"User-centric" starts with the social, not the commercial

I'm on a bit of a tear today, but it is because I just got over a week of Percodan-induced drooling after I had some surgery on my aging shoulder. I don't know if it is just that I am coherent for the first time since last Friday or that got my teeth into this VRM thing in a way that I'm finally able to explain....

I'm on a bit of a tear today, but it is because I just got over a week of Percodan-induced drooling after I had some surgery on my aging shoulder. I don't know if it is just that I am coherent for the first time since last Friday or that got my teeth into this VRM thing in a way that I'm finally able to explain.... Anyway, I hope you enjoy this rant.

Another frequent trope in discussions on the VRM Project list and over the years since the Net first appeared in the public mind is the information intermediary. John Hagel wrote a whole good book about it. I wrote about it back then and on blogs in recent years, too. Today, Mark Lizar wrote to the Project VRM list:

The idea of a community driven and trusted intermediary is a very attractive model for a bank of the future. Theories that trust can be used as a currency replacing money provide a good concept of how an identity bank may prove valuable. Although I think for VRM and the user centric perspective as a whole, there is the core concept that the individual should be the identity bank. What is underlying such an effort is 'clarity' over control of identity.

Bank = owner? Banks don't own the money they hold. Remember that every ledger sheet has to balance--banks make a profit on their management of money, including their own balancing of assets and liabilities as well as from fees paid for transaction (management of money) services. I agree about the control of identity—as one aspect of the problem of social and economic interaction—but not one of us is a bank. We are the source of the value a bank would like to, well, bank.

Banks don't own money, which is technically the property of the central banks that issue currencies.

We may own our data, but it seems the problem is working not with one intermediary, as in the resource-constrained geographically disparate cash or electronic money economy, but many intermediaries in a variety of domains. Even banks have clearinghouse services.

Perhaps the better taxonomy is:

  • Money = Data
  • Central Banks create and own bank notes = people create and own data about themselves (and have the same level of connectivity, albeit not throughput).
  • Banks = "value-added" domain-specific intermediaries
  • Currency = no user-centric analog, which is why banking analogies fall down and why VRM pushes social exchanges to the fringe.

We don't need an analogy for currency to complete this picture. We need to forget currency entirely, because it is an artifact of analog times.

Data flows from place to place, but must be recallable by the owner as the volume of bank notes in circulation may be expanded or contracted by a central bank. That leaves the bank dependent on the central bank, just as an intermediary should be dependent on rather than in control of its customers, the owners of data.

You are the central bank in the VRM world, the user-centric design world, and humane networked markets. You.

Transactions in social environments are not solely about the exchange of monetary or commercial value, as it may also be gifted value, prospective sharing of data to discover potential value (which may be the basis of a future negotiation that, if it fails, results in revocation of access to data), or may have no value ("sharing" or "altruism"). Trust cannot stand in for a currency, because it serves a different function and is variable from moment to moment and relationship to relationship across various topics.

I spent several years working with the Chaordic Commons, which was attempting to extend the shared ownership-distributed governance system that produced VISA. The type of "bank of the future" mentioned below is tremendously complex and not amenable to comparisons to cooperative banks, because there are many informal settings for the exchange of information prior to, during and after, even in lieu of, a commercial transaction that was simply ignored by banks. Indeed, many of the functions of those banks formalized processes that are trivial today. Being an objective third-party recorder of transactions and notary services were the primary value-add provided by these cooperative banks, and at a far higher cost to users than data networks require today.

So to draw out the metaphor based on this taxonomy, if money is data, the basis of exchange for either form of value may be negotiated anywhere, but the access to the actual specie needs to reside on each of our "central banks" on or controlled by our PC, phone, etc. so that the owner of that data/specie can regulate the value of that asset, and in both strictly monetary and social senses.

The problem that I've finally identified in my reading of this discussion over the past months is that all the scenarios proposed describe commercial transactions of one sort or another as the default design challenge, to the detriment of the much wider range of social interactions in which we use and share information.

We don't change currencies from dollars/euros/yen/RMB to split a bill and pay for drinks among friends while using some other currency to pay for business services or capital goods, unless geopolitical borders are crossed. Money is money, give or take the current exchange rate between currencies.

We don't call the minister to talk about giving alms in the form of livestock while insisting he pay us for what we sell him in cash.

Even in medical records we see the need for different forms of access to, and management of, personal medical information that do not relate to commercial transactions or value exchange. We don't create medical information, we are medical information, most of it necessarily recorded by experts who interpret many factors to provide a diagnosis, treatment or as a part of wider study. We pay a doctor to see and diagnose our condition; she writes that information down not only because of the fee we paid for the visit, but for her own future use, because of regulatory requirements, the requirements of insurers and transaction processors, legal liability management and, if they participate in clinical research, for use in research. We may want to share that some or all of our medical information to find others with similar conditions or to contribute to research for a cure without ever contemplating an exchange of value.

The problem, then, is how to interact with the different intermediaries who might interact with our information in response to economic, social or survival needs. I'd wager that the majority of those interactions during your typical day, while they may be a source of value to someone, are not primarily commercial from your perspective. So, before we get to the question of the bank, we have to start with the social interactions that precede or moot the need for fixed exchanges of value.

Before we are a customer we are someone or many persona who isn't a customer, yet in discussing this question we begin with the role of customer. That isn't user-centric.