Your Life, Personalized

An inevitable vision for the future

Major advances in technology are often deterministic (given some input, a particular output is bound to happen). If we invent a microchip that can double in power and shrink in size every 18 months, a computer that fits in our pocket is inevitable. That’s not to say that predicting the future is easy. The actual turn of events that lead to a predictable outcome are usually surprising. But considering technological advancement as deterministic on a macro scale, but surprising on a micro scale can be a useful way to think about the future.

My first computer in the nineties was a giant beige box hooked up to a thirty pound CRT screen and a desk top full of peripherals. Even back then, everyone still knew that one day computers would be able to fit in our pockets. I remember being skeptical. Shrinking the “tower” seemed plausible… but how could a keyboard, mouse, monitor, and printer become pocket-sized?

What is this? A PC for ants?

What we all failed to realize was that the PC was never destined to become pocket-sized. A pocket-sized apparatus was destined to become a PC. This wasn’t easy to predict until Steve Jobs got on stage in 2007 and showed the world an iPod-turned-PC, and we finally got our pocket computer.

“An iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator. Do you get it now?! These are not three separate devices!”

Even though it’s been a safe bet for a while now to say that everyone in the world will have a computer in their pocket in the not-so-distant-future, it wasn’t obvious that it would be portable music players that get us there.

I think about deterministic advancement as anything that will happen at some point. How it happens, when it happens, who makes it happen, and what it looks like — these may all be open questions with ultimately surprising answers. But it will happen. The evolution of mobile computing paints this picture really well.

Uncertain means, but a certain outcome.

Another certain outcome is the upcoming massive wave of personalization.

The signals are here. Exciting advances in both software and hardware are converging and will touch every facet of our lives. One trend in particular is on the rise, and will completely change how we experience the world.

Portable identity is the idea that an individual can bring useful information about themselves wherever they go, to improve every interaction with their environment.

An environment being unaware of the people within is ultimately just a problem of information asymmetry. I know who I am, and I know details about myself that might be useful in a given situation… but the environment (the system & other people) do not. That’s why I need to carry a driver’s license and credit card. It’s why I need to remember a hundred passwords. It’s why I need to wait in the line for security at an airport for forty-five minutes. I know that I am qualified to drive, authorizing a purchase or a login, and that I’m not carrying any sharp objects with me — but my environments do not.

Early systems are starting to make progress on the concept of portable identity. Facebook Login powers a significant number of the most important web & mobile apps, and when implemented correctly it’s made experiences more personalized, and on-boarding more smooth. Car ignitions on most modern vehicles can be “authenticated” by the proximity of a key (for now, a proxy for your identity). Systems like Lockitron, Bitlock and Nymi are skipping the key altogether. Paying for goods & services in the physical world is slowly becoming frictionless with services like Uber, Square, Instacart, and Cover. Very soon the act of waiting for a bill will seem archaic.

Cover: a win-win for restaurants and diners.

What about privacy?

The ideal portable identity system is smart and safe. Third parties (i.e. apps, websites, businesses, public spaces) can only access the set of personal information that makes sense within the context of that experience. There will also be rigid guidelines around how they could access, store, and use this data. Ultimately, portable identity systems should actually enhance the concept of privacy by making it more clear to an individual who has access to what data and how they are using that data to make their lives better… something that’s currently really hard to do.

Why is portable identity inevitable?

…Because the benefits outweigh the costs.

The ways in which individuals share information about themselves have changed in recent history, from mailing in census data and exchanging business cards to tweeting status updates and bumping phones. However, there’s an unchanging principle that governs this exchange:

We share information in proportion to how much we think we will benefit from disclosure.

Ten years ago I did not use my real name on the internet, and wouldn’t even think about putting my real address online. Now, I use my real name on Facebook because it means I can connect with my real friends. I give my address to Amazon because it means that I can buy things online. The benefits very clearly outweigh the perceived costs.

Every experience will be made better when it’s personalized for you. “Public” systems (like restaurants, transit, and retail) will become dynamic, and suit the needs & wants of their current users. “Individual” products, systems, and services (like alarm clocks, medicine, and homes) will become smarter and suit the current needs of their users.

It’s still unclear how this will all play out. Will there be one portable identity system or many? Will the mobile phone become the primary hardware interface, or will it be something else that we wear (or embed)? Will every environment truly become fully “smart” or just smart enough to talk to our individual devices? Uncertain means, but a certain outcome.

Why now?

The cost of storing, processing, and transferring data will continue decreasing to the point where environments not being aware of their participants will become unnecessary. As this trend continues, it will open up the idea of portable identity to a whole new set of experiences.

For example, the cost of individual gene sequencing is decreasing exponentially. A decade ago, it would cost an individual about a billion dollars to sequence their genes… and now a $1000 genome is likely just around the corner. It’s not unrealistic to think about a future where we have our genes sequenced at birth and this data becomes part of our medical records for lifetime use. Medicine becomes personalized, and health care becomes proactively preventative. Fitness and nutrition regiments should never have been one-size-fits-all, but have been due to unnecessary constraints.

What will be some major effects of portable identity on our day to day lives?

People-centered design will begin to trump user-centered design.

User-centered design employs personas, scenarios, and use cases to come up with an idea of the needs and wants of some nameless “end user”. This is an adequate strategy in a world full of information asymmetry, but becomes less useful as identity becomes more portable.

When identity is portable, the best designs will incorporate information that doesn’t exist at the time of design, but will exist at the time of usage. Systems will be built for flexibility.

Obviously there is still a role for traditional user-centered design. If I were designing a car, I would want to make sure the door handle and seats were ergonomic enough to accommodate the “average user”. However, there would be an extra layer of person-centered design that completely ignores the “average user”. For example, when I walk up to the car, the seat and steering wheel should automatically adjust to my optimal setting. The door unlocks as I get within reaching distance and the music I was playing in the house picks up from where it left off. I sit down into my perfectly oriented seat and the GPS picks up where I’m headed by reading my calendar and displays the optimal route based on real-time traffic data. You could see a world where most physical (hardware) experiences are governed to a certain point by user-centered design, and then people-centered software kicks in and personalizes.

Advertising: just because content is paid for by a brand does not give it the excuse to be bad.

This is one outcome that I am personally very excited for. Ads have been obtrusive for too long and life’s too short to be interrupted by advertising. Life should be enhanced by “advertising”. Advertising in “quotes”, because in the future ads will become so good that we won’t even be able to put them in the same category as the current norm. Portable identity will help ads become useful.

Portable identity will help businesses talk to the exact people who might be interested in their goods and services. There will be no “wasted impressions” from the perspective of the business and no “wasted attention” from the perspective of the consumer. Businesses will have to become more transparent, and hold their content standards to a higher bar. They will be too informed to provide uninformed ads and experiences.

One of my favourite artifacts from Marshall McLuhan is his idea of the Tetrad.

The Tetrad of Media Effects

Every new medium has four major groups of effects that can be found by asking the following questions: What does the medium enhance? What does the medium make obsolete? What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes? What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?

Social technology as a medium is going to retrieve something very important that hasn’t existed since the days where information could only move as fast as people, and everyone lived in tight-knit communities. In those days, you would walk into a restaurant and the host would greet you by name and bring over your favourite drink.

There’s no reason why you should have to be a regular to get this experience. There’s no reason why you should have even been there before to get this experience. If nothing else, portable identity will make the world a little more personal again. Even if it’s not clear how we’ll eventually get there, I think it’s something worth looking forward to.

Uncertain means, but a hopeful outcome.

Thanks for reading. If this made you think, let me know what you’re thinking about (@SachinMonga) and please hit ‘recommend’ below.