[Consumer] {and} [Identity]

September 18, 2006

In a BoingBoing’d post last week, Glenn Fleishman of WiFiNetNews wrote about a very exciting new…something:

Chumby received a rush of blog-licity when the firm handed out these portable Wi-Fi thingamabobs at O’Reilly’s Foo Camp to alpha-geeks: The device, in prototype, is small, designed for the “kids,” and sports a Wi-Fi adapter, an AC power plug, a small, color touchscreen, and an open architecture. The company wants people to hack the software, hardware, and even the device’s case with their own modifications. It’s not precisely open source, but it’s all open. They hope the device will ship in the second quarter of 2007 for about $150. They also expect that it could be licensed or replicated in many forms—they have released or shortly will release the parts list and schematics among other parameters—and they’re curious what results. In this podcast interview with Avalon Ventures partner and Chumby Industries chairman Steve Tomlin, we talk about how having a device that’s designed to be open affects what gets developed for it. We also talk about how Chumby, as a general-purpose appliance, make available many kinds of applications—it’s not just another picture frame, just another music player, or just another RSS display. In its current iteration, the Chumby has a touchscreen but no keyboard interface. Tomlin expects someone is already working on that.

This is fascinating in so many different directions that I can’t really hope to address more than a few, even partially, but here goes.

The market researcher in me (he lives down next to my liver) is just giddy about this for the frankly revolutionary idea that the product embodies. That is – it’s a product whose entire existence is premised not on any particular consumer need but appealing to a strongly culturally-identified demographic first and then, literally, letting them decide what it is that they’ve bought, and bringing the product into existence.

I’m no alpha-geek but I already definitely know what I’m going to get my Chumby to do (it’ll be my cookbook – think about it). And that’s the exciting thing about the product: we all get to be product testers, researchers, engineers AND members of a bleeding-edge community at the same time.

This entire enterprise – which included a perfectly-timed kickoff at uber-geek happening FooCamp – seems to have in its DNA (in its very existence) one of the best understandings I’ve seen of contemporary identity, consumer culture and the intersection thereof.

And if you still don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, what this “thing” is and/or why you should be excited – that’s kind of the point. Or rather, that’s part of the point. Most identities are, in some measure, exclusionary – deciding what’s not included, or what you aren’t, or what you’re better than is part of determining what you are. That last part is especially important in understanding tech culture, as the 1337 component is one of the core elements of the identity (both in defining, and defining against). Put another way: if you are an alpha-geek, or know how they think and operate, it’s actually surprising that a Chumby or Chumby-like product – one that you have to hack on some level in order to make useful in any way – didn’t already exist. Ownership of Chumby and its ideological descendants will be a proud badge of identity because it will be a tactile representation of the statement, “Look at the cool stuff that I can do.”


September 4, 2006

This is going to get rather far into the weeds, quite quickly. So:

I need to buy a new phone this week.

It’s two years since I’ve been seriously interested in what a phone can do. In that time, the whole “moblogging” thing has gone a little cold, due mostly to punitive mobile communications costs in much of the world and limited, cranky functionality. This blog is run on WordPress, and the built-in post-by-mail option has stubbornly refused to work for me. And my old Treo 600 (which also needs replacing next year) is now refusing to connect to the blog’s Write Post screen. That’s why this place goes quiet when I’m away. I don’t have a laptop, and my current set-up can only post here via Flickr, which inserts weird formatting into the posts.

Point One: there are a lot of functions – full-function Web use with mobile sub-sub-notebook devices; blogging; word processing; VOIP and video-multi-conferencing – that current technologies should be able to do, that some people want them to do; that, in fact, many people pay good money with the idea of doing, but whose reliability is not anywhere near the reliability and functionality necessary to fully integrate them as standardized uses for the technologies. Put more simply – it’s gotten to the point where just about anyone can pick up a mobile phone and, without thought, conceptualize what it’s for, how to use it, and then use it. The same can’t be said for total wireless connectivity with hand-sized devices.

So when I get a new phone, I want to look again at how it can interact with the internet.

Which leads me to the notion of informational presence.

With a working moblogging system, there are all kinds of ways to translate physical presence into informational presence. A way to cast my shadow on to the net.

A glogging — “cyborglogging” — solution could have my phone automatically taking shots while I’m travelling and uploading them. You could see where I am in 15- or 30-minute spaces, perhaps. In theory, I could drop Quicktime-playable voice messages on the site whenever I had time to record them on the phone and MMS or email them off. Same with phone video — vlogging. It also seems likely that my GPS-logged physical presence could be placed on the site.

Or I could set up a module-powered site, like Protopage, and have it call RSS feeds from web services. So there’d be a separate page that acted as a snapshot of my presence, right up to running the weather report for the town I’m in.

A live record/recording on the web of where you are and what you’re doing. A collection of the information stream trailing behind me as I move through the world. To the point where someone could check your Protopage or whatever and see where you are, where you’ve been, what the weather was and is like and is going to be, and possibly even text you to let you know it’s going to rain in an hour, right off the page with an Ipipi function.

This partially mirrors some of the current thinking about “blogjects” and the like — wired objects that blog their presence and status. Or, to butcher some writing of Sterling’s, using a gizmo to create spimelike action.

Point Two: the above functionalities are also technical possibilities, and could likely be accomplished rather easily by someone with some expert software and hardware interface knowledge. But – in contrast to those functionalities I mentioned in Point One – all of the above functionalities are, at present, hacks. They are not even mentioned as the reasons that you would buy the products which are capable of the functions, but are instead inferred and imagined as functions that the devices should and, with the proper code and finesse, could do.

That’s the techie standpoint. The social standpoint is something else. Either you’re stalking yourself, ha ha, or you’re making it disturbingly easy for someone else to stalk you. My girlfriend, navigating through the countryside with a TomTom GPS device, opined that someone with deep unauthorised access to the TomTom system would know when your home is unoccupied and vulnerable to burglary. I think about it every time I choose to let people on the net know I’m travelling. I’m not sure how smart it is to have a page that not only shows where I am, but where I’m not. Services like Dodgeball or the UK equivalent seem to me, on a cynical level, to invite personal disaster.

Look through any list of WordPress plug-ins and you’ll find a hundred things that seemed like a good idea at the time to the coders but are in fact utterly useless. The equivalent of chindogu — “unuseless” inventions that do actually do something, but they’re something you’d never actually want to do, like converting all the dates on your website to Star Trek stardates. I suspect that a lot of the tools for mobile informational presence are much the same thing. You don’t actually need to know that I’m taking a piss in a public toilet in West Stow, and I’m unlikely to choose to pass on that little bit of information.

(Setting up a Protopage in advance of visiting an area, filled with informational feeds about that area, is, however, a good idea, and with reliable phone-web access, I’ll be trying it soon.)

Ultimately, how much information do I need to broadcast? How many footprints do I need to leave on the net? And also: in an age where privacy is becoming an important political issue once more, how much do I choose to give up just to perform experiments of doubtful interest and practicality? Niki already has to drop to 29mph in the car on her way home from her mother’s in order to avoid being photographed by strangers. And her mother is fearing the insertion of a chip in her rubbish bin to measure how much waste she’s throwing away, and wondering if she’s going to have to start storing garbage in the house to avoid being charged for tossing broken objects and wine bottles she can’t get to a glass bank.

I need moblogging tools because I want to be able to produce and publish content from the street. The question now, as I wonder what new tools are available for my incoming shiny new phone is: what constitutes content? The difference between me and a blogject is that it doesn’t know it’s squirting useless crap on to the web. The difference between me and a glogger is that a glogger doesn’t care that they’re squirting useless crap on to the web — or, at least, has set the bar low enough for the term “content” that automatically photoblogging themselves taking a piss qualifies as something worth expressing through a webpage on its way to storage.

A lot of you have commented in email that this site now seems awfully pared down compared to the previous iteration. I mean, I haven’t finished rebuilding it yet. But there needs to be a conscious difference between being able to just cover it in stuff, and actually choosing where to focus your attention and mine where it’ll do the most good.

Okay. I understand why Ellis finishes the way he does – it’s the implications of it all that are relevant to him – but I’d like to first answer his “what constitutes content?” question and then take it in another direction.

Anything Warren Ellis puts up at his website is content, because he says it is. He is a brand and has earned credibility, both through his comics work and through the consistently excellent content at his site – but at this point, if he even maintains 75% of the quality of previous content at the site, he can continue basically forever with sustained and even increasing readership. Not that he would or should, but he could, because his place as an A-lister is well-cemented, not least because of the regular cross-linking from Super-A-listers BoingBoing and William Gibson. A random picture that he posts becomes of much higher value by virtue of his having posted it, just as Atrios’ Friday Cat Blogging is judged of much higher value than random cats because he’s Atrios.

[You’ll also notice that in one sentence I – a more-or-less-unread blogger – just linked to several of the highest-trafficked sites on the web. This is an interesting phenomenon, in and of itself, as is the cross-linking between A-listers – for more on that, read what Fred has to say.]

So it’s really not so mysterious what content is for someone who’s reached that threshold.

A more interesting question to ponder is: what is content for the rest of us – and what’s the relationship between availablility of technology and production of content, particularly social content? I’d argue that we’re caught in a bit of a time-lag right now, on these issues: there are a lot of people who see the promise and coolness of, e.g., real-time geotagging correlated with the *click* of a camera phone and a quick burst of SMS, but there aren’t that many people who are actually doing it. And hence, as the primary value of geotagging is in having a lot of people doing it – you’re not going to geotag your whole neighborhood, let alone your city, by yourself – there’s a disincentive for all but the very-early adopters to actually hack together the tech necessary for the cool new function.

There, too, is the other rub: there aren’t that many people geotagging yet because you can’t “just do it,” which roughly translated means you can’t just buy it.

This leads to an interesting re-assessment of Web2.0 phenomena. While the services themselves are, for the most part and at the first level nearly always, free, the means of producing and interfacing with them are not. I’m not arguing for any sort of digital-divide issue that would somehow deligitimize the production of culture on the Web – ultimately I think that, as has increasingly been the pattern for the past five or so years, the gadgets (spimes, blogjects, whatever) of tomorrow+1 will be cheaper and better at all their functionalities than any of the currently available stuff – but I think it’s quite worth noting that in many cases the social uses of the Web and new thingies, which long lagged behind the latest technological innovations, have now caught up with and in many cases passed currently mass-available means.

There is, really, no good reason that a phone shouldn’t be able to take a picture, compose an accompanying blog post via voice recognition software, and post both via the best available connection (be it cell tower, Bluetooth, WiFi or what have you) – with geotagging – to your ClaimID-verified blog. It could do all of those things – it just doesn’t.