The results of the OpenID Board election are in!

I'm kind of a big dealI received an SMS from Michael Richardson this morning (around 8am here in Hawaii) congratulating me on my election to the board of the OpenID Foundation. It seems fitting that I should receive first word from him, since, as the Karl Rove of my campaign, he came up with the “kind of a big deal” slogan from Anchorman.

Anyway, I’m thrilled about the outcome of the election and am looking forward to working with Snorri Giorgetti, Nat Sakimura, David Recordon, (each of whom received two year terms along with me) and Eric Sachs, Scott Kveton, and Brian Kissel (who received one year terms).

I’m also pleased that 80% of the 217 foundation members voted in the first-ever OpenID election. We’ve obviously got a lot of work ahead of us, but I’m very confident that we’ll make great strides in 2009.

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:


Convenience

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.


Security

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.

I’m a candidate for the board of the OpenID Foundation!

I'm kind of a big dealThe OpenID Foundation board election opened up on December 10. After a grueling nominations process (not really), we were left with 17 candidates vying for seven community board member seats. Your candidates are (alphabetized by first name):

So far, a great deal of discussion has gone on about the various candidates’ platforms on the OpenID general mailing list. Candidates have also written about things that they would like to change in the coming year on their blogs as well, notably Dave Recordon and Johannes Ernst.

For my own part, I wrote up many of my ideas when I announced my candidacy. I also maintain a wiki page of goals that I have for OpenID.

The three issues that are at the top of my list should I be elected to the board really come down to:

  • establishing OpenID as a strong consumer brand
  • improving the user experience and ease-of-use of OpenID
  • enhancing the value of adopting OpenID for individuals, businesses, and organizations

I will lay out my rationale for these positions in a series of upcoming posts.

In the meantime, if you’d like to vote in this election, you will need to register for a $25 year-long membership in the OpenID Foundation (basically providing you the privilege to participate in this and other foundation elections and activities).

I also solicit your feedback, concerns and wishes for OpenID. Though I have plenty ideas about the kind of work that needs to go into OpenID to make it into a great cornerstone technology for the open web, I’m also very interested in hearing from other people about their experiences with OpenID, or about their ideas for how we can advance the cause of OpenID in 2009.

Why YouTube should support Creative Commons now

YouTube should support Creative Commons

I was in Miami last week to meet with my fellow screeners from the Knight News Challenge and Jay Dedman and Ryanne Hodson, two vlogger friends whom I met through coworking, started talking about content licensing, specifically as related to President-Elect Barack Obama’s weekly address, which, if things go according to plan, will continue to be broadcast on YouTube.

The question came up: what license should Barack Obama use for his content? This, in turn, revealed a more fundamental question: why doesn’t YouTube let you pick a license for the work that you upload (and must, given the terms of the site, own the rights to in the first place)? And if this omission isn’t intentional (that is, no one decided against such a feature, it just hasn’t bubbled up in the priority queue yet), then what can be done to facilitate the adoption of Creative Commons on the site?

To date, few video sharing sites, save Blip.tv and Flickr (even if they only deal with long photos), have actually embraced Creative Commons to any appreciable degree. Ironically, of all sites, YouTube seems the most likely candidate to adopt Creative Commons, given its rampant remix and republish culture (a culture which continues to vex major movie studies and other fastidious copyright owners).

One might make the argument that, considering the history of illegally shared copyrighted material on YouTube, enabling Creative Commons would simply lead to people mislicensing work that they don’t own… but I think that’s a strawman argument that falls down in practice for a number of reasons:

  • First of all, all sites that enable the use of CC licenses offer the scheme as opt-in, defaulting to the traditional all rights reserved use of copyright. Enabling the choice of Creative Commons wouldn’t necessarily affect this default.
  • Second, unauthorized sharing of content or digital media under any license is still illegal, whether the relicensed work is licensed under Creative Commons or copyright.
  • Third, YouTube, and any other media sharing site, bears some responsibility for the content published on their site, and, regardless of license, reserves the right to remove any material that fails to comply completely with its Terms of Service.
  • Fourth, the choice of a Creative Commons license is usually a deliberate act (going back to my first point) intended to convey an intention. The value of this intention — specifically, to enable the lawful reuse and republishing of content or media by others without prior per-instance consent — is a net positive to the health of a social ecosystem insomuch as this choice enables a specific form of freedom: that is, the freedom to give away one’s work under certain, less-restrictive stipulations than the law allows, to aid in establishing a positive culture of sharing and creativity (as we’ve seen on , SoundCloud and CC Mixter).

Preventing people from choosing a more liberal license conceivably restricts expression, insomuch as it restricts an “efficient, content-enriching value chain” from forming within a legal framework. Or, because all material is currently licensed under the most restrictive regime on YouTube, every re-use of a portion of media must therefore be licensed on a per-instance basis, considerably impeding the legal reuse of other people’s work.

. . .

Now, I want to point out something interesting here… as specifically related to both this moment in time and about government ownership of media. A recently released report from the GAO on Energy Efficiency carried with it the following statement on copyright:

This is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States. The published product may be reproduced and distributed in its entirety without further permission from GAO. However, because this work may contain copyrighted images or other material, permission from the copyright holder may be necessary if you wish to reproduce this material separately.

Though it can’t simply put this work into the public domain because of the potential copyrighted materials embedded therein, this statement is about as close as you can get for an assembled work produced by the government.

Now consider that Obama’s weekly “radio address” is self-contained media, not contingent upon the use or reuse of any other copyrighted work. It bears considering what license (if any) should apply (keeping in mind that the government is funded by tax-payer dollars). If not the public domain, under what license should Obama’s weekly addresses be shared? Certainly not all rights reserved! — unfortunately, YouTube offers no other option and thus, regardless of what Obama or the Change.gov folks would prefer, they’re stuck with a single, monolithic licensing scheme.

Interestingly, Google, YouTube’s owner, has supported Creative Commons in the past, notably with their collaboration with Radiohead on the House of Cards open source initiative and with the licensing of the Summer of Code documentation (Yahoo has a similar project with Flickr’s hosting of the Library of Congress’ photo archive under a liberal license).

I think that it’s critical for YouTube to adopt the Creative Commons licensing scheme now, as Barack Obama begins to use the site for his weekly address, because of the powerful signal it would send, in the context of what I imagine will be a steady increase and importance of the use of social media and web video by government agencies.

Don Norman recently wrote an essay on the importance of social signifiers, and I think it underscores my point as to why this issue is pressing now. In contrast to the popular concept of “affordances” in design and design thinking, Norman writes:

A “signifier” is some sort of indicator, some signal in the physical or social world that can be interpreted meaningfully. Signifiers signify critical information, even if the signifier itself is an accidental byproduct of the world. Social signifiers are those that are relevant to social usages. Some social indicators simply are the unintended but informative result of the behavior of others.

. . .

I call any physically perceivable cue a signifier, whether it is incidental or deliberate. A social signifier is one that is either created or interpreted by people or society, signifying social activity or appropriate social behavior.

The “appropriate social behavior”, or behavior that I think Obama should model in his weekly podcasts is that of open and free licensing, introducing the world of YouTube viewers to an alternative form of licensing, that would enable them to better understand and signal to others their intent and desire to share, and to have their creative works reused, without the need to ask for permission first.

For Obama media to be offered under a CC license (with the licensed embedded in the media itself) would signal his seriousness about embracing openness, transparency and the nature of discourse on the web. It would also signify a shift towards the type of collaboration typified by Web 2.0 social sites, enabling a modern dialectic relationship between the citizenry and its government.

I believe that now is the time for this change to happen, and for YouTube to prioritize the choice of Creative Commons licensing for the entire YouTube community.

Independent study on OpenID awareness using Mechanical Turk

Even though I wasn’t able to attend the eighth Internet Identity Workshop this week in Mountain View (check out the latest episode of TheSocialWeb.tv for a glimpse), I wanted to do my part to contribute so I’m sharing the results of a study that Brynn Evans and I performed on Mechanical Turk a short while ago.

I’ll cut to the chase and then go into some background detail.

Heard of OpenID?Of the 302 responses we received, we only rejected one, leaving us with 301 valid data points to work with. Of those 301:

  • 19.3% had heard of OpenID (58 people)
  • 9.0% knew what OpenID was used for (27) and 8.0% were unsure (24)
  • 1.3% used OpenID (4) and 18.3% were unsure if they used it (55).
  • 5.3% recognized the OpenID icon (16) and 7.0% were unsure (21).

Combining some of the results, we found that:

  • of those who know what OpenID is, 14.81% use it.
  • of those who have merely heard of it, 6.9% use it.

That’s what the data show.

Background

Several weeks ago, Yahoo released usability research and best practices for OpenID (PDF). This research was performed by Beverly Freeman in the Yahoo! Customer Insights division in July of this year and involved 9 female Yahoo! users age 32-39 with self-declared medium-to-high level of Internet savvy.

This research, along with Eric Sachs’ later contributions (Google), have taken us from virtually zero research on the usability of OpenID to having a much more robust pool of information to pull from. And though I’m sure many would agree that this research only points to opportunities for improvement, many people interpreted the results as an indication that “OpenID is too confusing” or that it “befuddles users“.

A lot of people also took cheap shots, using the Yahoo! results to bolster their long-held arguments against the protocol and its unfamiliar interaction flow. The problem with such criticism, as far as I’m concerned, is that generalizing from the experiences of nine female Yahoo! users in their thirties is not necessarily representative of the web at large, nor are the conditions favorable to such research. Y’know, Ford got a lot of flack too when he introduced the Model T because everyone loved their horse and carriages. Good thing Ford was right.

Now, some of the criticism of OpenID is valid, especially if it can be turned into productive outcomes, like making OpenID easier to use, or less awkward.

And it serves no one’s interests to make grandiose claims on the basis of minimal data, so given Brynn’s work using Mechanical Turk (with Ed Chi from PARC), I thought I’d ask her to help me set up a study to discover just what awareness of OpenID might be among a wider segment of the population, especially with Japanese awareness of OpenID topping out around 28% (with usage of OpenID at 15%, more than ten times what we saw with Turkers).

Mechanical Turk Demographics

First, it’s important to point out something about Turker demographics. Because Turkers must have either a US bank account or be willing to be paid in Amazon gift certificates, the quality of participants you get (especially if you design your HIT well) will actually be pretty good (compared with, say, a blog-based survey). Now, Mechanical Turk actually has rules against asking for demographic or personally identifying information, but some information has been gathered by Panos Ipeirotis to shed some light on who the Turkers are and why they participate. I’ll leave the bulk of the analysis up to him, but it’s worth noting that a survey put out on Mechanical Turk about OpenID will likely hit a fairly average segment of the internet-using population (or at least one that doesn’t differ greatly from college undergraduates).

Method

Over the course of a week (October 19 – 26), we fielded 302 responses to our survey, paying $0.02 for each valid reply (yes, we were essentially asking people for their “two cents”). We only rejected one response out of the batch, leaving us with 301 valid data points at a whooping cost of $6.02.

Findings

As I reported above, contrary to the 0% awareness demonstrated in the Yahoo! study of nine participants, we found that nearly 20% of respondents had at least heard of OpenID, though a much smaller percentage (1.3%) actually used it (or at least were consciously aware of using it — nearly everyone (18%) who’d heard of OpenID didn’t know if they used it or not).

There was also at least some familiarity with the OpenID logo/icon (5.3%).

What’s also interesting is that many respondents, upon hearing about “OpenID”, expressed an interest in finding out more: “What is it? LOL.”; “I’ve gotta look it up!”; “This survey has sparked my interest”; “Heading to Google to find out”. I can’t say that this shows clear interest in the concept, but at least some folks showed a curious disposition, as such:

How can I tell for sure whether I’ve used OpenID or not when I don’t know what it is? I’ve surely heard of it. That confuses me mainly in Magnolia {bookmarking service} where I want to sign up, but I can’t as it asks for OpenID. And until you mentioned above, it simply didn’t occur to me to just search it up. Hell, after submitting this hit, I’m going to do that first and foremost. Anyways, thanks a lot for indirectly suggesting a move!!!

Now, I won’t repeat the other findings, as they’ve already been reported above.

Thoughts and next steps

The results of this survey are interesting to me, but not unexpected. They’re not reassuring either, and they tell me that we’re doing well considering that we’ve only just begun.

Consider that 20% of a random sampling of 300 people on the internet had at least heard of OpenID, before Google, MySpace or Microsoft turned on their support for the protocol (MySpace announced their intention to support OpenID in July).

Consider that nearly a year ago Marshall Kirkpatrick sounded the deathknell of what seemed like the forgone conclusion about OpenID:

Big Players are Dragging Their Feet … Sharing User Info is a Whole Other Matter … Public Facing Profiles are Anemic … Ease of Use and Marketing Clarity Remain Low Priorities

Consider that no concerted effort has been made to date to inform or educate the general web population about OpenID, or about the problems with sharing your user credentials all over the web, and that many of the large providers have yet to turn on their OpenID support (despite all coming to the table and agreeing that it’s the way forward for identity on the web (save, as usual, Facebook, looking more Microsoftian by the day).

Consider also that momentum to rev the protocol to accommodate email addresses in OpenID is just now gaining traction.

In other words, with areas of user education becoming obvious, with provider adoption starting to happen (vis-a-via MySpace demonstrating the value and prevalence of URL-based identifiers) and necessary usability improvements starting to take shape (both in terms of the OpenID and OAuth flows being combined, and in terms of email addresses becoming valid in OpenID flows), we’re truly just getting started with making OpenID ready for mainstream audiences. It’s been a hard slog so far, and it’s bound to continue to be challenging, but the shared vision for where we’re going gets clearer every time there’s an Internet Identity Workshop.

I plan to re-run this study every 3-6 months from this point forward to keep track of our progress. I hope that these numbers will shed some much-needed balanced light on the subject of OpenID awareness and adoption — both to demonstrate how far we have to go, and how far we’ve come.

OpenID usability is not an oxymoron

Julie Zhou of Facebook discusses usability findings from Facebook Connect.
Julie Zhou of Facebook discusses usability findings from Facebook Connect. Photo © John McCrea. All rights reserved.

See? We're working on this! Monday last week marked the first ever OpenID UX Summit at Yahoo! in Sunnyvale with over 40 in attendance. Representatives came from MySpace, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Vidoop, Janrain, Six Apart, AOL, Chimp, Magnolia, Microsoft, Plaxo, Netmesh, Internet 2 and Liberty Alliance to debate and discuss how best to make implementations of the protocol easier to use and more familiar.

John McCrea covered the significance of the summit on TechCrunchIT (and recognized Facebook’s welcomed participation) and has a good overall summary on his blog.

While the summit was a long-overdue step towards addressing the clear usability issues directly inhibiting the spread of OpenID, there are four additional areas that I think need more attention. I’ll address each separately. Continue reading “OpenID usability is not an oxymoron”

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):

DOPPLR Carbon

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 Last.fm 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.