Archive for the ‘SourceConjugation’ Category

ImageThe New Year greeted me with a blog post from Dan Tunkelang, chief information scientist at LinkedIn. I’m guessing based on earlier blips across my radar that Tunkelang serves as the chief big data officer for B2B behaviorists.

It’s Tunkelang’s responsibility to place a cap and plug or two on the fire hose of information. It’s still not drinkable for the average consumer but the spray alone can irrigate quite a few promising fields (or what Tunkelang might call data products – the ability to exploit a recurring experience that can be enhanced, neutered, or packaged into some new mutation).

This is heady stuff. Owning the formula for rationalizing the collective cognitive sensation of the online clickstream on earth and what’s worth noticing is not just for disciples of the Patriot Act. Figuring out an explanation for what happens between when we land on a page and what compels us to hit <send> is the cosmic mystery of our commercial age.

In the piece Tunkelang begins to unpack Abraham Maslow’s polemic on human motivation as a hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s work was not inspired by traffic patterns between servers or calls to databases but was engineered through his chosen field of psychology. Maslow concluded with an ideal – not a data product. Self-actualization was not premised on field studies or repeatable experimentation. He knew it when he saw it … in Einstein, Thoreau, Jefferson, Huxley, Jane Adams, and other high thinking boundary crashers.

It’s interesting that Tunkelang would recast a foundation as broad as human motivation on the subjective grounds of Maslow’s work.  Maslow had personality analysis and his intuitions. Tunkelang has petabytes to evidence his computer models. One perspective based on a rich, interior life; the other one patterned off the hall of social media mirrors we hold to our surface reflections and virtual connectedness. Perhaps these differences are not conflicting and take a backseat to the core of this framework:

These people were reality-centered, which means they could differentiate what is fake and dishonest from what is real and genuine.  They were problem-centered, meaning they treated life’s difficulties as problems demanding solutions, not as personal troubles to be railed at or surrendered to.  And they had a different perception of means and ends.  They felt that the ends don’t necessarily justify the means, that the means could be ends themselves, and that the means — the journey — was often more important than the ends.

Tunkelang sees self-actualization as a tool for framing perception. This harkens back to a time of professional distance objectified by the late 20th century mass journalism ideal of bias-free reporting. We’ve gone well past what sociologists like Daniel Boorstin proclaimed in The Image, his ground-breaking pre-McLuhan polemic. Borstin argued that most events were no longer spontaneous but orchestrated as pseudo-events and confused for public changes to the private world that concern me, a.k.a. news.

Fifty years on we don’t question that perception is reality. We’re no longer starved for information. Our hunger is for absolutes. Our excuse for inaction forms not from a lack of information but resolve on what to do with it, a.k.a. uncertainty. Our bias today is not red state, blue state 1-2-3. It’s that our forebears could afford more daring as if they came from a surplus of certainty – the biggest rear view distortion of all historic fictions.

Perhaps Tunkelang’s choice of Maslow is to guide an awkward baby giant like big data through the earnest compass of the self-actualizers Maybe the thicket of IP addresses, browser versions, and click patterns that tangle through a congestion of transactions is what tomorrow’s information scientists can use to define reality, or at least clarify the boundaries that encircle it? We’re now finally getting to where we can assess the reality of the perception.

What Tunkelang refers to as how we interact with and benefit from data is every bit as subjective as Maslow’s basis for a centered reality:

“Indeed, data scientists like my team at LinkedIn spend most of our time converting massive volumes of data into useful information — not just for people to consume directly, but also to power other analyses and products.”

The corollary here: what users consume indirectly are the analytics that LinkedIn processes from information products composed exclusively of these same people. Of course I’m not an insider B2B guy slaving over an arsenal of social media stockpiles. I teach outsiders how to make information work for them without getting too attached to the sources or the labeling or the Darwinian edict of a digital economy that one person’s content is another party’s revenue.

But forget about the free labor that stokes the Facebook furnace. Forget the Pavlovian insistence of Google Suggest. Attention factories treat human curiosity as a natural resource – even when we gorge on an unhealthy appetite of self-selecting rationales of our own reality-making.

How does Tunkelang view the realities of big data? One unflattering view is of its bulky and yet porous nature — a mostly dormant black hole that belies any golden opportunities to exploit it for material, academic, or community gain. In 2013 we are staring blindly into an ever-cascading  information surplus that operates inside a vacuum of understanding? The scarcity of our sense-making surfaces in our BS detectors, our acceptance of vocal minorities, and in the shouting matches that result. We don’t ask why. We mask our confusions through the distractions of texting and email.

We used to have professional attention managers like TV networks and newspapers. Today we’re no closer to managing our attentions as we are to deal with financial planning, hanging plasma screens, family smart phone packages, or disabling JavaScript.

Tunkelang models a world of attention managers as a community of trust-seekers. It’s not just whether a piece of evidence smells right but our own particular fragrance. After all, we are “often producers of information ourselves,” he points out: “We have an interest in establishing our own trustworthiness as sources.”

Tunkelang defines trust as the communion of authority (reliable provider) and sincerity (good faith provider). The rationale is that you’ll know my beef on Yelp is for real because I’ll get worked up in the future about the same beefy grievances. The problem is that the arms’ length relationship of authority to evidence is in fundamental conflict with the intimacy of direct experience. Our need for self-preservation reduces our ability to represent the collective interest. A blending of the two might be an aspiration but belies the algorithms and trust serums that can be teased out of big data or injected into the conversations of big networks.

That elevated wisdom would bind credibility and authenticity in a state of integrity. In such a state experience informs the voice of authority. That’s an authenticity which may still bring human trust into our digital age.

It’s hard to fathom an hour clad and out of bed better spent than last Thursday’s OnPoint from WBUR. A spirited forum led host, guests, and callers to philosophize between pragmatism and our perfect worlds.

I’ll take my inspirations from internal quandaries over debating public policies and handicapping horse races any day. Inside, looking out, and taking in a crisp and resonating distance. The broader business of our daily practices and how they present in our public American discourse is much more interesting than arriving at these meanings through the mundane abstractions of our fetishistic tax laws, per capita pollution levels, “good” cholesterol counts, and aggregations buried in the algorithms of Google and Facebook. That’s what OnPoint listeners witnessed in a zeitgeist-popping and enigmatic question of Too much self-reliance?

For the panel, host Tom Ashbrook snagged literary critic Benjamin Anastas. Ashbrook was justifiably smitten with Anastas’s New York Time Magazine essay, The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’, which raked Ralph Waldo over the “looking-out-for-#1″ coals in the December 4th issue.

To Emerson’s defenders, self-reliance was never a vehicle for piety or privilege but a reaction to conformity. Professor Alex Zakaris of the University of Vermont described Emerson’s rejection of his fellow New Englanders and their casual materialism as a loophole into “moral thoughtlessness.” He cited the travesty of obeying the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by returning these inventory turnovers to their receipt-bearing masters.

Emerson did not write blank checks to the future from unquestioning urge “to speak what you think now in hard words.” His approach was to purge the unreflective gratifications, clear the head. His humility divined this critical self-scrutiny to be arduous work without deadlines to meet: Specifically, the act of learning how to detect our own thoughts free of social conditioning. that’s nearly has hard to fathom for some of us as human inventories. We’re more anxious being offline than subjected to the zealotry of our now permanent campaigns.

Back to Emerson now — the pay-off of self-reflection was quite the windfall:

* Dividends of inner peace

* Triumphal, universalist connection of cosmic-like romance: “every heart vibrates to a reservoir of divinely ordained goodwill.”

* Did we mention self-reliance as a throw-in?

This is the note he sounds of a consciousness that regulates what comes into our hearts.

But hearts being what they are can clench themselves into thick, over-sized muscles. In the naval-gazing myopic absorptions of our day, we recoil at the stiff price on believing in ourselves at all costs:

* The little CPA in my soul tells me that the one percent are hoarders whose craven capitalism arranged for the decapitation of the middle class.

* The Paul Revere replica in my driveway is revving to defy any law that expands the rolls to make health care a civil right (and a social responsibility).

* I will deny the existence of global warming sooner than I’ll acknowledge the disappearance of the North Pole.

Can our swollen egos, bruised by the bumps of social conditioning, fit snugly inside these principles? That we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the self and its final say on these earthly arguments?

The compromises that manifest in partisanship happens on the group level. You know the groupings. You mean you weren’t invited to the shotgun wedding where the bride was given away for the unholy price of a Faustian bargain? We can’t pass a normal news cycle without the co-opting of the public interest by parties beholden to interest, or rather the self-interest of groups. Would Emerson say that corporations are people too? What is a more sincere expression of democracy than that?

I can think of one. That’s the passions harbored in the festering disaffections of tea parties and occupiers. We’re all on the authentic side of the majorities in our distrustful minds. The hypocrisies of autonomous libertarians queue on the receiving end of our reliable beltway punching bags and petty tyrannies: Big Government? Out of my tiny entitlements.

And you can have the FEMA trailer back, honest.

But it’s not about the money either. There’s another corruption summoned from the death of God — specifically the departure of the sacred from public life and the language of a higher calling that is not merely mutual but universal. Our essayist Mr. Anastas pushes back, brandishing Sarah Palin’s brew of “mavericky charisma.” The irony here is that these women and men of God use their direct channels into gated kingdoms, emerging with an endorsement, a charter franchise of “the chosen,” and new priorities and roles: now, Gods of women and men.

So many of these internal compasses point vehemently towards righteousness and away from “volumes of evidence” and “stubborn facts.” Is that Emerson talking, or the political discourse growling in the belly of our appetites for cable news?

Heart news is fair and balanced!

In guts we trust, and, gut the basis for trusting others.

When does rugged, two-fisted self-reliance decay into a defrauding of the Treasury? The pulpits of the heart are certainly authentic. But is that the stuff of the integrity envisioned by Emerson? If not, the bedrock of the American spirit may just be begging for a quake-induced fracking. What spills into our streets and leeches into our water tables would change us from the outside in.

That’s when climate change may arrive at our better selves. And we’ll take credit for a hotter sun coming up in the mornings of tomorrow.

“Categorizing is necessary for humans. But it becomes pathological when the category is seen as definitive, preventing people from considering the fuzziness of boundaries, let alone revising these categories.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb

We’ve come to know where we live as much by local food movements as our schools and property values. In the last decade “buy local” has come to mean that we’re creating environmental sustainability, healthier diets, and more close-knit communities by eating the food planted by the farmers who work the same lands that support us and our grassroots economies.

Can the same be said for information, really? If we limit our inputs to what’s nearby aren’t we limiting our perspectives? If we shop locally for our news how can we generalize the broader forest from the specific trees? Our collective self-interests stick close to home. Aren’t we further compromising our own narrow focus by foresaking the interdependencies and complexities that can only form by holding our own hides up to a more inclusive global perspective?

Localizing information sounds like an open invitation to invite in what Taleb calls “the contagion” or the herd mentality that traps independent thinkers into parroting the same parochial mindsets:

“The process of having these people report in lockstep caused the dimensionality of the opinion  — they converged on opinions and used the same items as causes.”

That uniformity of perspective-taking is not about one’s sourcing as it is about reporting; for our purposes this is the 24/7 news cycle. This formula is not set to increase to a 25/8 cycle no matter how dense the news flow, how rich the implications, or how clued in the recipients. Rather Taleb is suggesting a need to defy the pattern by tabling judgments; a need to ignore loops expecting to  be closed in time to declare some daily distortion, fueled by the need for definitive outcomes.  Filling air time is one thing. But we confuse it for filling our mental shopping carts with all the evidence we need to decide …

  • guilt or innocence
  • one party over another
  • winners and losers

None of this defines a local information as a movement — a force for good — or even for food for thought. Localizing the information we’re fed means sourcing our news providers well enough to know their locales and to see through their own self-referential conceits, blinders, and potential conflicts of interest. Until we know where a fact was selected, when an interview was granted, or who took the time to file a FOIA, we will be taking our information sources on the same blind faith that poisons us on factory beef and processed food.

Whether our informants are networks or neighbors we need to know of the company they keep before we can build the same independent perspective we insist of our news providers. The leading bias is self-selection. Nature abhors a vacuum. Talk may be cheap and free speech may prove expensive. Vacuums are pure legend to the media will never acknowledge the existence of one. Still, that doesn’t obviate our need as researchers to cultivate a balanced media diet.

Localizing the intentions of our news providers is one place to start.

How do we know it’s time to suck in the bulge around our brains?

The marketplace for ideas need not be a storefront

That swelling is not transmitted by airborne virus or insect. Most likely it’s the encrypted WIFI signal ready to auction off our attention based on:

    • Who wants it,
    • Where they will be for the next 45 minutes, and
    • a coupon for perishable inventories echoed in the placeholders of past browser sessions.

Like any internet marketer Google’s efforts are focused on converting web surfers to online shoppers, translating our calls for help into online ads it sells to the market. This arrangement connects some sellers to buyers but does little to resolve our need for quality information from credible sources. We must fend for ourselves when it comes to online investigations. And that isolation compromises our effectiveness as learners:

  • The web by remote control: Google IS the internet. If it doesn’t rank, it doesn’t exist.
  • The priority switcheroo: What landed last is what deserves to be acted on first.
  • The sourcing dilemma: The motives behind information providers and how that squares with evidence used to substantiate their claims.

The simple truth is that Google has a great deal of value for the researcher — little of it that’s monetizable. Ironically Google’s unrecovered assets are where web researchers should be investing big time:

  1. How to assess: frameworks and models: Aligning knowledge-seeking requirements with an informed sense of where to go and for acting on what we’ll expect to find there
  2. How to ask: semantics, syntax, and operators — The building blocks of query formation; the act of interrogating databases and training them to do our bidding
  3. How to act: context and meaning: Applying source fluency in order to scope the credibility, authenticity, and ultimately our understanding of where our findings are leading us

Internet sources and the search results they spawn are dynamic, conflicting, and open-ended. Your time commitments, however, are not. We have set objectives and hard stops for reaching them. Too often our need for closure and certainty suppress our hunger for learning. Connecting poor search results to preferable outcomes is like trying to shape up on a diet of lard and donuts. No matter how many searches and site results we retreat from the computer with more uncertainties and less time to settle them.

There are two reliable reasons most of us go online to research:

  • Learn enough to act on what we’ll learn
  • Reduce the uncertainty around what those actions may bring

These are the themes and objectives we’ll be exploring each Thursday evening this summer at the Montague Bookmill. We hope you can join us for our weekly meetups from 7-9 pm. The series begins next Thursday, June 2nd. We look forward to your input and addressing the pending research projects that fire your desire to learn in the first place. A laptop is optional but do pack your own homegrown research problems.

And be prepared to share.


It’s an ancient cognitive impairment: what comes through our ears into our brains positively obliterates “the way” it comes through the same cavities. The modern day vessel for this malfunction is called “the channel” and ours are clogged the moment we’re on — mentally alert enough to take calls, send texts, browse faces, and read screen-presentable situations.

The state? Connected.

The place? Anywhere at anytime.

The enabler? Receiving electronic signals over synthetic devices.

The pathogens?

- Certainty of SenderReceiving pointed messages from senders of unknown origin. Case-in-point: Argumentation is now searchable and replaceable. The same macros used to make wholesale changes to the names, places, and file structures in electronic documentation are now done on a scale formerly known as mass communications. Only now macro communications has no consistent authors or addresses — just the incessant need to influence the most minds for the least cost.

- Theory of Mind – Confusing the ease with which we make sense of these messages with any clear understanding of what they mean to others. Case-in-point: Remember the famous last words of a dying friendship jeopardized by a media firestorm? It goes something like: “why did I have to read about this in today’s paper? Why couldn’t you have come to me first?” Nowadays the idea that we can reduce a piece of information to the plot points on a calendar traversed by a series of interactions is going the way of other 20th century conventions like privacy, the public trust, and a free press.

- Confirmation Bias – An unwillingness to openly question our own motivated reasoning — especially when our biases are based on the inability of message receivers to handle their own doubts and uncertainties. Case-in-point: curiosity, exploration, and debate succumbs to the iron-fisted simplicity of authoritarian rule or an over-reliance on the scoreboard clock of the zero sum game. The latest mid-season update? Politics “1” Governance “0.”

So how do we trap this restless, resistant, and relentless messaging stuff in lightening bottles of a 21st century vintage? It all boils down to our two natural message sending and receiving states: (1) as individuals and, (2) in groups. Degrees of separation is the Y axis that completes the matrix. Think of this in terms of verb conjugations from a timeless grammar school:

* First, second, and third person singular (for individuals)
* First, second, and third party plurals (for groups)

The micro-speck formed by our Facebook profiles and blogging sites is the first-person version of our own social media channels. But your day job is to safeguard your firm’s LinkedIn alumni profiles? If you’re representing the throat and ears of an organization speaking for “us” then you’ve channeled over to first party status. And so on.

Source conjugation is a straightforward framework for understanding both how electronic communication travels and how the humans who traffic in its signals tend to behave on behalf of our own vested interests and biases. It doesn’t make the world less complicated.

But it does sort out the actions we take with the information we’re given into a sortable bucket of outcomes and conclusions. And that’s a whole lot better than any product we’re going to be sold — unless we’re the ones doing the selling.


The most fundamental disconnect of current state web 2.5 lies between our dual roles as content producers and consumers. It’s one thing to shed aliases and handles as fluidly as we’re pressed for passwords. It’s quite another to be torn between our need for peer approval and self-protection. That’s not a minor misalignment. That’s a deep and impassable identity crisis. How the two are reconciled is not the next big app. It’s the staging ground for the gathering storm perfection of:

* The rise of Facebook
* The fall of journalism
* The abyss of credibility

For the last five years or so we’ve been feeding the sociable media beast with friend affirmations. We want a sense of belonging, of inclusiveness. But if we pay for that community-building with back-scratches and platitudes that leaves a gaping hole between what we hope to be expressed and what we know to be true. It’s not that Facebook praises are empty but enforced by a culture of reciprocal transparency. As much as positive reinforcement is the elixir of choice for self-expression, it leaves us hungry for how others perceive us. It’s tone deaf to the indifference of outsiders. Those are the potential employers who background check us out. But they’re not looking for suitors, social circles, or listening to our echo chamber of megaphones.

They just want to know they can trust us and can’t just take our word for it.

What would happen if none of us were allowed to post to our own social media profiles? Would our friends make up for the shortfall? Could our enemies commit “face crimes” and libel us with half-truths and fabrications? In a regulated web, non-vested observers would honor their own reputations by speaking to objectives, standards, and rankings — not how they’ve been blemished by greatness or influenced by the people they’re profiling. Sounds like the ghost of journalistic myth-making? Sounds like a reason to pay for content in cash — not gratitude.

Build It — and They Will Dump

In the web 3.0 future to be this darker Facebook will be compensated from both sides of the message exchange. Anonymous enemies will get to post unsubstantiated kiss-and-tells once they sign-up. Group members will pony up too. But they’ll have to preempt these negative reviews with their own cathartic self-examinations. Post enough of these face-saving gestures and perhaps they can learn the actual identities of their blasphemers. Now that’s a business model no practicing journalist is in any position to bargain over.

The most intriguing difference in floating the counterweight to Facebook idea is that my peers see it as a license to print money. “You can’t call it ‘BlackFace Book’ — too facial,” one friend quipped. They suggested names like ‘Disgrace Book’ or even ‘Evil Facebook’ and the servers would crash from the endless lines of partisans queuing at the chance to shape a fair and balanced view for each profile holder: “can I subtract you as my enemy?”

However, when I rolled out the same business plan to a 20-something colleague they headed immediately for the cyber-bullying exits. ‘Controversial’ was the diplomatic term they used for unleashing the innert tensions between editorial control and open source opinionating. That perspective carries a greater educational value than any social or anti-social medium and the business models that will dwell there.