Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Machines No, People Yes

I've been watching the growing fury over Phorm from afar. Today there's an argument it's illegal because permission should be sought not only from web users but also from websites.

I think it comes down the difference between the too-human robotics of the uncanny valley (and my thanks to Russell Davies for that image) and genuine human voice.

It does freak us out (as Russell pointed out at Widgety Goodness) when 'the machine' knows what we want even before we do, in a Minority Report nightmare kind of way.

It is a considerable fear in a command and control, centre-out model. If you apply edge-in, community-focused approaches to the same dilemma I believe you end up less freaked out, more helped out.

Simply, if a machine has a recommendation for me I may be suspicious (it is an approximation of a human face - an uncanny replicant), if a friend has a recommendation for me, that recommendation has a human face - a real and comforting one.

So far as I understand, Phorm is a centre-out model. A gathering of info about YOU and people like you, centralising and mashing that data and then recommending away. Helpful? Quite possibly. Freaky? Very, very possibly. Freaky equals shutters up and since, as (again, my understanding) Phorm doesn't use personal identifiers, that makes it hard, individually, to say no.

The BBC reports: Richard Clayton, treasurer at Fipr, said: "The Phorm system is highly intrusive; it's like the Post Office opening all my letters to see what I'm interested in, merely so that I can be sent a better class of junk mail."

Ouch! Perhaps you'd trust your family to open the post for you though?

Uncanniness anyone? See below:


The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?