Day: November 24, 2010

VRM as Agency

Most of us understand agency to mean a kind of company: one that represents other companies, or individuals. Insurance, real estate and advertising agencies come to mind.

In fact agency has a deeper and more important meaning. Namely, the capacity of individuals to act independently, to make choices, and to impose their will in the world. By this meaning, agency is a big deal in sociology, psychology, philosophy, law and many other fields. But it’s missing is business. That’s because we’re accustomed to understanding business as a structural thing:  an instrument of control.

Wikipedia frames this problem well in the opening paragraph of its Structure vs. Agency Debate article:

The debate concerning the primacy of either structure or agency on human behaviour is a central ontological issue in sociology, political science, and the other social sciences. In this context, “agency” refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.[1]Structure“, by contrast, refers to the recurrent patterned arrangements which seem to influence or limit the choices and opportunities that individuals possess.[2] The structure versus agency debate may therefore be understood simply as the issue of socialisation against autonomy.

Limiting individual choices through “patterned arrangements” has been an ideal of big business for a very long time. Choice is an ideal too, provided your product or service provides a choice for customers to not choose competing products or services. Agency-type choice, in which individuals are free to assert their will and their means, doesn’t get much respect.

In fact, most big businesses aren’t interested in customers that have lots of agency — unless those customers aren’t captured yet. Instead big business has long idealized controlling customers. That’s why they talk about “capturing,” “acquiring,” “managing,” “locking in” and “owning” them. And spend billions on systems that help them do that.

These controlling ideals are still with us in the era of “social networking” and “social media.” (Or what one friend calls SEFTTI, for “social every fucking thing there is.”) Sure, Facebook is as social as a kegger (or more so), but it is also a “patterned arrangement that seems to influence or limit the choices and opportunities that individuals possess.”

Personal autonomy on Facebook only goes as far as Facebook lets it go. Same with every other “social” system run by an entity other than yourself. They put a lid on your agency. You are not free.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with social systems, or structures, or even with businesses that want to control your choices. I am saying that agency has been AWOL from the market’s table. And bringing it there is what we’re doing with VRM.

I realized that VRM is about agency when I was talking with Iain Henderson the other day. Iain and his company MyDex have been working on creating and deploying personal data stores, or PDSes. These are the means by which individuals manage and  share personal data selectively. In that conversation Iain casually mentioned that the U.K. government was clearly invested in “user agency.” That is, in citizen responsibility for data about themselves and generated by themselves. In this fundamental way, he said, the U.K. government is far ahead of our own here in the U.S. — and the U.K. is therefore a more ideal environment for testing out VRM tools, such as the personal data store. (In fact MyDex’s prototype trials are going on right now, in three U.K. towns.)

What we’ll have, as VRM tools roll out and come into use, is many ways to test concepts such as methodological individualism and action theory. Mostly, however, I think it’s a way to see how much larger, and better, we can make the economy once individual customers are free to express their intentions.

Bonus link — which I put here hoping that somebody can fix it. Since it’s about me and some stuff I’ve said, I’m not the one to do that.

Awake at the wheels

A year ago, at VRooM Boston 2009, , founder and CTO of Zeo — the hot new sleep fitness company — visited questions  about who owns and controlled personal data. Was the sleep data you produce as a customer entirely Zeo’s? Was it yours? Both? Neither? What right should anybody have to use it, and under what conditions?

These kinds of questions aren’t easily answered at a time when mining and selling personal data has turned into a white-hot industry, whether people like it or not. Data about individuals is also easy to rationalize as a corporate asset: something that makes the company itself more valuable.

Since then answers have begun to sort themselves out.

First came Brian, the Cornell student who writes, “I hacked Zeo. And I got paid for it.” Specifically,

I opened Zeo up, soldered to the lines that drive the display, and got my sleep phase output to my PC in real-time! This generated substantial interest from Zeo – and Ben Rubin (Zeo CTO) and I began our discussion on hacking, open source, and Zeo. I was thrilled when I learned that part of my summer would be interning for Zeo creating official ways to get at Zeo data!

Then this month Ben wrote,

Remember everyone’s favorite Zeo-hacker-turned-intern, Brian?

This summer, Brian produced two amazing projects for Zeo: the first – the Zeo Data Decoder – allows you to get at your sleep data without uploading it. The second (the main course, if you will) is the Zeo Raw Data Library.

Use Your Brain

The Zeo Raw Data Library uses the serial port on the back of Zeo (you were wondering about that unused port, weren’t you) to pump out two very cool things:

  • Your sleep phase in real time (Wake, REM, Light, Deep every 30 seconds)
  • Your brainwaves!

We hope developers will use the Raw Data Library for cool applications.  Need some ideas?

  • Build a lucid dreaming application that triggers a light or sound when a user enters REM sleep.
  • Wake yourself during REM in the middle of the night and keep a sweet sleep journal.
  • Use brainwaves for cool Brain Computer Interface projects while you are awake.  For inspiration check out interAxon.
  • Visualize your brainwaves while awake for bio-feedback applications like concentration or relaxation.

How do I get my hands on it?!?

Calm down and step away from the brainwave detector…

You can get the documentation, the library to read the RDL, and an example sleep stage and brainwave visualizer over on sourceforge.  Yup; we decided to open source all of that stuff, so feel free to hack/modify to your needs (and share if you like!).  The special firmware (2.6.3R) needed to run the RDL is over here after you fill out a simple form.

We encourage people who are using the RDL to jump on the forums and discuss it.  People are already using the RDL to optimize polyphasic sleep naps and help them lucid dream with Zeo.  Please use the forums for support and also feel free to email us at  We’ll also do our best to help troubleshoot, but remember that this is an alpha release so there may be bugs.

The Future is Open Wide

We released the Zeo Raw Data Library because

  • It’s your data–we want you to be free to use it any way you like
  • We are really excited to see what people develop that ends up helping others get a better night’s rest

Please let us know what you think in the comments on on the forums.  Hack away!

I just had to post that whole passage because it’s so completely cool.

Next is combinatorial API fun. From Ben’s latest, All Together Now: Zeo Integrates with Digifit,

Where Sleep Quality meets Fitness and Weight

Zeo is proud to announce the first partner using ZQ outside of our own web application:  The Digifit Dashboard for Healthy LivingSM iPhone app.  Digifit is the only Healthcare and Fitness app for the iPhone that integrates heart rate monitoring for tracking cardio fitness. We’re pretty sure Columbus from Zombieland would be happy with this — his #1 Rule for a Zombified America is Cardio!

Now with the new Digifit Dashboard for Healthy Living SM ,users can also track their weight and sleep (using the Withings WiFi Body Scale and Zeo) and see them conveniently within the Digifit dashboard.  We think Digifit founder says it best:

Withings and Zeo are leading edge pioneers in the industry and we are thrilled to partner with them. With the latest upgrade, our Digifit app completes the health triad puzzle by ‘automagically’ tracking the three most important influences on one’s health: exercise, weight and sleep. We do indeed have it All Together Now.

This is close to home for me, because I’m just starting to get into serious fitness work, which started with my Withings scale. Gotta get a Zeo thing now. (Like the one above.) And Digifit.

Ben again:

This is Just the Beginning

Digifit is the first partner to leverage our soon-to-be-released Web API, which allows data from Zeo to flow out to any internet connected service that wants to leverage the power of sleep quality.  We’ll continue to partner with organizations working in athletics, nutrition, general health, and more to help their users leverage the power of sleep fully so stay tuned!

For more on API jazz, follow . I especially like his Prezi here. Gets you thinking about bi-directional or “full duplex” APIs. This tutorial shows how to do context automation with KRL webhooks and the API.

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