Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Access Control, or "Edna Mode...and Guest"

At 0:31 seconds into this clip of "The Incredibles," Edna Mode accesses her secret laboratory by punching in a 6-number code, placing her palm on a plate, having her retina scanned, and then saying her name into a voice-recognition system. All of this still isn't enough to keep her access control system from dropping a serious looking machine gun down and aiming it at Elastigirl, who was clearly not validated by La Edna's efforts. Ms. Mode then sighs and dutifully says "And guest" in order to let her retired superhero friend in too, and the automatic weapon pops back up into the ceiling.

The scene has its obvious charm, but it also plays off a contemporary metaphor that is beginning to affect nearly every quarter of our lives these days: access control. The bit is funny not just because of how elaborate Edna's access control system is, but because despite all the credentials she provides, she still nearly gets her guest's head blown off by a system whose authentication process is so rigid that essentially even its owner is entirely subjugated to it. The machines are the authority, and we are the trained poodles jumping through its hoops. Edna simply forgot to add "And guest," but the results were nearly disastrous.

Usually, access control issues are not quite as dramatic, but they can be extremely frustrating. If you've ever been told by an ATM machine or online system that your account has been frozen because your previous three attempts at entering your credentials had failed (even if you know you pressed the right buttons [usually it's their hardware or software malfunction, but the system still interprets it as YOUR error]), then you know what I mean. If the system were an individual person, you'd throttle them for insisting their failure was your problem (and we still see this play itself out in scenarios where bouncers or door checkers who can't spell insist you're not on the "the list" when you know you were supposed to be), but more and more there is no human to argue with when you're denied access to something. You are forced to contact their tech support and wade through a time-consuming series of waiting periods and then validations (and, if you're like me, of other data you can't recall easily) and poorly trained "specialists" who know less about the system than you do, until you finally get through to someone willing to entertain the notion that the problem might actually lie in their end of things. Even then, the solution might still cost you resources.

Even given all these technological headaches, though, the single most frustrating part of access is not having it when you're normally used to it. Up in the Air gently mocks this modern malaise in the scene in which the frequently flying couple with the multiple platinum cards and elite status memberships to nearly every airline, rental car, and hotel chain are made to wait in the commoners' line at some family-owned hotel in the middle of the heartland. Even though there were no customers in their "elite" members line, the attendant (who wasn't doing anything else) informed them they must wait. On that day, in that hotel, it was the one card they hadn't collected that mattered.

One of the biggest frustrations you hear about access control in the art world is that what it takes to attain the proper credentials (the right card to open the doors to a hot gallery's inventory, or what have you) is so unclear that sincere collectors get rather angry about the whole thing. An article in this month's Art + Auction presents an all-too-familiar story:
A few years back, Michael Hoeh e-mailed a well-known New York dealer inquiring about the work of an equally well-known artist. In return he received a message clearly meant for another gallery staffer, sent to him by mistake when the dealer hit Reply instead of Forward. It said, more or less, "I can't believe another newbie wants in on this artist."

"It was a real slap in the face," says Hoeh, a mutual-fund portfolio manager in New York. "The guy was unapologetic about it too." But at least it was a response. At the height of the boom, galleries tended to snub budding collectors like Hoeh. Despite these neophytes' active membership in young collectors groups at museums, their annual pilgrimages to art fairs in Basel and Miami and their mounting acquisitions, dealers reserved their attention and their stock for the megaplayers: free-spending hedge-fund types, oligarchs and speculators.
OK, so we're no longer in the height of the boom, and my guess is that the dealer in question would be much, much more happy to receive an inquiry from Mr. Hoeh these days, but I know enough collectors who have similar stories to know their feelings parallel those of the characters in "Up in the Air." They've worked hard to earn their money, learn about art, begin their collections, and attain the level of access that got them into collectors groups at museums and such, and yet, because they don't have the only card that matters (a history with one particular dealer), they're treated rudely.

None of these observations are new, but to follow up on the thread from a few days ago in which we discussed the Edge 2010 Annual Question ("How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?") and Gam insightfully commented
[T]he technology I have and have mastered is now redundant, the latest version requires that everything else move in step with it, I play keep up and become a follower instead of seeking randomly, I hyperlink to related data and presume the patterns in the data are out there instead of revealed through oneself. All becomes transient replaced continually with the new, except the cookies and detritus of the past that marketers use to define my future access and redirect my interests.
My focus becomes access instead of assimilation and understanding.
I recognized a kernel of an awareness growing in my own understanding of the shift in metaphors about human desire being brought about via our increasing interaction with the Internet and technology. Even someone as powerful as Edna was at the mercy of an absurd system with no flexibility...you follow the exact sequence of validations, or people are shot to death. Even if you build that system, it still controls you. Control is too much to hope for. Your only hope of survival is maintaining access.

In this sense, "access" has discarded its previous societal
dressings (think, country club membership where you don't really care about golf, but you do care about the contracts your golfing buddies might throw your way if you let them win) and emerged as a naked goal unto itself for a growing number of people. It's possibly an age-old human condition to want most what is denied to us. Access itself is now recognized as hardest thing to attain, so access is what we set our hearts on getting. The George Clooney character in "Up in the Air" couldn't explain why joining the hyper-exclusive American Airlines 10 Million Miles club mattered so much to him (especially once he got it), but it had become his Holy Grail...that thing that he made so many sacrifices to get even though he couldn't explain why. I think I know why, though. It represented unparalleled access. Something our near-constant experience of being denied is making us desire.

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3 Comments:

Blogger zipthwung said...

Access used to be skills, and I think for the working class, skills are what define you, not access. I think the dissonance comes in transcending class - climbing the ladder, or perhaps feeling like there is no class in our information society. This is an illusion. At the top there are managers, whos only need for skill is to build teams or motivate people by speaking.

If your skills feel redundant, compare that to the exercise of the same obsolete skills through a lifetime - blacksmiths, painters, woodworkers, machinists, miners, cotton pickers, burger flipping and customer service.

What is different now is tha you use a computer - the info-chaff has become thicker - though negotiating chaff is a skill as well - an information society skill.


But access is not my problem - I don't honest feel too put out at not having seen Up in the Air - I will see it eventually if I want.
Maybe I'm missing somehting.

The world of the alienated collector is foreign to me - if there is something I want I can find ten things that could replace it.

But redundancy is good, it is a fail-safe - society needs redundancy and it is built into the system. Most people are replaceable without causing systemic meltdowns.
We could find other Picassos, ferment new wine and breed new people. Most people don't have time. Time is money, they don't have the money either.

So, poetry aside, I don't think anything has changed other than the landscaping.

1/27/2010 11:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

maybe access was, as ziptheung seens to indicate, based upon merit - that aspect has changed.

Whereas with prior technologies acees was limited to comforming to the given professions specialization, access now is via a common digital domain - ones conformity now isn't for a specialization but a generic system.

Witness the closed door meetings for new international copyright laws for the worldwide internet. Apparently industry lobbyists have influenced the proposals to include a three strikes rule where if you are suspected of downloading something copywritten (say a mp3 of the cutest Happy Birthday song that you want to include on a birthday card as an example - or did your child or room mate do that?) Mess up with that contravention 3 times (wherein you then have had the potential to cross the copyright rule) - you are banned from the internet for life. Your IP address us the culprit and you the payee of that address are barred personally from the digital domain.

.... whatever the details, the point is that access is available only to those that conform to the widest terms (shades of naissant totalitarianism?) instead of conforming to a "minor" specialization where if you didn't want to conform, you could go always go elsewhere or start your own specialty. We seem to be moving to a time where there is no elsewhere.

i think that the nature of access has changed in as much that it has become singular in out times.

1/28/2010 06:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

The act of putting up a velvet rope does not just divide a space; it makes one space better than the other.

1/28/2010 09:51:00 AM  

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