Section 5.5. Ebb and Flow

5.5. Ebb and Flow

Markets are conversations. People exchange goods, services, ideas, and values in an intricate dance of push and pull. And as technology disrupts and transforms the marketplace, only those who listen carefully will profit from this persistent disequilibrium between supply and demand. There is no substitute for the richness and intimacy of human conversation, person to person, one on one. But increasingly, our conversations are mediated by technology and co-opted by corporations. In today's world of stealth marketing and ambient advertising, we are without a doubt, unbalanced. Push is drowning out pull. Messages adorn every surface. And it's driving us bananas. Marshall McLuhan famously remarked, "the medium is the message." In today's crazy world, where bananas have become a medium, what may we ask is the message?

But we do have the ability to push back. In 1993, the United States Congress passed the Space Advertising Prohibition Act. Apparently, we decided that mile-long mylar billboards boosted into orbit and visible from planet earth crossed the line. And in 2003, the Federal Trade Commission began enforcing the National Do Not Call Registry. Within months, over 55 million consumers had signed up to block telemarketers from crossing the line into their homes. Unfortunately, we have not yet figured out how to stop spam from invading our inboxes. That is our next battle and our aim is clear. In the words of Winston Churchill, who once helped rid the British of the scourge of spam:

It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

To win this war, we must focus on findability, for in the complex relationships between push and pull, there's real potential to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of our communications and consequently help both sender and receiver. Useful personalization, like relevant information retrieval, is difficult, but not impossible. We are making progress. We are increasingly able to control our experiences and focus our attention.

Of course, the battlefield is constantly changing. TiVo and RSS let us skip the ads, so the ads migrate into the content. Google delivers a better search but for how long? It's an ultra-competitive marketplace of fickle consumers and disruptive technologies where nobody knows what lies around the corner.

And, at the seashore between the land of atoms and the sea of bits, there rises an Internet of objects we can barely imagine. Objects precisely located in space and time. Objects that ingest their own metadata. A world of useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, credible objects forged by the union of engineering, marketing, and design.

In this wonderful world of everyware, we will enjoy an unprecedented ability to pull people, places, products, and ideas into our attention, but we will also face new dangers as others find creative ways to push unwanted messages and experiences into our lives. The path to ambient findability promises great adventure. Perhaps, along the way, we will learn as Lao Tzu counseled, to be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.

Chapter 6. The Sociosemantic Web

Man's achievements rest upon
the use of symbols.

Alfred Korzybski

In 1988, sociologist Susan Leigh Star coined the term "boundary object" to describe artifacts or ideas that are shared but understood differently by multiple communities. Though each group attaches a different meaning to the boundary object, it serves as a common point of reference and a means of translation. A dead bird may be the catalyst for communication between amateur bird watchers and professional epidemiologists. A vision of sustainable development may inspire politicians, environmentalists, builders, and business leaders to engage in negotiation and collaboration. The magic of the boundary object lies in its ability to build shared understanding across social categories.

In the 1990s, the Internet emerged as a powerful boundary object, uniting early adopters in a global conversation about the future of information, communication, and commerce. Back in the text-only days of Gopher and WAIS , the Internet was a special club. Only a few belonged. Most of the world had never heard of the Internet, and many who did casually dismissed it as a playground for geeks. This rejection only strengthened the bonds of the inspired. We were amazed by the Internet. We could download software from Berkeley, send email to Moscow, and retrieve documents from Sydney. We wanted to learn everything about the Internet: where it came from, how it worked, and what it could do. We imagined the future of the Internet and its potential to change the world.

It was small club, and yet the only cost of membership was interest. In the tradition of the true believer, we wanted the club to grow. Ask a question, show sincere interest, and you're in: a bona fide member of the Internet society. It was a small club, and yet its membership expanded across all geographic, political, ethnic, sexual, religious, ideological, disciplinary, and professional lines, as Figure 6-1 suggests. We were academics, practitioners, programmers, architects, librarians, and designers. Our diversity went largely unnoticed, as we rarely met in person, but when it did surface, it was often viewed as a positive. It was cool to learn that a distinguished journalist, an elderly politician, or a young Lithuanian woman had joined the club. Every addition validated the vision.

Figure 6-1. The famous Internet cartoon by Peter Steiner from the July 5, 1993 issue of The New Yorker (© The New Yorker Collection 1993 Peter Steiner from All rights reserved.)

And then in 1993, NCSA Mosaic and its multimedia version of the World Wide Web launched cyberspace into mainstream consciousness. Those were heady days, as the first Internet stories appeared in major newspapers, magazines, and television newscasts. I still recall the contagious enthusiasm of the early Internet World conferences, during which tens of thousands gathered to learn about and celebrate this global network of networks. Milestone followed milestone: Netscape, Yahoo!, eBay, Google. It was an exciting time, but it was also the beginning of the end for the Internet society. Commercialism supplanted idealism, and the club grew so big that membership lost its privileges.

Today, the society is fragmented into myriad communities of practice, and the Internet's power to serve as boundary object is diminished. Professional specialization has led to a divergence of vision and vocabulary. Narrowly circumscribed groups develop coded languages that optimize communication between insiders at the expense of transparency for outsiders. And when these groups interact, they often talk past one another without doing the hard work necessary to translate, understand, and cooperate. This insularity can be disheartening, and yet it presents great opportunity for boundary spanners who are willing to serve as a bridge by linking ideas and people across divided networks.