VRM: The user as point of integration

On yesterday’s Project VRM conference call, a piece of the Vendor Relationship Management puzzle snapped into alignment in a flash of insight.

It wasn’t something new to the movement, rather it was a realization about the primacy and criticality of what we are doing and how to communicate it. It has always been a part of the conversation, just one that we often took a bit of time to get around to. And yet, it is perhaps the most important piece of all:

When we put the user at the center, and make them the point of integration, the entire system becomes simpler, more robust, more scalable, and more useful.

This is a profound shift that has some interesting parallels with a concept in AI called “stigmergy” and with a bit of classic Einstein becomes a totally new way to think about next generation systems design. In other words VRM changes the landscape in a way that not only makes life better for individuals, it profoundly improves the information architecture that modern society depends on.

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll try to explain.

User Centrism

VRM has its roots in the user-centric Identity movement and has user-centrism at the core of its DNA. The first, and perhaps most obvious, interpretation of user-centrism is user control. That, unfortunately, is part of the problem.

User Control

User control is critically important. It resonates with the core of the modern social contract. Freedom. Liberty. Capitalism. The Age of Reason. Liberalism. These systems and ideologies all assume that the individual, and only the individual, has legitimate moral authority over his or her life, assets and the disposition of both. These are powerful concepts. So powerful, that when you build systems that provide individual control, you energize vast personal resources that in turn become real economic power, measured in trillions of dollars, just to consider US GDP. Contrast this with fascism, communism, and socialism, which place the state above the individual and in varying forms take control away. There’s some powerful mojo supporting the whole capitalistic freedom-loving democracy thing.

Regulated Freedoms

Of course, unfettered freedom isn’t the ultimate answer. We’ve learned how unregulated markets fail in various ways, often recreating abuses of power that eventually lead back to a loss of individual control. Think Standard Oil. Southern Pacific Railroad. AT&T. All monopolies that abused their power. And they all owe their break-up to the Progressive political movement which itself was an exercise in user control that started in the early 1900s and arguably ended in the 1990s when Clinton “reformed” welfare.

The Political Siren Call

The problem with user control is that it is so powerful as a political concept. “Putting users back in control” is a seductive rallying cry. In fact, it echoes with John Edward’s current populist campaign against poverty as well as Marx’s call to “workers of the world, unite!” The echoes also show up in user centrism in efforts like the Attention Trust, on which I’ve commented before. Much of the Attention Trust work is important, powerful work. But I still don’t know what they mean when they say that people own their attention data. Does that mean we somehow have the right to “nationalize” private data silos in the name of the people? Without debating the politics of this question–there are good points on both sides–it is clear that this line of thinking about VRM, user control, and user rights, is deeply political and therefore, controversial.

The Conflict of Control

It is also challenging to the graceful and speedy realization of our goals. Starting the conversation by asserting user control implies a loss of control somewhere else. Usually that means conflict, as few entities have ever given up control without a fight. So, thinking and talking about putting users in control resonates with users. But it scares the crap out of vendors. Too bad, some people say. Even yesterday, on that same VRM conference call: “We’ll punish them and get them to be more open and more transparent.” We may be able to do just that, but it is unlikely to be the easiest route to realize our goals.

Especially not if there is a way to reframe the conversation, a way to redefine the important matters, such that the debate is not about user control, but rather about the inherent efficiencies and power of user-centrism. If we can do that, then user control gets built into the system automatically and those who would be giving up some of the control they have today–in their precious vendor data silos–do so not out of punishment, but out of honest, natural desires to improve their bottom line. Along that route lies the embrace of vendors and, I believe, more fruitful relationships for everyone.

User Centrism as System Architecture

Doc Searls shared a story about his experience getting medical care while at Harvard recently. As a fellow at the Berkman center, he just gave them his Harvard ID card and was immediately ushered into a doctor’s office–minimal paperwork, maximal service. They even called him a cab to go to Mass General and gave him a voucher for the ride. At the hospital, they needed a bit more paperwork, but as everything was in order, they immediately fixed him up. It was excellent service.

But what Doc noticed was that at every point where some sort of paperwork was done, there were errors. His name was spelled wrong. They got the wrong birthdate. Wrong employer. Something. As he shuffled from Berkman to the clinic to the cabbie to the hospital to the pharmacy, a paper (and digital trail) followed him through archaic legacy systems with errors accumulating as he went. What became immediately clear to Doc was that for the files at the clinic, the voucher, the systems at the hospital, for all of these systems, he was the natural point of data integration… he was the only component gauranteed to contact each of these service providers. And yet, his physical person was essentially incidental to the entire data trail being created on his behalf.

User as Point of Integration

But what if those systems were replaced with a VRM approach? What if instead of individual, isolated IT departments and infrastructure, Doc, the user was the integrating agent in the system? That would not only assure that Doc had control over the propagation of his medical history, it would assure all of the service providers in the loop that, in fact, they had access to all of Doc’s medical history. All of his medications. All of his allergies. All of his past surgeries or treatments. His (potentially apocryphal) visits to new age homeopathic healers. His chiropractic treatments. His crazy new diet. All of these things could affect the judgment of the medical professionals charged with his care. And yet, trying to integrate all of those systems from the top down is not only a nightmare, it is a nightmare that apparently continues to fail despite massive federal efforts to re-invent medical care.

(See The Emergence of National Electronic Health Record Architectures in the United States and Australia: Models, Costs, and Questions and Difficulties Implementing an Electronic Medical Record for Diverse Healthcare Service Providers for excellent reviews of what is going on this area, both pro and con.)

Profoundly Different

Doc’s insight–and that of user-centric systems–isn’t new. What’s new is the possibility to utilize the user-centric Identity meta-system to securely and efficiently provide seamless access to user-managed data stores. With that critical piece coming into place, we have the opportunity to completely re-think what it means to build out our IT infrastructure.

What clicked on the conference call was first, that this approach actually has some intriguing resonance with a field of AI called “swarm intelligence” and the concept of stigmergy. And second, as a result, the user as the point of integration has the potential to be profoundly different and profoundly more efficient than current practices.

Swarm Intelligence and Stigmergy

Swarm Intelligence looks to the world of insects as inspiration for building AI systems that are collectively smart, but using individually dumb, but active components. For example, how do wasps build nests? Or how do ants find paths to food? It turns out that a lot of these insect behaviors have common properties that can be used to build computer algorithms. One concept that is particularly useful is “stigmergy”, which means marking the environment as communal signaling in a larger, emergent algorithm.

Ants, for example, mark their trails with pheromones. As other ants explore for food, they sometimes follow existing trails, other times not. As more and more ants find success along one particular trail, it gets reinforced, and even improved as some ants’ explorations discover a slightly better route. This natural feedback loop uses the environment in a simple way to allow a bunch of ants to find food in an incredibly efficient way. The last time I looked into it, the Ant Algorithm was in fact the best known algorithm for a particular version of the “Traveling Salesman” problem. Amazing. All without any “active” part of the algorithm actually knowing or thinking about the entire area being mapped–which is what other mapping algorithms basically do.

For an excellent discussion of Swarm Intelligence see Eric Bonabeau’s Swarm Intelligence: From Natural to Artificial Systems.

Einstein, Ants, and User Centrism

So what the heck do a bunch of ants have to do with VRM? With a bit of a solipsistic twist and topological imagination, quite a bit.

Albert Einstein helped the world understand the truth that all velocity is relative. That me running at 15 mph towards a stationary car is the same as the car traveling 15 mph towards me. The important thing is the relationship between the parties, not which one is standing still.

Now apply that sense of relativity to “stigmergy” and invert the ant and the environment. (And don’t hurt your brain!)

Instead of thinking of humans as the active element, think of humans as the environment and Vendors as the ants. Instead of humans visiting a bunch of isolated data silos, invert it so that vendors are visiting stationary users–or their stationary data stores.

Now, instead of a bunch of individuals running around leaving a disparate data trail which is hard to keep track of, the individual represents the digital environment where data is stored by vendors. When the next vendor comes along, the data is there, available for use, without the need for complex integration, processing, or systems maintenance, just like the environment is there for the next ant to come along, allowing that ant to do what they do without a complicated brain or sophisticated map of the territory.

It doesn’t matter that Doc was physically moving around in his example. From Doc’s perspective, he was always right there. “No matter where I go… there I am.” This is more than just a solipsistic view of the universe, it is perhaps the most critical insight of the VRM user-centric gestalt. When you put the user at the center, it makes it trivially easy to manage and integrate the entire digital experience of the user. Because it is all right there, all the time.

It is hard for me to judge if that makes any sense to the average person, but when it clicked in my brain yesterday, it was like a mega-watt flash bulb going off. This is a profoundly different way to think about systems architecture. Just like the ant algorithm, it shifts the problem from one of a complicated system that has to know and integrate everything, to one where all the vendor needs to know is which data store goes with which user. The rest follows.

Sure, there is still a lot of work yet to be done. We have to figure out the protocols and technologies for what data vendors actually share in that data-store and how we assure reliable, always-on access in a secure and privacy-protected manner. Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the user-centric Identity meta-system is addressing a huge portion of that. In short, we are building on the shoulders of giants, which stand on the mountains of Moore and Gates and Postel and Berners-Lee and Andreeson. Sounds like fun to me.

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