“It’s My Internet. You’re Just the Owner”

It’s been interesting to watch Doc and Eric work through Doc’s NEA description of the Internet:

Nobody Owns it
Everybody Can Use it
Anybody can improve it

Doc attracts many of us because he’s so good at coming up with the seminal phrase that captures what so many of us are thinking about. Eric took exception to the first stanza, pointing out that every corner of the Internet is owned by somebody. Like so many blogged ideas, Doc told us about reality rather than fact, and Eric took him to task over that detail.

I can walk across town to Times Square in about 20 minutes, and so it seems to me that the Internet is like Times Square. Everything interesting about Times Square is owned, but it’s still a public resource. Everybody (in the vicinity) can use it, and Anybody with a sandwich board sign, a restaurant flyer, an outlandish costume or ghetto blaster can (as they see it) improve it. Although the people who own the parts could theoretically improve it until it’s unrecognizable, they’re not likely to mess with the formula.

Rudy Giuliani changed Times Square more than anybody by getting rid of the panhandlers, hookers and sleaze industry. I’m not sure whether there’s an analogy there. Was he Fritz Hollings? I don’t think so.

Several years ago, I built a really nice home, employing a master carpenter whose work was so good that I soon gave him his head and let him work out the details. At the end of the project, Troy told me, “It’s my house—you’re just the owner.”

“I’m a Good Girl, I am”
             —Liza Doolittle, My Fair Lady

Liza Doolittle’s protestation could have no effect on Professor Higgins because he knew nothing about her. She would be better off saying “I want to be known as a good girl!” A reputation will always be in the eye of the beholder, no matter how many Digital ID mechanisms someone puts in place, or how centralized it is.

As you know if you followed Doc’s and Eric’s exchange better than I could, it was about digital ID, online reputation, anonymity and privacy. I’m not sure I can or should add anything, but, since Xpertweb and this design study is mostly about reputation, here are some escapable thoughts.

“You have no privacy. Get over it.”
              — Scott McNealy

“You have a right to privacy but not to anonymity.”
            — A memorable quote from someone whose name I forgot

The anonymous quote gets it right. Privacy is not the same as anonymity and, when we’re truly alone, consenting with other adults, we have the privacy rights we think we’re guaranteed by the Constitution. When we go out into the Agora to do business with others, we have no right to anonymity. And this ID thing is only about selling stuff. It’s not like we’ll be choosing our kid’s Day Care Center without direct experience.

So, since Digital ID is only about selling, let’s put it into the frame it deserves. If we customers/consumers remain willing to foot the fraud bill charged by vendors and card companies, we will. Just because they see the possibility of saving billions doesn’t mean the problem’s going to be solved. Eric insists:

“Companies will push the world of commerce toward this (specifically credit card companies and banks) because they can save Billions (with a B) of dollars. And, for the most part, the average everyday person will accept it because they will be told how much more secure their transactions will be; how identity theft and fraud is being fought; how parental controls are now easier — stuff that, in Nebraska and Peoria, plays really damn well.”

Or not. Grand visions where many big companies cooperate toward a common end seem to get bogged down in the reality of the roll-out. Is this really any different than the Microsoft’s failed centralized Passport idea? I surely don’t know and it’s not clear anyone does. Those midwesterners may not know Art, but they know what they don’t like. And they’re also just about as smart as other people.

No matter. Eric is sure right about one thing: parts of the Net will be much more finicky about ID than others as, by golly, they already are. He sees the Net dividing into two worlds—the ID Net and the Anonymous Net, the former being a pretty clearly cordoned off area. Given his background, he’s probably thinking of a virtual place that’s a lot like the NSA where he used to work.

Like the real world, the Net is likely to reflect the same range of anonymity as it does today. My bank is very careful about what it shows someone saying they’re me, but Amazon is less demanding and shareware authors let you take their stuff at will—catch me later, if you like it. The continuum will likely be more broad than it is now (banks to shareware), but only as a few players get more finicky.

What may change the nature of ID is a change in the nature of transactions.

When Reputation is Beyond Price

Here’s Eric Norlin quoting Frank Field, referencing Dave Noble:

Reputation is fundamental to commerce. Here’s a little thought experiment that Dave Noble (now a prof at York University – something of his from firstmonday) made us think about 20 years ago: “Suppose that you and I each have a good that the other wants, and that we agree that the exchange of these goods will make us both better off. Assuming that we are both rational, how can we accomplish this transaction?” If you think it through, you realize that the only way such transactions can take place is through the agency of something like reputation.

Consider: there has to be some point in the transaction where one actor actually possesses BOTH resources. At that point, what keeps that actor from keeping them both? Only the realization that it is more important to maintain reputation than it is to achieve a one-time gain.

Without something like reputation, transactions cannot take place, because without it, there is no rational reason that an actor will give up a resource in the expectation that the exchange will be completed.

Let’s ignore the detail that the simultaneous possession problem fades to inconsequence down at your friendly agora, where you’re handed the radishes at the moment you tender the cash. Let’s focus instead on the fact that most purchases are like a radish, an Amazon book, or a printer cartridge—of only nominal value to either party. The point is that buyers and sellers are most invested in never saying no to the customer or never being without a greengrocer. Since reliability is what matters in meatspace, where people are mostly trustworthy, how might we model those dynamics into cyberspace?

8:18:43 PM    

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