The Magic Kingdom Down and Out

Doc has an enlightening article in Linux Journal about the annoyance of marketing as we know it and how hard it is to be a well-known customer rather than a cynically-pitched faceless consumer. The stimulus was an automated telemarketing call from Disney:

I hung up.

Right now, it’s all up to Disney. Our relationship is entirely producer/consumer, which means we don’t have a relationship at all. Disney sets all the terms and conditions. I can buy their goods, join their clubs and what not; but I can’t initiate any kind of relationship that proceeds on my terms, even if that relationship might be good for them. The same goes for airlines, credit card companies, banks and various other entities whose relationships with me are manifest in the plastic cards that thicken my wallet. In fact, these asymmetrical producer/consumer relationships are so deeply embedded in our economy and culture that we hardly can imagine any kind of truly symmetrical power relationship with a large company–much less one in which we, as customers, are truly in charge.

(Doc’s good at this presentation. When he does it in person, he fans his credit and club cards across the table like a Vegas dealer.)

So let’s imagine one . . . What this requires is something we don’t have right now: a new identity infrastructure–one provided by open APIs, protocols and other standards that serve no agenda other than to enable useful dealings between buyers and sellers of products and services. Like the Web and e-mail infrastructure that are already part of the Net, this new infrastructure would be a full-fledged service on the Net. And it won’t become that unless it’s something nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve. Again, like the Web, e-mail and the Net itself.

Since this infrastructure won’t be built around any corporation’s agenda (though it will prove quite handy to corporations wishing to do business with free-range customers in a real marketplace), it necessarily will be centered around customers. After all, we’re the  ones with the money, right?. . .

. . . Let’s say I have engaged a new category of business–a relationship registrar called MyID–to certify, authenticate and otherwise substantiate the preferences, permissions and other variables that might be involved in mydentity-based relationships with participating companies and other organizations (including federal, state and local public ones). When I’m not using this mydentity, I still default to anonymity or to the relationships provided by current systems. . .

. . . When I spoke at Digital ID World last Fall, I said I didn’t believe any of this would begin to happen in a meaningful way until we had an invention that mothered some necessity–a dirt-simple killer application or killer protocol that would spread like wildfire and carry its own default infrastructure to ubiquity. I’m not sure Liberty supports that, but I don’t know. It kind of depends, I guess.

Right now there are other moves afoot, too premature to talk about, all intended to build out a mydentity-based infrastructure. I may hear more about these over the next four days, when I attend PC Forum, which combines big company CEOs and presentations with disruptive subjects. . .

. . . One concern I have is the need for simplicity, for the Principle of Good Enough that accounts not only for the success of the Net, the Web, e-mail and their founding protocols but for infrastructural building materials like Linux as well. To me, Liberty looks too complicated for that.

The Emerging Mitch-based SMI Protocol

Mitch climbs on Doc’s giant shoulders and exposes an idea he’s been baking for a while, the Strip Mall Infomediary (SMI), to implement Doc’s proposed Relationship Registrar business category. Since Xpertweb has a role to play in the market space, his idea must be good. And it plays a utilitarian background role, which is even better.

Mitch has seen what all of us will eventually get: carbon, not silicon, is the key element for the future of networked business. Messrs. Gates, Jobs, McNealy et. al. are required by their shareholders to imagine a world of complex rules and pipes and code intermediating our futures, but Mitch suggests that, for our most important needs, only a plugged-in human will do:

We cannot take time to manage access to our interests all the time, just as most people rely on money managers to help with their finances, doctors to keep track of their health, and so forth. The infrastructure that Doc describes, that Andre Durand has described here and here and Eric Norlin talks about when suggesting we “hijack” the Liberty Alliance protocol is necessary, but not sufficient. We also need people who are motivated to begin collecting the information that revolves around each of us and to organize that information for exploitation on behalf of the individual.

His non-obvious point is crucial. Our needs will always transcend our machines’ abilities to serve us. When they catch up to our current needs, we’ll have moved on to richer, more subtle requirements. Mitch describes how his infomediaries would arrange Doc’s ideal Disney vacation, but it extends to less obvious excursions. How soon will an automated travel agent like Expedia design the fulfilling trip to Florence and Venice that David Weinberg wants this week, for which he seeks pointers from his readers? Obviously there’s no current satisfaction index, or David would be using it.

When will code-based travel routers match the subtlety of the carbon-based Parker Company, renting seductive Italian villas only to clients they speak with on the phone? Why even ask? Check out Parker’s gorgeous, evocative site for a hint of the rich future of human-centric services—it’ll inspire you to break out that neglected pasta maker.
Mitch’s SMIs will know how to find villas like this one, 30 minutes from Florence, as easily as the downtown Marriott, but less dear at $90/night. Either one may be stocked with the wine and flowers you prefer. This is how the infomediaries of the Very Rich work already, so it’s just another digital divide for us to cross. But we netizens are on the wrong side of this one. Is that OK with you?

Citing the proliferation of financia
l services companies like Edward Jones in retail Generica, Mitch suggests that the relationship registrar will build on whatever Digital ID infrastructure emerges, selectively shielding and exposing the client’s presence, generally deflecting the intrusive, opportunistic side of sellers, while narrowly engaging the responsive service sides of the same sellers (without that proven responsiveness, they don’t even get a shot).

The second part of the supporting infrastructure is what Flemming calls “SMTP for reputation”—Xpertweb. For the strip mall infomediary, Xpertweb is just a background utility, tracking clients’ satisfaction as thoroughly as their portfolios reflect financial satisfaction. As rhapsodic as I may get about a Peer Economy, we need to remember that the Xpertweb protocols are just a black box to aggregate and depict quality with incorruptible integrity. What you do with the protocol is your business. Literally.

Mitch then describes the icing. A ready, willing and able buyer is the most precious resource in the economy and he’s worth a lot to sellers. The quality of the infomediary’s clients is proven to the sellers he works with, so, like the rug merchant at the bazaar, they’re ready to deal. Whether it’s a discount or extras, the infomediary’s client will be way ahead of the unassisted customer:

The infomediary is incented not only to protect the client’s information, but also to develop new ways to make money for the client using that information — just as Wall Street has created a thousand derivatives to create more value it can extract.

We’ve never considered Mitch’s idea so it couldn’t work, could it? But the infrastructure is imminent and free. Digital ID will be free. Xpertweb will be free. Web space might as well be free. You can rent furniture cheap and often get strip mall space for six month’s free rent to start, which I found out when I built one…;-). There’s no Cost Of Goods Sold and no SABRE terminal to lease.

Probably the only expensive part is Mitch.

11:25:36 PM    

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