I love me a good widget. Between my daily intake of news from sites like Engadget and Techcrunch I know there’s always something in the pipeline that’s assured to take some of my time and/or money away from me in the future. It’s probably why I stuck around for so long at my first ever job in a retail electronics store as I always got to have a good fiddle with all the wondrous tech that I couldn’t yet afford before putting it on display my clientele. Back then though the Internet was still reeling from the dot com crash and most of the tech I sold didn’t really make use of any on-line services. Today however it’s hard to find a gadget that doesn’t want to phone home for one reason or another, usually to make use of data stored elsewhere.
Realisitically this is a good thing. The whole Web 2.0 revolution has culminated in an online world where sharing any information you have with the wider world is considered the norm and you’d be damned for trying otherwise. This is how the idea for Geon originally came about as a quick search around the web turned up no less than 6 services all ready, willing and able to give up their data to me for no cost at all and in the format I desired. It hasn’t stopped there either as nearly every other week I’m finding yet another service (the latest is Groupon) that will happily provide me with some feed coupled with the geographical co-ordinates I so hungrily desire. I’m not the only one taking advantage of these feeds either and a whole host of mash-up applications are available, and many of them reaping the benefits of the open webs standard of sharing.
Still it’s kind of interesting to note how much trust we put in these open services. Take for instance good old Twitter. Many of the heaviest users don’t use it directly through the web interface, mostly because whilst it’s functional it’s far from the best interface designed for the service. I myself prefer to use Echofon which remembers which tweets I’ve read and gives me a slick interface for uploading pictures and all manner of Twitter related tasks. The only issue really is that I have to provide my raw login details to the application in order to make use of these features. Whilst this isn’t a problem for most people (my Twitter account hasn’t been hijacked…yet) it does mean that in order to make use of this client and the service you have to place a certain amount of trust in them, and this is where things start to get tricky.
There’s been many attempts to get over this problem of how to determine who to trust on the Internet. The most common method currently used is in the form of digital signatures and certificates. In essence this boils down to having some central authority (or authorities, as the case currently is) who verifies that someone is who they say they are. Once they’ve done this they issue them with a digital certificate which proclaims that central authority X verified them, and then they can use that certificate to show that they are who they say they are. Again there’s a certain amount of trust that must then be placed in the central authority but the model has worked (for the most part) with many large companies being trusted central authorities for such activities. Every time you visit a site that gives you that little lock in your browser bar or colours it blue or green it’s that central authority verification in action. This has its problems still since it seems some authorities are a bit lax when it comes to verifying people and the system itself has been shown vulnerable to certain attacks, but you’ll get that with any popular system.
One of the most novel ideas I’ve seen so far was the idea of OAuth. The idea is that you grant an application a token which allows them to access your data on a service. Depending on the token it could be limited to a certain subset of data (say your public timeline on Twitter), valid only for a specific time frame or even valid only for a specific device. There’s still an amount of trust involved however it gives an enormous amount of power to the user to do damage control should an app or service go rogue. Granted such incidents are rare but at least with a system like OAuth you’re not left with any other options than hoping the service provider will fix the problem or trying to do it yourself.
For the most part though the open web has prevented any wide scale skullduggery from apps and services that everyone once trusted. I’d put that down to a good chunk of the big players being either Google or having a heavy involvement with Google who’s policy of “Do no evil” seems to keep most of them honest. Additionally your service or app isn’t long for the Internet world should your users find you’re screwing them in one way or another, although there are some notable exceptions.
None of this bellyaching has stopped me from using a myriad of online services and it never will. As long as you don’t delude yourself about what can happen on the Internet I have no problem with big companies calculating all sorts of metrics on me in exchange for a service I find useful. I still cast a weary eye towards any new player in the Internet field and so should you, but that shouldn’t stop you from using anything online altogether. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that you should be aware of what you’re getting into when you type that magical user name and password into your app of choice, and don’t be surprised when you find out that that free service you were given had a hidden cost.
I make no secret of the topics that I have absolutely no idea in. Sure I’m able to make an educated guess about most things but I will usually seek an expert or experienced person in a field if I want to know something about it. This is why I always find it strange when people start bashing doctors or lawyers when they themselves have little to no experience in their field. Whilst I thought that this was probably the right way to rationally think about things it turns out I might actually be following my natural instincts closer than I thought:
Financial advice can make us take leave of our senses, according to research that shows how the brain sets aside rationality when it gets the benefit of supposedly expert opinion.
When a bank manager or investment adviser recommends a financial decision, the brain tends to abdicate responsibility and defer to their authority with little independent thought, a study has suggested.
Such expert advice suppresses activity in a neural circuit that is critical to sound decision-making and value judgments, scientists in the US have found.
Their results may explain why people are so apt to follow experts’ recommendations blindly, when a little reflection might be sufficient to suggest an alternative course of action.
This also brought up a good point about leadership in the workplace. Working as a contractor I’m often asked my opinion on matters to see what someone from outside the organisation thinks. However whilst I may bring a different opinion to the table I’ve noticed that people do tend to switch off the critical thinking whilst they’re talking to me, and become far too agreeable to some of the things that I propose. I’ve seen this happen with big projects as well, once an external agency wins a contract they will usually do work their way and the client will usually adapt themselves to agency rather than the other way around.
So thinking back to my distrustful friends it became clear that the best way to deal with a subject that you have no experience in is to first educate yourself about it. Wikipedia is great for this as it provides a good overview of a topic with links to further reading should you wish to pursue the topic any further. Once you know a little bit about the subject you can then ask the right questions of the experts, and get a feeling for when an answer is out of line.
I think the main problem with naively trusting the experts is that whilst they might be very well versed in their particular field of study they probably aren’t the definitive source on that topic. I know when people ask me about certain topics (virtualization is a great one) I’ll be able to answer 95% of questions off the top of my head. After that my answers start to get peppered with “I think” and “should be” but most people don’t hear this and will take that 5% of answers as expert opinion. Having a little knowledge in that area would hopefully give them enough scepticism to see when I started to walk outside my expert boundaries and trigger them to do their own research.
Overall developing a base level of knowledge and treating experts with a small dose of scepticism will ultimately leave your more informed and will keep your brain from switching off it’s critical thinking when someone floods you with facts. Wikipedia and Google are your friends here, but remember to treat them just as you would any other expert.