Musing lazily about tells and poker faces

According to knowyourmeme, poker face is a “4pane exploitable series illustrating mostly awkward and sometimes embarrassing social situations, who always responds with a blank expression and a caption that reads “poker face”.

This post is not about the meme.

In other news, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta had a hit song with that title. Which gives me a reason to link this blog to MySpace for the first time ever. And possibly the last. Here’s the Lady Gaga song video.

This post is not about the Lady Gaga song either.

It’s simpler than all that. This post is loosely about signals and about the absence of signals, about what the game of poker calls tells and poker faces.

We signal all the time. And we’ve been doing it ever since there’s been a “we” here to do the signalling.

Some of the signals are to do with our past activity. Fingerprints and footprints are classic examples. But they extend beyond that, we tend to leave all kinds of evidence about who we are and what we did: stray hairs, tiny bits of fabric from our clothes as they snag here and there, traces of dirt from our shoes. Lipstick and saliva and lip-prints on things we touch with our mouths: drink glasses, cigarettes, people. Whole libraries of detective fiction and police procedurals have been woven around the trails of evidence we leave behind, and whole new libraries, with similar tomes, await us. DNA profiling is becoming more common now.

Some of the signals look beyond the past and impinge upon our present and future; they are to do with our current state and used to project what happens next. The detritus in our mouths, the bacteria in our colons, the contents of our stomachs, the nature of our urine and stool, our blood, biopsies of parts of our bodies, patterns in our retinas, all these are used as signals to help determine, amongst other things, our health and wellbeing. These signals are more complex, harder to interpret, harder to get right.

Some of our signals are only decoded after we die. Postmortems, forensic autopsies and clinical autopsies tell us so much about our last meals, our last years, how we lived, how we died. As we’ve understood more about our genes, we’re learning more about our ancestors, who they were, where they lived, how they lived, how they died. Some of our signals are more fleeting, evanescent. Facial expressions (as in the tells of poker players), body language. How we behave when we tell the truth. How we behave when we lie. Attempts have been made to measure and interpret all these for some time now, and they’ll get better.

Now, with the advent of smart mobile tools, we’re now sending more signals, richer signals, signals wrapped in the metadata of context.

Who we are. Where we are. What time of day the signal refers to. Who we’re with. What we’re doing. These signals are tense-free, they span time. We’re signalling what we did, what we’re doing, what we intend to do. Past, present and future. More and more everyday things are now capable of sensing and sharing information: our phones, our computers, our cars, our cameras, our shoes, our clothes. And we’re not the only ones doing the signalling. Our friends tell the world who they’re with, what they’re doing, what they did, what they intend to do. So information about us continues to emanate even if we stop.

For decades our spending habits have been collected, analysed and acted upon by credit card companies; how often have you seen films or read books where people have been tracked down by the plastic trail? Affinity cards took things even further; e-commerce made a fine art of it; mobile “apps” took this to the nth degree. We’ve been leaving the spoor of our history, activities and intentions for aeons.

But there’s one major difference: The barriers to entry have been lowered. Dramatically.

In the old days it took an expert to figure things out. You needed specialist trackers to inspect and learn from spoor. Psychologists. Coroners. Autopsy technicians. Fingerprint experts. You needed the support of the legal system, formal warrants or court orders to inspect call records and credit cards. Nowadays, many of the trails we leave behind are trails accessible to all and sundry. Not everyone knows who can see your trails. Not everyone knows what can be done with those trails. Surprises are being sprung, errors are being made. And they will continue as we learn more about the new environment.

It’s baby and bathwater time. We must make sure we hold on to what’s important.

All these signals allow patterns to emerge. Patterns that will allow us to solve problems that no previous generation could solve. Patterns that can be seen only because of the tools this new paradigm represents. We’re already seeing nanotechnology inside the human body, telling us more about what’s happened and what’s happening; we’re already learning about the power of collective information, even in simple tools like wheresgeorge and its use for predicting viral behaviour in large populations. You should look at the work of Tom Malone, Sandy Pentland et al at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence if you’re interested in this subject.

Making sense of these signals is not always easy. We’re going to need better visualisation tools, better search and find tools, better analytics, better frameworks to operate within. Better frames of reference.

These frames of reference are often comprised of “static” and “low-volatility” data. Names. Addresses. Part numbers. SKUs. Company names. Product names. Bus route and train route and car route and plane route naming conventions. Mapping of names of things to locations. [This is where services like Foursquare are doing the world a real service, by encouraging the labelling of GPS locations in digital maps.].

The static elements are often augmented and enriched by “public” data, data paid for out of the public purse. Ordnance survey maps. Temperatures. Weather. Climate conditions. Traffic status. Bus and train timings. Census information. Usually funded by taxpayer money, usually not “personally identifiable”. Which is where the Open Data movement comes in. There is so much that can be discovered and learnt just by linking different data sources across common reference points, performing the simplest of mashups. But only if the common reference points are accessible. And only if the enriching is done. Tim Berners-Lee has spoken about the value of this for some time now. Nigel Shadbolt, Wendy Hall et al have been doing a lot of work in helping make this happen, helped along by their colleagues Jim Hendler and Noshir Contractor at the Web Science Trust.

There’s more enriching that can be done, as the private sector learns to share its reference and static and low-volatility data (again avoiding that which is personally identifiable).

The problems we face are problems that need us to work collectively, using tools fit for purpose, encouraging sharing, allowing each of us to act like individual and sophisticated sensors, aggregating the data we collect, placing the data in the reference context, augmented by public and private open data. Climate change. Disease control. Sustainable agriculture. Better nutrition and diet. Provision of adequate drinking water. The list is endless. Problems we’ve faced for a long time, problems that have grown in urgency over the last fifty years.

 New problems. New paradigms. New tools.

And new risks.

  • People are concerned about how their privacy is affected.
  • People are concerned about the long-term consequences of impulsive and stupid actions, the trails of which are forever crystallised in the modern context.
  • People are concerned about how quickly and cheaply the trails can be disseminated, and the psychological impact of all that.
  • People are concerned about the opaqueness of it all; they used to know who gathered what information for what purpose; now, in this free-for-all world, they know less and less. This asymmetry worries them.
  • People are concerned about how all this is gamed. False signals, false tells. Checking in where you’re not. Providing feedback on places you’ve never been.

People are concerned.

And for good reason.

Of course legislation can help and should help, but the issues are global and our ability to get cross-border agreement on the relevant areas is, shall we say, somewhat poor. Nonexistent. Which means we run the risk of well-meaning-but-not-fit-for-purpose legislation in regional pockets while people jockey for position, something we can ill afford.

We’re in pioneering times. And pioneers often make tremendous sacrifices on behalf of the generations to follow.

Marie Curie died of aplastic anaemia. Her condition was caused by the time she spent exposed to radiation.

Jonathan Edwards, the theologian, volunteered to be inoculated against smallpox while the vaccine was still in development, and died as a result.

William Bullock invented the rotary printing press, only to die of gangrene after his foot was crushed by the machine he invented.

There are many many more; here’s a sample list of inventors killed by their own inventions.

Some of the people alive today will pay personal prices, sometimes punitive prices, sometimes the ultimate price, for the progress we seek to make.

This is why education is of paramount importance, so that people learn about the new world, its possibilities and its risks, the benefits and the consequences.

An informed population, ubiquitously connected, empowered with smart devices, will transform global health, education and welfare.

Educated and well people will be able to spend time figuring out where their happiness lies, what it is based on.

And that’s why I write what I write.


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