Life With Alacrity

A blog on social software, collaboration, trust, security, privacy, and internet tools by Christopher Allen.

Future Topics


I've been working on an ambitious list of topics that I'd like to cover over the next year. I offer them to you here so you can have some idea the areas that I am thinking about.

Office Architecture for Innovation -- Over the years I've built or converted three offices to my specifications. From this I have learned a number of things about about how to create a productive environment innovation-oriented businesses. These include some of the obvious suggestions such as fresh air and natural light, but also include not so obvious ideas such as using magnetic paint and providing a small washer-dryer.

Requisite Variety -- This concept from cybernetics applies to social systems as well. "The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate." More people, as well as a diversity of thinking styles and experience, give social software more "variety of actions", thus this is part of the reason why social software can be so effective.

The Art and Craft of Meme Design -- We are learning more about how to create an effective meme. Creating memes has always been an art performed by publicists, marketers, politicians, the press, and to a lesser extent by scientists and other academics. Have we learned enough to turn this art into an explicit craft?

Wiki Editing Dichotomy -- One interesting possible barrier of entry to active participation in a wiki is what I call the "wiki editing dichotomy". You have to be proud enough to believe what you are contributing is generally worthwhile to others (or at least worth your effort), but you also have to be humble enough to understand that others can improve it. I don't know of many other collaborative media that requires both pride and humility.

Choice & Neuroeconomics -- There are some that say at the root of every decision is emotion. Even a 'rational' decision appeals to a sense of balance or beauty. Recent studies using PET are establishing a neurological basis for emotions, and some reveal interesting facts about how we make choices.

Assessing Risk -- There are a variety of areas where we as humans have a difficult time being completely rational. One of these is risk assessment. It turns out we may be hard-wired to not be able toeasily understand risk that is greater then one in a hundred or so. Thus a very rare risk, say one in a thousand, will often be emotionally interpreted as having a much higher risk.

Persuasive Computing -- BJ Fogg's group at Stanford has done some interesting research on how computers can persuade you to do something. There are a number of useful ideas that come from this research. There are also some ethical considerations that should be discussed.

Cognitive Dissonance -- This technique is central to many forms of persuasion intended to change beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviors. It is used by facilitators, businesses, military organizations, and even cults. It can be used positively or negatively. How might it be used in social software?

The Dark Side of the Force -- The same social tools that we use for good, can also be used for harm. How do we ethically use what we are learning about social software? Some say that almost by definition social software attracts spammers, trolls, and innappropriate sexuality. What can we do to prevent these misuses of social software?

Conversation vs Communication -- Update and rewrite of my 1990 essay on how social software design needs to balance conversation vs communication.

Social Emotions -- We appear to have evolved a number of emotions that appear primarily to exist to support a common good, rather then to ensure our individual success. These include schadenfreude, mirth, naches, revenge, shame, pride, outrage, approbation, admiration, elevation, etc. Studies by Eckman on unconscious facial gestures, studies on the neurological basis for emotions, and studies on emotions in games, are proving that these social emotions exist. A number of them have interesting implications on social software.

Glances & Strokes -- There is some old work on the amount of eye contact we make with others in small groups, as well as some research from transactional analysis on strokes, which are the amount of recognition given to others through words and deeds. Is there a neurological basis for needing a certain number of glances and strokes each day? How does this concept apply to social software?

Weak Links -- There are some interesting social implications behind what we've learned about weak links in social networks. How do we identify and encourage weak links in our social software systems?

Negativity vs Positivity -- It is far easier for someone to respond negativel than positively. In political systems it is far easier to say no rather then yes. What social software encourages positivity, and is it possible to design social software to do so?

Time Economy -- Our ultimate most unrenewable resource is time. How time and attention are a basic economic unit that should be considered when looking at social software.

Group Life Cycle -- We often focus on how groups form, emerge, and grow. Yet there are many lessons to be learned from how groups die, including that it isn't necessarily a bad thing and that keeping a group from death can be dysfunctional.

Groupthink -- What causes groupthink? When is it good and when is it bad?

Two Thresholds in the Value of Knowledge -- In order for knowledge to be valuable, it must at minimum be more valuable then the costs to find and absorb it (costs which include bandwidth and attention). Tools like Google have tremendously increased the amount of knowledge that is worth the time and attention to find it. What types of knowledge fall below this threshold of value? Is there a limit to how much we can lower this line? Furthermore, there is another threshold where the knowledge is significantly more valuable than only bandwidth and attention. How much have internet tools impacted this second threshold? Many internet business models, in particular content models, require some ability to offer value in this upper threshold -- can they survive as this upper threshold changes?

Intimacy and Social Networks -- Social Networks Analysis tends to focus on the connections between people, either explicitly through acknowledgement of connections (LinkedIn, Friendster) or implicitly through analysis of your communication (Spoke). None are able to measure intimacy. Yet our intimate social networks are an important component of our overall happiness and contentment within both our professional and personal lives. How does intimacy work in social networks? Also there are some concepts in psychology known as communal vs exchange relationships by Clark & Mills from late 70's that may apply here.

Social Games -- A recap of Shannon Appelcline's and my analysis of the basic forms of social games types. These include relatively well understood ones like majority control, voting, meta-voting (Nomic), auctioning, etc., but also include less well understood games like playing of roles, dominance and submission, etc. There are also links to social emotions, such as mirth and schadenfraude.

Lessons from Castle Marrach -- We released the Castle Marrach online game in September of 2000, and it was designed from the beginning to be a game for the Bartle-type known as "the socializer". What lessons did we learn in the five years since the release of the game? What tools are in my social software toolbox today that might have helped with the design?

Lessons from F2F Facilitation -- There are many skilled practitioners of face-to-face facilitation, some of which are paid very high fees for their skills. What lessons can we learn from their experience that we can apply to social software? Why have so many of these facilitators failed to have success online?

More Human vs More Than Human -- Many futurists seek to offer us augmentation of our minds and bodies through technology. Many of these ideas may fundamentally change what it is to be human, and may even have unforeseen complications unanticipated by their creators. One interesting approach to looking at these technologies is to examine which make us "more human", rather then "more than human".

Lessons from Mental Disorders -- Most, if not all, mental disorders have their roots in survival strategies; however, they are over-expressed because of genetic or other causes. Examining the healthy behaviors hiding behind depression, autism, mania, schizophrenia, paranoia, etc. offer a number of insights on how we think.

Joy of being a Primate -- If you scan the surface of my writing, you may observe that I have a strong belief that our animal nature and genetics form an essential and often unconscious part of what it is to be human. You could interpret these "nature" over "nurture" ideas as limiting us to being just animals. Instead, I believe that by becoming aware of our primate nature, and choosing to leverage it or suppress it by conscious choice rather then letting it drive us unaware, is what makes us more powerful.

Smart Contracts -- Nick Szabo popularized the idea of using some of the primitives of cryptography in unique ways to create what he calls "smart contracts". He hypothesized approaches to cryptographic handling of collateral, bonding, delineation of property, bearer certificates, and much more. Others have proposed various auction protocols using these concepts. One of the fundamental atomic elements of many of these smart contracts is something called a "reusable proof of work", which Hal Finney recently demoed a version of at CodeCon 2005. What are the possibilities offered by smart contracts? What are the barriers to implementation?

Club System -- In the 80's, development of Ted Nelson's Xanadu vision was being financed by Autodesk. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons Xanadu failed to deliver any technology. However, a couple of their ideas could be valuable today, one of which is the concept of an alternative to the "user and groups" metaphor for computer security. Xanadu turned that idea upside down and called the result the "club system". The club system approach is particularly suited to the internet based collaboration tools, in particular wikis. I also have some insights to offer a cryptographic approach to the club system, which might allow P2P distribution of collaborative documents, while preserving group privileges.

Edges of Cryptographic Security -- The SSL cryptographic protocol offers a choice of a number of security properties: integrity, confidentiality, encryption, one-party authentication, and two-party authentication. But there are a number of security properties that very few deployed cryptographic protocols offer. These include perfect forward secrecy, undeniability, deniability, authorization, delegation, multi-party authentication, shared secrets, etc. What are these security properties and how are they useful? Why have they not been successfully broadly deployed?

The SSL Story -- When SSL was first proposed it was broken within an hour. Even when Netscape fixed those problems, it wasn't clear that SSL was going to win the battle of security protocols. SSL was competing against SHTTP which had backing of RSA and an industry consortium. The credit card companies merged their standards and were backing SET. The internet community was moving toward SSH. Microsoft was doing its own embrace and extend protocol PCT. So how did SSL win to become the broadest deployed cryptographic security protocol? The answers may surprise you.

I welcome any comments or suggestions for links on these topics, or any new topics that you feel are closely related.


URL: Get to work! Soon!

Phil Mitchell

URL: The SSL story would be interesting..


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