relationship I kind of held that idea in the abstract, like, “well, people know this internet concoction that is ‘The Tara & Chris Show’, but I’m still the same regular dude I’ve always been…” I don’t think it was ever the intention — or at least something that I put any conscious effort in to — to become known for being a publicish couple. It just kind of happened. I mean, hell, Tara says as much when she points out that it took her pushing me out a window to get me to show some gumption on the projects that I stoked and then ran away from leading! I guess to put this in perspective, the story is interesting, and it’s interesting to me, because as it is for most people who end up featured in articles, a lot of it is about being in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right people. No amount of self-aggrandizement can do this for you. It happens to you. Oftentimes in spite of what you might have otherwise preferred.

I also think that we were something of an anomaly, especially in our pathetically male-dominated industry. Ayn Rand talks about it the Fountainhead. And in our case, you had it two-fold: two passionate and dedicated individuals coming together romantically, professionally and productively — even if only for a relatively short amount of time — able to produce results… And that we did it using new and unknown social tools, well, that’s kind of interesting. And says something about the period we’re living in. I mean, it is interesting to think that the design of Flickr and Twitter actually shaped the contours of our relationship: by facilitating openness as the default, our relationship was simply more open and exposed. And long after lonelygirl15 was proven to be a farce, the result was that we ended up with this amazing network of friends and contacts, made up of people who got to know us as individuals and as a couple, and to know that we are just your regular folks, and that we use the same internet as everyone else, and that we stumble humiliatingly and earnestly along just as everyone else, seeking the approval and attention of our peers, while giving away the source code to our ideas and our experiences all along the way.

Really, so what?

Really: so what?

. . .

Tara said to me that we’re at the end of an era. And that, in some ways, this story, now published, serves as a transition point. I was reluctant at first, but now I agree. I told Bernice that I felt like I’d aged six years in six months when she last interviewed me this spring, and that’s true; even though I’m still pretty naive and more ignorant than I care to admit, I’m older now than I was in my relationship with Tara. Tara forced me to grow up a lot and to take a lot more responsibility for my feelings, for my actions and for my thoughts. And so, as we (I) transition from the awkward adolescence of the social web, I take with me lessons about . . . the natural and effective constant exercise of free will.

. . .

. . .

Y’know, I didn’t say very much at all during the months following our breakup. Oftentimes I thought to myself, “you should write something about what’s going on… in case someone else is ever in this situation. Or to defend yourself.” But I always stopped myself.

Sometimes things are too personal to share, and sometimes experiences cannot, or should not, be generalized. Sometimes what’s there to be learned is in the going through, not in the seeing it done. I also think that it’s perfectly valid that each person make up their own mind about how open they want to be about their life, for better or for worse, to whatever extent fits their needs. I typically try to be as open as I’m comfortable with, and then a little more, but it doesn’t always work out that way. While I hope that I can provide one kind of example that might be useful in some cases, I certainly don’t imagine that my example is one that would work for everyone, or even necessarily anyone else.

Yes, we were open about our relationship to an extent that many people would probably prefer not to be; that was a choice we made, and that I think made sense at the time. I’m now in a new relationship, and a very different relationship, and I will treat it according to its own unique nature and internal logic. How “open” we will be, I can’t say. But that I am more open, in a much transformed, deeper, way, is unarguable. That much I know to be true.