Should We Fear Ambient Findability?

by , Jul 25, 2007, 12:30 PM
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In my last column, I used the topic of personalization as a launching pad into an exploration of ambient findability. I framed my thoughts around Peter Morville's book "Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become."

Defined as the all-encompassing ability to be locatable or navigable, ambient findability represents a world in which everything can be indexed and found, including people, places and things -- or as Pat Sajak would say, "nouns."

Morville takes the concept one step further, overlaying the emergence of the Sociosemantic Web as a catalyst to a reality where all objects are not only found but interact with each other through "Web agents." And you thought the iPhone was cool?

However, as awe-inspiring as the journey into ambient findability may be, I can't help but wonder just how much utility there is to be found (pun intended) in a world where humans can be tagged and flagged -- and the buttons are pushing the buttons.

In fact, Morville himself professes some concern over entering the "promised land of pervasive computing." Among other challenges, he speculates that humans will "struggle to balance privacy, freedom, convenience and safety."

Curtains? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Curtains!

 The issue of privacy has long been a concern as we race toward true one-to-one marketing. And it's at the forefront once again as Congress examines the Google-DoubleClick Deal.

However, the Yahoos and Amazons of the world have been conditioning end-users that there's tangible value in exchange for disclosing their personal data. Whether it's saved preferences, personalized homepages or product recommendations, the utility for consumers willing to share their data has never been higher.

And the Millennials certainly have no problem sharing. Facebook publishes a feed that alerts you to virtually every action your friends have taken within its walls. To today's teens, transparency is a way of life -- for better or worse.

Remember, folks, by the time any of this heady artificial search intelligence comes to fruition, it'll be the Facebook generation with all the disposable income in our society -- which is why I don't think new homes built in the mid-21st century will have curtains or blinds on the windows.

O'er the Land of the Free

There was a time when freedom meant the ability to speak your mind and democracy referred to everyone having the right to vote. Today, we talk about the freedom and democratization of information. As Morville observes, "In this network culture that sports more Web pages than people, we enjoy incredible access to free information. But with freedom comes responsibility, and with free information, finding is not only a right but a duty. In short, access changes the game."

Quite simply, we are better equipped to question authority than ever before.

Doctor, why are you prescribing Lipitor? I just Googled high blood pressure and LowerMyCholesteral.net told me it's got dangerous side effects.

And authority is better equipped to question us. I just (proudly) received my first ticket-by-mail for blowing a red light at an intersection with police cameras.

Now imagine a world of ambient findability. What will freedom mean when your every move is as trackable as a search ad? There's no hiding from your spouse, your boss, your kids, your ex, your landlord or the police -- the first thing I thought of when I got that ticket in the mail is the scene from "Demolition Man" where Sandra Bullock gets a ticket for swearing.

24/7/11  

When everything is findable and the engines are doing the work for us, what's left for us to do besides eat bon-bons and watch "Oprah"?

When I can buy clothes and chat with friends online, why hit the mall?  When I can research any topic at any depth without getting out of my chair, why go to a library?  When I can tell all my friends what I'm up to by changing my status on Facebook or Twittering them, why do I need a phone -- or even email?

When my "Web agent" can plan my trip, book my flight and set up my meetings, why do I need an assistant? Or deductive reasoning skills?

Bottom line, who needs a silver spoon in your mouth when you're born with an automated agent in your hand?

 The Widgets Are Coming, The Widgets Are Coming!

So far, you might be saying, "OK, I can deal with a little less privacy, a few extra tickets and a lazier disposition if it means I can find my lost dog, take control of my personal health, and book a better (and cheaper) vacation, all without leaving my chair."

To that I say, "I hear you." And then I revert to Bush tactics and say, "But the terrorists are out there trying to kill us!"

They're already using Google maps to find their targets. And they're hacking into government databases. And they may not be terrorists, but there are plenty of ne'er-do-wells out there sending rogue viruses across the Web. If you think it's bad when a Trojan horse shuts your computer down, imagine a virus that turns your "Web agent" against you. "My TiVo thinks I'm gay!" ain't the half of it!

Granted, the "good guys" could also leverage ambient findability to better track down terrorist cells, but something tells me al Qaeda is going to be the last group of people on Earth to plant RFIDs into their bodies or possessions.

Be Careful What You Wish For

At the end of the day, while it's fun to think about what life would be like in a world of ambient findability, we first need to recognize that we're a long ways off from getting there. And before we rush to put resources behind making it a reality, we need to ask ourselves just how grand a vision this is.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that achieving ambient findability is not a worthwhile endeavor. I'm just advocating that we consider the consequences before we rush off to innovate for innovation's sake.

Again, I encourage anyone who has a stake in the future of search to pick up a copy of Morville's book and join in the conversation. Before I move on to another topic, I think I'll devote my next column to highlighting some of the top quotes from the book to give you a flavor of Morville's wisdom and whimsy.  

For the record, I'm not getting paid to promote this book -- I've never even met the guy. I just feel strongly that we need to be thinking about the path the "search fad" is leading us down.

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