Once More, With Feeling

Why the hell is it so hard to get people to put a little muscle behind things which are obviously needed and more obviously lacking? What you and I are missing is access to the right expert at the right moment.

Allen Searls finally got fed up Friday and fell off the wagon of cool detachment to share his frustration — that it’s so hard to stir up excitement for something that’s so obviously needed. Since Allen and I are passionate about the same thing, I feel his pain, as WC used to say. Allen says it better than I ever have (don’t smart people piss you off?). What we need, he knows, is a way of . . .

. . . using the web to find actual people in the world at large that you can talk to right now, about whatever you’re specifically searching for. There’s nothing like that yet. Nothing. People aren’t searchable. They’re the most important resource in the world, and they’re not searchable, they’re scattered to the wind. There’s no “people” tab at Google (and “groups” isn’t the idea at all). That person you want to talk to right now (and that wants to hear from you right now) that needle in the haystack of 6 billion, is out there, I promise, but you’ll never find them, because the magnet you need to do so doesn’t exist. I want to build it.

Actually, Allen has already built it. It’s called GlobeAlive. ‘GA’ isn’t perfect, but it’s the only web app I’ve seen that lists experts and provides an instant way to get to them. Believe it or not, Allen commissioned his own chat engine to link GlobeAlive seekers with GlobeAlive experts. Now that GlobeAlive has demonstrated its functionality, Allen has been seeking to upgrade it to version 2.0, by integrating it with the Jabber protocol and the several other improvements that GA 1.0 has demonstrated. Allen’s challenge is that he needs venture financing to build on his angel investment over the last three years.

Yesterday afternoon I encouraged Allen to hang in there and to draw consolation from the fact that his idea is just too good to be appeal to investors. If Tim Berners-Lee had looked for financing in 1990 rather than just inventing HTML, he’d still be putting investor packages together. The old saying goes that no one will steal your really good idea because they won’t understand it. My corollary is that not only won’t they steal it, they won’t fund it.

Allen goes on,

“I’m sitting in front of my computer thinking (and I’m not the first) “somewhere out there, right now, in the world at large, is the person I need, available right now– with the answer I need, the expertise I need, the inspiration, the conversation, the product/service, and yes, perhaps, the companionship or camaraderie I need, that I’m not going to find in a document… someone that would be more than happy to talk to me right now, if I could just tap into the searchable database of all the world’s available people, right here from my computer, or cell phone— what a better world that would be!” But I can’t. Forget it. There’s nothing like that. Nothing! And no one’s listening to me. Yes, I’ve built a beta site, but I don’t have the ad money, the programming resources, the connections, to draw and keep the critical-mass crowds necessary to make this thing work, even though I see the intense excitement it generates in our beta users when it does.”

Nor is there any shortage of people who want to field others’ requests:

“And on the other side, we need to remember that about half the population feels undiscovered (or at least not sufficiently discovered). Many people feel that too few people are looking for them to hear what they have to say, what they have to sell, what they specifically specialize in, what makes them valuable. Most people would feel stupid advertising themselves , and yet know damn well they are the foremost expert on something (such as our Seinfeld-episode expert at GlobeAlive), and they probably are, but besides their immediate network, the rest of the world doesn’t recognize them as such, even though the rest of the world needs them, they can’t fill that hole, because they simply can’t be found, at least not as easily as a web page on Google.”

Ah, the innovator’s dilemma. Nobody misses what they’ve never experienced, like a battered wife who can’t imagine leaving the relationship. To imagine a better future, we need a vision:

“The bottom line is that when we restrict our interactions to people we already know or the people that happen to be in the chat room or community we join, it’s like restricting our information-gathering to the books in our personal libraries at home, it’s a mathematical certainty that we’re selling ourselves utterly short. The island mentality is the root of this problem. There’s an infinitely better way of going about our interpersonal interactions. It would change the web by making it live ; it would change the economy by making it personal ; it would change the world by making it smaller ; and it would change you and I… by helping us meet.”

Read the whole piece. It will make you think.

Running out of Sugar in a Beet Field

I have a default action when I run into the absurdity of grand potential limited by unimaginative capital. I haul out my tattered copy of Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All and re-read the best single paragraph ever written on economics:

During periods of so-called economic depression, societies suffer for want of all manner of essential goods, yet investigation almost invariably discloses that there are plenty of goods available. Plenty of coal in the ground, corn in the fields, wool on the sheep. What is missing is not materials but an abstract unit of measurement called ‘money.’ It is akin to a starving woman with a sweet tooth lamenting that she can’t bake a cake because she doesn’t have any ounces. She has butter, flour, eggs, milk, and sugar, she just doesn’t have any ounces, any pinches, any pints.(Skinny Legs and All, 1990)

Robbins is saying that we capitalists aren’t living up to our end of the bargain. (Yeah. We. Whoever has the time, bandwidth and inclination to read, write or discuss web logs, we’re part of the grand capitalist experiment. Even we foot soldiers in the trenches are part of the capitalist campaign).

In exchange for control of most people’s labor and brainpower, capitalism is supposed to find, develop and deploy talent, brains and energy and organize them in such a way that productivity and hope and prosperity increase in a crescendo of innovation and shared advancement of mankind and abundance reaching into every nook and cranny of humanity.

Oops, got a little ahead of myself there. It’s easy to forget there’s no “supposed to” in economics. There’s only a “just is.” It’s not written anywhere that people who’ve figured out how to control and deploy capital have any obligation to use it for the common good. It’s not even written that they must forego, like, 1% of their economic possibilities to trigger, l
ike, a 100% improvement in the common good. It’s not even accepted among capitalists that there’s a common good at all.

So what’s keeping Allen’s GlobeAlive from wiring us together better than conventional mechanisms? Some say that it’s hard to know for sure who we really are.

DIY DigID

One problem Allen runs into is the assumption that we’re years away from the robust reputation-enabled digital ID infrastructure that GlobeAlive seems to need to connect real people with real experts. If it happens sooner, there’s a tiny chance that Xpertweb’s modest proposal could solve the DigID shortage, at least for its half-dozen or so users.

Think of it as Do-it-Yourself DigID. It’s based on the key Xpertweb feature that arranges for both parties in a transaction/conversation/inquiry to have their own web site with cooperative scripting and a data file we cleverly call myid.xml. It lives at a predictable URL and contains all the personal info you might conceivably want to share with other parties, including Fname, Lname, address1, address2, city, province, postcode, xwid, etc. Revolutionary stuff, eh?

There’s also a provision for optional datatypes, any of which may be encrypted using the XML encryption standard. You choose which datatypes to fill in or other datatypes you may specify. Your Visa card number might be one, for putting money, and your PayPal email account might be one, for getting money. Those payment-based ‘put’ and ‘get’ actions conform to the widely adopted MTTP protocol—Money Talks Truly Powerfully.

So how can two Xpertweb sites with their cooperative scripts validate these people and their transactions? Five steps:

  1. A person identifies a good or service from a proven expert, enters her Xpertweb site’s URL and clicks the submit button.
  2. The expert’s site doesn’t know who entered the URL, so it sets a cookie on the visitor’s browser with the expert’s unique Xpertweb ID, the visitor’s IP number and the exact time the visitor clicked the submit button and sends the buyer to the URI purported to belong to the visitor.
  3. The buyer’s site challenges the visitor for a private name and password.
  4. If the visitor passes the identity challenge, the site creates a new task file, named by combining the expert’s ID, the buyer’s ID and the Unix epoch – the number of seconds between 1/1/1970 and the second the submit button was clicked. The file will contain a few basic data relating to the transaction.
  5. The authenticated buyer is sent back to the expert’s site, where the seller’s script can see that the file has been created on the buyer’s site, initiated from the known IP number within a reasonably short period after the first buyer action, confirming that this is the person as represented. Then the transaction can proceed.

There you have it, homespun DigID. No complex standards, no centralized servers, just a couple of similarly equipped web sites that can tell if a current visitor is the owner of a site they claim to own. Sure it’s a lightweight protocol, designed for villagers authenticating each other for a few transactions per week. If someone wants to do something more complicated, they can, but they’ll have no procedural advantage over a plain vanilla Xpertweb site.

And that’s how I hope the Xpertweb tools can help GlobeAlive go beyond the beta stage and serve its members as Allen has foreseen. If Xpertweb or something even better can help Allen realize the vision he has for all of us, then there’s no limit to how many people can serve each other and make money doing so.

1001 Arabian Rights

Khaled Al-Maeena, editor in chief of Arab News, spoke in Salon last week regarding the future of the Arab world:

“On the whole if you ask any young person what he wants, he wants to be computer-savvy, he wants the Internet, he wants to work. We do not want to be mere bystanders. We want to be travelers on the road of life, on the road of progress.”

Let’s not underestimate the potential for all of us to be useful to each other and to deal in ways that bring out the “supposed to” in us. That’s a business plan to get behind.

12:24:20 AM    

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