For the Week of February 10, 2003
My chiropractor has a problem. His partner in renting an office in Midtown Atlanta skipped town over the holidays. When he got back two rent bills were waiting for him, and half the office was trashed.
He was philosophical. The other fellow's approach clashed with his. (My doc likes high-tech toys - a James Bond Chiropractic Center.) The other guy didn't keep things clean enough. Maybe this was an opportunity to bring in some junior partners and really grow. "Or I'll take anyone, a lawyer, even a writer," he said, hopefully.
The point is that the man's partner ankled away, and my chiropractor accepted it. This happens all the time in America. Identity is plastic, mutable, elective. You can start over as someone else, somewhere else. Fathers abandon children, abused mothers leave their husbands. Our ancestors did it (willing or un-) when they came here. Or when they went West. Or, as in this case, when times just got tough.
The ideal of "starting over," however, clashes with a new technology imperative, a secure digital identity. The benefits are manifold. Payments are simplified, fraud is reduced, and if you're an honest fellow (like me) the police won't hassle you unduly, on the road or when getting on an airplane.
But the dream of digital identity runs into twin political realities. The Bush War on Terrorism treats everyone as a potential threat. Neither Democrats nor libertarian Republicans care for that. Then there's that "start over" impulse. A truly secure identity would make that impossible. You can say "we'll find the deadbeat dad" but the abused wife answers "he'll be able to find me."
So we have phony arguments, even red herrings, created to avoid admitting our fears directly. The technology isn't good enough. Terrorists can pass bio-metric tests. If thieves break your identity they'll take everything from you. The Republican Guard can use it to suppress all dissent. It all comes down to the same thing, really - we don't trust, we want the potential "out." So we putter along with things like photos on car licenses (which aren't supposed to be the dreaded "papers" of Gestapo fantasy but act as such) or signatures on checks (very easy to fake). Identity theft keeps rising, and every time I go to the doctor (or the chiropractor) it seems they've changed computer systems and I HAVE TO FILL OUT ANOTHER BLOODY PAPER FORM (and with my handwriting).
The latest "seminal paper" on the subject , by Andre Durand, seeks to divide the question of identity into three parts:
- Personal (My) Identity, who you are. This is what we most fear seeing compromised.
- Corporate (Our) Identity, either given by an employer (in the form of a badge) or by the people we do business with (as an entry in a database). These are the identities that exist most today, identities given to us by the government (a Social Security Number) or someone we do business with (a credit card or frequent flyer number). These identities, for the most part, can be revoked, either by the company or by us. (The "Social" is an exception, which is what makes it both powerful and dangerous.)
- Marketing (Their) Identity, the dreaded "profile" based on what we buy and where we go. This is what companies have, and what they most often treat as property. You might also call this the "Customer Relationship Management" (CRM) identity. We got baby food flyers as soon as we had our kids, and we're expecting a flood of 'come to our college' mail soon, based on this kind of identity.
The "Big Fear" of the Poindexter TIA plan is that all these identities might be combined and instantly revoked should someone accidentally (or on purpose) put out a Minority Report on us. We all have tempers, thoughts and impulses that our paranoid selves think might make us suspect. Liberals fear conservatives, conservatives fear each other, the religious fear the secularists and vice versa. (And we haven't even gotten to the crimes we may have, or may have fantasized about, committing.)
The Internet is, by and large, an identity-free zone. Most of us get a new IP number with every online session. We don't say who we are until we have to (in order to buy something) and then we resent what we're asked for (and may choose to abandon the shopping cart).
The dream of the technology "Identists" (if I might coin a word) is of a single Smart Card whose use is controlled by us. Laws and rules might limit what data businesses might take from the card, and how they might use it. Limits would also be placed on government. The card would be tied to bio-metric data so precise that its theft would be worthless to a thief, like the databases on most of our PDAs.
But getting from here to there, right now, is not a technology struggle. It's a political struggle. So just as the Copyright Industries have stopped broadband (and slowed consumer electronics), just as the Phone Monopolists have slowed wireless (and sought wired monopolies), so here we are again.
Moore's Law says go forward, politics says don't. Thus it is that the economy stagnates.
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Takes on the News
More on the Blogosphere
Last week I did a content analysis of the Top 130 blogs, so I could analyze 100 in English.
Blogging, according to the Blogstreet list, is especially big right now in Brazil, Iceland and Iran, although I did find a few Spanish-language blogs as well. This has a lot to do with free hosting from free hosting at Blogger , Weblogger and, in Brazil, hosting by Terra Lycos. (The Brazilian blogs are far more graphic than their American cousins, by the way.)
I looked at blogging for two clients - one political, one business. Let's start with politics.
Blogging is very much a political medium. Its success has come (so far) in defining political agendas. It took down Trent Lott, and put a cork in the anti-war marches of January.
What I found reflects political reality. Conservatives are consistent, they're organized, they attack constantly and give no quarter. (There's also one for every taste or demographic, but they all say the same things.) Liberals (or progressives, or non-conservatives - they can't even agree on what to call themselves) are diffuse, unorganized, and frequently go both off-topic and off the reservation.
I sum it up this way. Conservatives love a parade, liberals all think they should lead one.
The "Warbloggers" have stiffened the Administration's spine to get its war on, and have given political rhetoric a new, even harsher tone than it had before. (They call their critics traitors, lunatics and murderers, then condemn them as "haters.") Progressives don't know that blogging one-another strengthens them all, they give their antagonists far too much credit (which is never reciprocated) and they don't restrict themselves to political topics - movie reviews, technology reviews, and personal takes are common.
If progressives are to succeed as bloggers they need to organize as conservatives have. They need more ethnic, sexual and age diversity. They need more discipline. They need more contact with one another. Until they get it, they will continue to lose.
Now on to business, specifically the technology business.
Most tech blogs cover aspects of the blogging technology. Leaders in the space include Dave Winer of Weblogger, Evan Williams of Blogger, and John Hiler of Webcrimson. RSS is a big topic. The 802.11 phenomenon is represented by such people as Doc Searls, David Weinberger and Glenn Fleischman. The Copyright Warriors include Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, and (often) Winer again.
On the whole technology bloggers are insurgents. There are no big blogs speaking-out for Microsoft, for Hilary Rosen, or for AOL Time Warner. (Only one blog hosted on a major media site, Slate's Kausfiles, makes the top 130.)
What all blogs are missing is a business model. Amazon is the big winner - their "begging bowls" (you can see one on our home page) and affiliate "book lists" dominate the space. But no one can make a living on Amazon, or on begging.
The year 2003 will see the rise of more "arms merchants," including competitors to Blogstreet, who will sit alongside the software companies and help professionals move up the rankings. This year will also see a more disciplined approach on the part of media companies, analysis firms, and others to understand and try to "take over" the space.
But a space whose barrier to entry is just the cost of an IP connection won't succumb that easily. Media employees may seek leadership, and in time they will have it, but individuals, small groups and (most important) amateurs will continue to have a big place in the blogosphere for some time to come. It will remain a thorn in Big Media's side.
Content vs. Distribution
If this column isn't read by anyone, did it make a sound?
The old argument between "content and distribution" is back again as fans of big cable and big media try to shore-up faded balance sheets. The idea is that, with recession putting limits on competition among broadcast networks, magazine chains and broadband suppliers, profit has to move from the talent to the pipes.
This "gatekeeper" argument has been around a long time. Thirty years ago, when there were three networks, a dominant newspaper in each town, and cable was just a glimmer in Ted Turner's eye, non-mainstream voices had a tough time, they note.
I have just one word to say to this argument. Bunk.
Right now we're bouncing along the bottom of a recession. . (Never mind what Wall Street says - we've been in recession since the Millenium started.) Jobs are hard to find. Class jealousy is rampant and runs both ways. Anyone with a sinecure sees themselves as protected from the market, thus advantaged.
But it was bloggers who took down Trent Lott, and more bloggers who discredited last month's anti-war marches. Bloggers - one-man bands without even jobs, let alone budgets - are using their jungle telegraph to push the media agenda.
In addition smart people like Nick Denton are finding they can build audiences (http://www.nickdenton.org/archives/003433.html), at low cost, bypassing all gatekeepers. "There's nothing new about the revenue model; all that's changed is that costs have been brought into line," he writes. Amen.
Don't let financial blips cause you to ignore underlying trends. Anyone with a PC is a writer. Anyone with access to a server is a publisher. You build from there to paper, to cable, and on to the mass media. Even in the 1970s we were seeing the first stirrings of profit in weekly "alternative" papers like "Creative Loafing" in Atlanta, as well as in weekly papers like the "Houston Business Journal" (where I started my career, by the way). The distribution argument, in other words, has always been bunk.
My point is that the stairway to heaven in content is still there. And the lowest rungs of the ladder go lower all the time. They're now within reach of everyone. And that's a long-term trend, the kind you can invest in, not just trade on.
Clued-in is Red Hat's entry into the "client operating system" space . If people have the tools to see inside their own software and protect their own computers, protection will come. (There's a big hint here concerning the War on Terror. The people, and not a central authority, are the key to success.)
Clueless is coverage of the Microsoft "Slammer" worm . The problem isn't in what Microsoft is doing, it's in the nature of proprietary software. Hey, media, wake up - the Emperor is Naked!
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