One of this week's entertainments was the story of venture capitalist Ryan Negri, who set off with his family in his keyless-entry Tesla S for a snow-finding drive through the desert. Absent a cell signal, when he stopped the car to make some adjustments to his children's seats, he couldn't start the car back up again. So let's understand the super-convenience of this: to unlock the car door and start the engine, his phone has to send a request to Tesla, which then unlocks the car for him. It reminds me of an old Usenet signature that used to ask whether your message was really worth all the computing time and energy expended by the servers you sent it through.
One of the biggest digital class differences may be the difference between those who assume that they are always connected, and those who assume that they may abruptly be abruptly shunted offline at any given moment. The former trust they can always edit and read their webmail and get driving directions from their phone. The latter suspiciously download everything for offline access, buy paper maps, emergency flares, and a spare tire, and carry cash - oh, the horror! - in case of emergencies.
There are a number of ways to patch Negri's problem, of course. Tesla could embed Bluetooth or NFC (near-field communication) so phone and car can talk to each other directly. Negri has apparently decided to always carry the key...at which point you figure you might as well just always *use* the key, maybe keeping the app for backup in case you lose it. But these do not change the fundamental problem, which is that many modern "conveniences" are being designed by people whose experience of the world is so limited that they can assume that everything works at all times. They should be - but aren't - reading Peter G. Neumann's RISKS Forum.
What interested me more in this story - aside from the sheer pointlessness of using all this technology and energy to solve a ridiculously non-problem - is that it is another example of a personal transaction into which a technology company has successfully inserted itself. In the mid 1990s, when all the talk was of how the internet was going to "disintermediate" everything, I recall predicting that instead we would get a new set of intermediaries.
You could argue that both predictions were right. A newspaper like The Guardian can distribute itself directly to readers as well as through the more traditional wholesale-distributor-retailer route. Its more successful columnists can also communicate directly with their readers and eliminate the newspaper-as-middle-man-slash-gatekeeper-slash-employer. But, as any privacy advocate will tell you, this situation has been thoroughly colonized by new intermediaries, whose myriad trackers and algorithms collect and swap masses of data about who you are and what you're interested in, mostly in the interests of feeding you advertising. At The Verge, veteran journalist Walt Mossberg explains that quality news sites lose out here, too, as they are only of interest to these intermediaries as a way to find cheaper places to advertise to you (story found via Charles Arthur's invaluable The Overspill).
A couple of weeks ago, at The Long and Short, Brett Scott made a similar point about the war on cash, an issue we revisit here with similar views every spring during the Tomorrow's Transactions Forum. The way cash replacement is presently practiced means that anything that used to be a private transaction - I hand the shop around the corner some coins and they let me walk out with some groceries - perforce becomes one involving at least three parties. This process has been accelerating for so long that few of us even see it as the addition of an intermediary.
This process of reintermediation is everywhere you look: in our friendships (Facebook, other social media); our news (Twitter), navigation (Google), and so on. When it benefits them, these companies show us bigger horizons than we ever had before they existed; but eventually growth makes those horizons unwieldy, and they begin making decisions for us that narrow them again.
At a panel organized this week by ORG Cambridge to follow a screening of Oliver Stone's movie Snowden, an audience member asked this question: How can we get people to care about the issues Snowden's revelations raised? We, the panelists, had lamentably few ideas beyond continuing to try to make the case, particularly to vulnerable groups who really do have skin in this game. But so much of this reintermediation is about convenience and deliberately obfuscating the intermediary's existence and interests. So the answer I didn't give is this: I'd start by making the intermediaries visible. Maybe the receipt you're issued for point-of-sale transactions should include a list of all the parties involved; instead of those stupid cookie banners, perhaps a list of all the trackers and data collectors that populate even the most apparently innocuous of library sites. I know: alert fatigue. And these intermediaries aren't, though they may aid, government spying. But it would be a start.
As for the movie: skip it and instead see the less-intermediated CitizenFour.
Illustrations: Tesla Model S, Peter G. Neumann.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.