Supernova 2008 – Part 6 (final)

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This will be my final comments about things I learned at Supernova 2008 in June. The prior comments are all in the conference section of patrickWeb. A "People" panel was moderated by BJ Fogg, whom I first met when he presented YackPack at Demo a few years ago. The research shows that people are endlessly creative, that the majority of most people’s time is spent offline, and that there are very large differences between the skills people have in using the Internet. There is a correlation between skill level and willingness to share — the more people know about the Internet the more likely they are to share what they know. Some argued that the skill level is a function of priority given. I am certain of that point. I know many people who could be web savvy if they wanted to be but they would rather play golf or work in the garden. Nothing wrong with that. There is a social technographics ladder that includes people who are inactive, spectators, joiners, collectors, critics, and creators. Some postulated that user background is related to digital media savvy but that it is not an age thing. Another study however showed a very strong correlation between age and these various categories. The study would suggest that at my age I should be technologically inactive! I guess I just don’t fit the mold.
Social information discovery is a relatively new term but the phenomenon has been around from the beginnings of the Internet — you can ask a question and get a lot of people to answer. Sharing today is still done mostly in email which puts high social activation energy on the sender but social networks are changing this. We will share a lot more in the future. Social sites are causing an evolution to the entire web becoming social. User generated content used to be something you go to a site to do like or or ticketmaster to find out what people are saying. The problem is that you don’t know the people who are making the comments. In the emerging social web you can see what your friends and colleagues think or what they are doing or what the friends of your friends think about restaurant, book, or movie. It is much more relevant.
There are a number of inhibitors to social networks reaching their potential. Our identity is too fragmented — logins and passwords galore. We have profiles here, there, and everywhere. Applications are incompatible among the various social networks. I am optimistic that this will all come together in a way that meets our security and privacy expectations. The short answer to these concerns is the evolution of standards. OpenID is trying to create a single identification that you can use at any web site. Oauth is an emerging approach for authentication so that you can allow access for a web site to get information about you from another web site but only certain information you have authorized, not all the information. OpenSocial is developing an approach to allow a Facebook application to work at MySpace or any other social network. Google Friend Connect is attempting to bring all three of these together into a social web.
Although I remain optimistic about the concerns, a panel on “Privacy and Security in the Network Age” with Moderator Andrea Matwyshyn (Wharton), Bruce Schneier (BT Counterpane), Fran Maier (TrustE), Gerard Lewis (Comcast), and Lauren Gelman (Stanford CIS) dug into some of the stark realities. They attempted to answer the question of whether we are entering an era where individuals gain new control over their public personas, and powerful means to leverage reputations or will we be forced to abandon any hope of protecting our privacy and trusting what we encounter online?
Although he claimed to be optimistic, Bruce Schneier, a world renowned expert on privacy, was actually quite gloomy. Everything we do creates a transaction record and the resulting data records have value to others. Storage costs online are now so cheap, nothing gets thrown away. Google, your wireless provider, your healthcare insurance company, etc. all save every piece of data about you and what you do or look for. The trend will accelerate. There are many invasive technologies out there — surveillance video cameras will be so small in the future that we won’t know they are there. Our every movement will be captured. Soon we will be living in a world where no conversation will be private. While some frame the debate as security vs privacy, Bruce framed it as liberty versus control and said that "data is the pollution of the information age". In spite of these pronouncements, the experts are short term pessimistic but long term optimistic. Me too. The government may be watching us but we can watch them too.
The final session I attended was about Broadband Policy. The United States now ranks 15th in the world in terms of availability of broadband to consumers. We had a discussion about what we would do about it if we became policy advisor to the new president. We came up with the following.
A lot of us suggested getting rid of the FCC. It’s an ineffective political entity. Other suggestions were to map the gaps where infrastructure and users are and are not, take spectrum policy and flush it, take on universal service and revamp it to focus on broadband instead of pay phones, Un-ban municipal wireless broadband, and benchmark the US against other countries. There are some good things happening such as Verizon’s deployment of optical fiber but overall there is not enough competition and there are too many lobbyists seeking protection for large telecommunications companies. When I spoke at the World Wide Web conference in Paris in 1994 the U.S. was the Internet leader. France was skeptical to be kind. Today France is enabling WiFi throughout the country and partnering with utility companies to offer broadband at 100 times the speed of what the U.S. telcos define as broadband. I would like to be more optimistic on this front but I do not know of another industry (telecommunications providers) that have so many lobbyists urging protection and so many customers who are locked into services that they don’t like.