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The Tin Can API isn’t Big Brother, Mike is

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Categories: Tin Can

Posted 11 February 2013

 

First, a story laced with truth and lies.

A couple of years ago, Mike and I decided to hire remote employees at Rustici Software. As “managers”, Mike and I felt it was important to visit our remote employees in their place of business once each year, an audit if you will. We agreed that Mike would visit Ben in Boston, and I would visit Megan in NYC. Mike and I, of course, chose our own tools and techniques as we went to check in on our employees.

Like any good internet hipster, I grabbed my Field Notes notebook and a fancy pen and took off to New York. I spent the better part of a day standing behind Megan writing down every single thing that she did. “Megan turned on the computer, then she read her email. Next, she did some writing, tweeted a few things, and then stood up and drew a picture on the white board. Later, Megan turned on the TV to some children’s show and a child showed up and danced in funny shoes.”

When I returned to Nashville, Mike and I decided to compare notes. For some reason, Mike had elected to record his visit as a series of pictures with Italian captions. Let me tell you this: Mike’s Italian is limited, his handwriting unintellible, and his artwork is chicken scratch.

While each of us could interpret our own notes effectively, our exercise was really ineffective. Neither of us could understand each other’s notes and conclusions at all.

So, this year when we went, we agreed on a few things ahead of time. We decided that we would take our notes in English, and we created a template on which to take our notes. Our worksheet would feature four columns: “timestamp”, “activity”, “output”, and “other notes”. We even had a nice heading at the top that allowed us to write down the name of the person we were auditing.

When we got home this time, Mike and I were able to hand our notes to each other and lo and behold, were both able to read and understand the results of the audit.

Now, this audit thing, had we ever actually done it, would be incredibly stupid for any number of reasons. For one, it would be a serious waste of Tim, Mike, Megan, and Ben’s time to write everything they do down and then make no meaning from it.

But imagine this: What if Mike had done all of his note taking from outside of Ben’s basement window? What if Mike hadn’t even told Ben he was coming, instead electing to collect information stealthily. Well, this would be lame, certainly, and illegal, probably. In this situation, though, who or what would we blame? Is Mike’s notebook at fault? What about our note-taking template? Or, perhaps, is it really Mike who’s to blame?

As you might guess, the Tin Can API could be a part of the story I’ve just told. In our modern, computer based world, the Tin Can API would play the same role as Tim and Mike’s note-taking template. Tin Can is an agreed upon way for two systems to express the things that people do in a consistent fashion. That’s it. We’ve agreed that we’ll express things in a certain way, so that many different systems can understand it, and ultimately reflect it well for the people who care.

We hear occasional concerns about the “big brother” aspects of the Tin Can API. This is absolutely the right time to be having these kinds of conversations. Employers and applications will be able to use the Tin Can API for good, and they could elect to use it for evil. Like Mike, they could use the plumbing defined by the Tin Can API to covertly record things people are doing. Or, if they’re smart, they could use that same Tin Can plumbing with their employee’s permission and input. (One of the big leaps forward with Tin Can is that this shared structure means that employees and students can take these statements with them to other systems. These experiences belong to the individual, and can move in a way they haven’t previously.)

Today, employers and applications have countless ethical decisions to make. Should we install security cameras in every office? Should we track the internet sites visited by our employees at the office? Should we install keyboard tracking software on our work issued computers so that we can track the things our employees type while they’re at home?

Yes, the Tin Can API makes it more efficient for different systems to talk about the things that people do. And yes, that means that employers and applications will be asked, again, to make intelligent and ethical decisions.

 

 
  • Pramodh BN

    Tim, point well taken. In today’s digital world, being evil is the choice of individuals and your conclusion asking for intelligent and ethical decision is to the point. Tin can is a great environment, and we feel that this will build the value of the “digital person” to himself and to others who he wants to share…

  • Rick Bettencourt

    Nicely written. Gives one a good depiction of what Tin Can can do.


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