Digital by default

As I write this, I’m sitting on a stationary train. In a station. The rail app on my phone tells me it’s the train I want. But the signs on the platform are totally blank. And the guy in uniform on the train doing the uncoupling says he doesn’t know where it’s going.

So, do I believe what the app tells me? Rather than embark on an exercise in Bayesian conditional probability, it’s making me think about that phrase “digital by default”.

Because I’m still not entirely sure I know what it means. Or, even if I do, that I’m seeing it used consistently.

And this experience with the phone app right now is a good reflection of what I think it should mean: that a service has been built, first and foremost, so that its delivery in digital channels is the way that it works best.

–that information in the digital channel is “the truth”.

–that if the train is switched to another platform, the digital channel will be the first to reflect this.

–that train staff will be looking at their own digital devices for information before they look at platform signs, or paper print-outs of departures, or get on the internal intercom to the driver.

That, to me, is digital by default.

An underpinning design principle that the service is supposed to be like this. Not, as has so often been the case, with digital features as a sort of awkward bolt-on after the fact.

I pointed out to a member of station staff a few weeks ago, who tried to stop me, that I was going through the gates to platform 10 because this device in my hand was telling me my train would be there. And I trusted it, at least enough to wait there.

He looked in incomprehension at this device. It wasn’t part of the script. The situation was the very opposite of “digital by default”.

So, apart from this nice, rosy, optimistic definition, what else have I seen it used to mean?

Well – sadly, sometimes as the Mr Nasty of channel-shift enthusiasts: the reason why counter services will be closed, the hammer that will force people to abandon their Luddite ways, the only real means of forcing out cash savings in this techno-progressive world we were told so much about.

And if people don’t want to shift, then tough. They won’t have the option. Default, innit? Capisce? Ok, if they’re really incapable, because of disability or crap connectivity, there’ll be some sort of stop-gap. A bolt-on, if you like. After the fact.

Now, does that sound somewhat familiar?

Or, for a third flavour, how about Mr Nasty’s gentler cousin: the service redesign that still has the closure of non-digital channels at its heart, but attempts to do so by attraction to a better, digital alternative, rather than brute imposition?

The interpretation you hear is connected to the source you hear it from, I guess. These versions all have different political palatability, and provoke different passions in different audiences.

So which do you i) think it really means now? And ii) which one would you like it to mean?

A – a fundamental design principle from the ground up
B – channel shift by imposition and removal of choice
C – channel shift by being more attractive than non-digital

Your answers, below, if you please:

Who are you again?

This online identity stuff is very difficult—as I’ve written here before: much harder to truly grasp than it should be, in a peculiar way. I think that one of the reasons is that there are really two, logically separate things going on. Unless one puts a bit of mental legwork into understanding them—well, almost philosophically—all that follows in terms of technical solutions and so on can be irrelevant, at best.

So, those two parts: 1. how do you “prove” you are who you say you are? and 2. (the bit that’s perhaps harder to encapsulate) what is the relationship model that’s constructed when such a “proof” transaction takes place?

Let me try it another way: (1) what are you trying to prove and how do you go about that? and (2) what are the consequences of you having done that “proving”?

I hope to make some progress in illustrating why they’re quite different, but both very, very important. The first of those two parts—the “what and how you prove” bit—is the subject of this post. Probably because it’s the easier of the two. Though still complicated.

You never really prove anything, of course. If we are going to get into the business of cutting people open to extract a bit of DNA from their very bones and analysing it against some sort of uber-register of genome sequences…yeah, yeah, yeah. But we’re not. So stop being silly. (And they might have implanted somebody else’s bones, anyway. Ok, that’s silly. Or is it? Let’s move on. You see the point: every obstacle is just another challenge.)

What we do instead is use a number of arbitrary proxies for identity: tokens that either alone or in combination give a certain sense of assurance that their presenter is who they claim to be. The passport is a common (and relatively strong) example. There’s the photoID (with a government issued driving licence being rather more trusted than a cheaply-laminated snooker club membership card). There’s the infamous utility bill—which has the benefit of also fixing the presenter to a physical location of residence. You get the picture. Sometimes the detail is checked against something else, sometimes it’s recorded, and sometimes it’s not checked in any meaningful way, but the request itself is enough to dissuade naughtiness.

Because, for most of the transactions one carries out with government (central, local, police, whatever) checks like this are pretty damn important. (At least they are perceived to be, anyway, certainly in comparison to some private sector transactions. Compare the following headlines: “x% of cardholder-not-present credit card transactions are fraudulent, costing £Ybn per year” with “x% of online benefits claims are fraudulent, costing £Ybn per year”. Which one will have the nation frothing that Something Must Be Done? But that’s for another post…)

The guys at the gate of Caterham tip ask for a utility bill to confirm that you’re allowed to dump there. (Well, only when it’s busy, it seems.) To them, a location is the only important fact that’s been asserted—who I am, or indeed whether that utility bill matches anything else about me or my car, are unimportant. At the supermarket checkout, the young-looking booze buyer will only be troubled for something featuring a date of birth, and so on.

The tokens we use to give that degree of proof don’t have to be physical bits of paper, of course. We can memorise PIN numbers, or be asked for known facts about our previous transactions which only we’d be likely to know the answers to. We can set up “shared secrets” in advance so that only we will know the answer when challenged by our remote interlocutor.

We can have combinations of things used together—to see my bank statements online I now have to put my bank card into a reader the bank have sent me, pass a challenge, and then enter a result online. Sure, if you have my card, my reader, know my PIN and at the same time can open a session of my online banking you are me, at least as far as my bank is concerned. But that’s a lot of hardware and effort, and reasonably proportionate to the stakes involved, I’d say. We talk of “something you have and something you know” as a basic type of multi-factor authentication, or “something you have, something you know and something you are” if we add in a biometric component.

You see the point?—there isn’t really any proving going on. Just an exchange of information that gives a certain level of assurance, upon which trust can then be built. Sometimes it’s done well. And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the requests for “proof” information are proportionate to the task being undertaken. And sometimes they’re not. But the request/risk relationship is likely to be quite specific to the task being attempted.

You’ll notice that I freely used offline examples above, when normally I bang on about how hard all this is in the online world. Well, the concepts are the same. It’s just that there are some characteristics of online channels that tilt the tables of risk. The lack of a face-to-face element removes some of the visual cues we might use to strengthen trust in a claimed identity. But this applies to the phone as well (how many times have I assumed the guise of “Mrs-C-with-a-cold” to try and sort out a minor squabble with a utility company?).

No, what makes things really very different in the online channel are those two old favourites: accessibility and recordability. The friction of having to find a benefits office, queue up, and try it on with the clerk by wearing a false moustache all disappears. You can be fast, anonymous and massively multi-tasked, using tools to try thousands of entry points and potential tokens simultaneously.

And what you do undertake, successfully or unsuccessfully, creates a record—leading to all sorts of other consequences—something that doesn’t happen when a guy in a fluorescent jacket glances at your water bill. Nobody writes anything down in lots of offline transactions—that’s important. Or captures and indexes it, for example, on video. (The indexing bit matters, by the way…but that’s taking us into the next area: the Nature of the Relationship.)

Oh, and I fear there’s one other powerful reason why this is so challenging for those who “think digitally”—a digital relationship is generally conceived as one of certainty—the bits match the requirement, ergo the door is unlocked; whereas everything above is an assembly of probabilities, seeing people less as people but as a collection of analogue risks, in a context where “good intent” and “assurance” are just shades of grey. No wonder we experience some cognitive dissonance in this area.

If you’re now drowning in a sea of uncertainty and looking lovingly back at that idea of sawing people open and extracting an inarguable(?) DNA sequence—congratulations. This is a highly normal response. Rushing back to a “unique identifier” to solve everything is pretty common. Engadget managed to do that neatly in their headline yesterday on the latest moves in US federal identity assurance—even though the source material talks about something rather different—a distributed identity framework. I’ll cover this, and the fallacy of the “unique ID” as a solution, in the next post: this dark business of the relationship that’s created as a result of digital transactions.

I might need my Greek hero and his friendly chelonian to help with that one. This stuff is not easy.

But what helps me sometimes, when thinking about this topic, is that this is a game you can play at home. Sort of. Every time you exchange anything about you (whether that involves your facial features, your money, or information about you) with anyone, anyone at all, online or offline, think about what’s actually being exchanged, why, and what the consequences could be. Try witholding everything except what turns out to be absolutely essential. Lie, subvert, play (within reason). It’s going to be useful to hone this awareness and these skills, I suspect.

Now read on…

Digital exclusion, porn and games

Picture of Grant Shapps taking a mobile phone photo of David Cameron

Grant Shapps had just finished talking at the Big Society launch when an earnest chap rushed up to him. Mr Shapps had been lyrical on the subject of the role that mobile technologies could play in citizen engagement and empowerment. “You can use FixMyStreet on the iPhone”, he proclaimed (carefully keeping his non-iPhone below the radar).

The Earnest Young Man was forthright: “you can’t talk about mobile phones as solutions so easily”, he said. “You know they’re looked upon by many as a symbol of luxurious indulgence, don’t you?” And we know who he was talking about. Newspaper columnists who still remember when a three grand briefcase phone was the ultimate status marker. When making calls in public, or in your car, was as good as admitting you bathed in champagne every night.

If you have a mobile, you can’t be poor. (Or you’ve stolen it.) Simple as that. It’s a sign of privilege and wealth. GIVE mobiles to the excluded to help them access services and stabilise their lives? GIVE? We might as well reupholster their sofas, hand out free cigarettes and scratch cards and install cold beer fridges as they fritter away their day watching TV… Never heard such rubbish. (Though we’ll still pack our pages full of adverts for ringtone downloads and so on. Just in case. Y’know.)

And it occurred to me that there may be shadows of this hanging over the: “Internet – human right, essential or luxury?” debate.


If you insist on living up a fell, you can’t expect me to run a slip-road of the M6 to your front door. You get a rough track instead, buy a Landrover, and put up with it. Enjoy the views, and button it. You made your choice, and you’ll pay for your Landrover, not me. (I made my choice, choosing an over-priced four-bedroom house in Highgate, a substance abuse problem, and a miserable job on a national newspaper.) [update: <---this is still parody voice, not Paul confession, m'kay? I've never worked on a national newspaper.]

And if we’re going to put some of the essential public services online (as it seems we might have to) we can make your version a digital equivalent of the rough track too. Won’t look so nice, but it’ll work. The basic exchange of information required to submit a form can be done over a telephone line. We were all doing it on our modems ten years ago, weren’t we? You don’t need those big graphics and PDFs. Indeed, weren’t all you long-haired hackers telling us all along that the PDF lay on the road to perdition?

So, stuff your fibre-to-the-cowshed chatter. Learn to love your thin copper wire. Proper bandwidth is absolutely a luxury – to be enjoyed by the young, urban and wealthy (preferably all three at the same time).

Because you’re not fooling me. What you’re really after is porn and games. Hard to get a dodgy DVD up your mountain, so of course you want it all piped in. Who wouldn’t? And games! You’ll be on World of Warcraft until the cows come home, literally. Why should the rest of the country subsidise your filthy habits and patch up your solitary existence?


Far-fetched? Perhaps. I stress this is a perspective which has been exaggerated for effect. But I wonder if – as with mobile phones – there’s a certain, influential generation that see the technology as being more than just a technology. And instead, a marker for a whole way of life they just haven’t accepted yet.