• 7 minute Read

Interview: Giles Corbett, Disruptive Innovator at Orange Vallee

Gile Corbett at TED

If Giles Corbett ran Facebook, you get the feeling that there wouldn’t be any of those privacy issues that have been dogging Mark Zuckerberg for most of 2010. Born in London, he gained a degree in Politics and Economics from the London School of Economics and did as a stint at INSEAD, the grande école that is the de rigeur finishing school for the French political class. He is currently in charge of “disruptive innovation” as the head of the ON project at Orange Vallée, the “skunk works entity” (as he describes it) of massive telecom Orange (193 million customers in 32 countries). The BBC has also benefited from his ability to foresee the future of–well, the future, really.

So it’s no wonder he was called up to the podium at last week’s TED Global conference in Oxford to present the ON app. What Giles can do (which very few geeks are capable of) is, first of all, to explain very complex situations in a manner that even hard-of-hearing grandmothers with a built-in, anti-tech forcefield can get their cerebral cortexes around. And secondly, he understands people better than people understand people. Is he an android running on some super-gnarly algorithm? No, but his app is.

So let’s talk about that first. It’s been developed “to enable [people] to get the best of what is happening in terms of new social networking behaviors, but bringing it into mainstream mobile conversations,” says Giles. He’s all too aware that some parts of the social media environment don’t translate so well to mobile devices, and that there is a lack of discernment within social networks. Can you hear the word privacy beginning to rear its shrouded head?

ON on smartphone

In a nutshell, the ON app helps people manage all their networks–including cell phone contacts, Facebook and Twitter chums, and email addresses. This is a super-smart UI for a smartphone. And just because it’s the product of a cellphone network provider doesn’t mean it’s solely for Orange users alone. Giles looks to the future, a future when, as he puts it, “all of the operator barriers crumble … when third parties can start taking control of the phone’s interface, and route calls.” Now, I had to, à la Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, phone a friend in order to work out just what he meant here. And it’s this:

One day, Verizon, AT&T, et al, will merely be vanilla data pipes. Cellphone manufacturers’ UIs will be redundant. And we’ll all be paying a subscription for either Google Voice, or something similar from Apple, HP or Microsoft, for the front-end bit of our cellphones. And Giles can see this. And Orange, itself a vanilla data pipe-in-waiting, can see this, and that is why its app is available for anyone with an Android device, not just someone on the Orange network. Someone give this boy a biscuit. He’s good.

So there we go. That’s the ON app. There’s a iPhone version coming in November, “depending on Apple’s validation process,” which will have a “very special twist on the service” but for those of you FanpersONs who can’t wait till then, there’s quite a cute little iOS app called Trace, which was born from too many late nights in the office.

Most apps, it could be argued, are developed over a fairly short space of time. ON? NO. The project has been ongoing for two and a half years. “For the first six months we were only working with sociologists, anthropologists, and designers, trying to understand real-world behaviors–not asking people what service they’d like, but observing how people formed groups,” said Giles.

From small screen to big picture, in one easy move. “What happens when you organize a drink with three of your friends, how does that group react when one of those friends brings in a fourth or fifth person who the rest of that group really doesn’t like? What are the social tools that people use rather than the technological tools that people use to be able to form groups that are cohesive, living, that move, that evolve.” The team looked at how people interrupt other people, with a view to building it into a mobile interface that would, in Giles’ words, “let me knock on someone’s door or glance at them before initiating the call.”

What was the most surprising thing he learned during this period? “That you have no secrets with strangers. The things we keep secret, we withhold mostly from those who are closest to us. So this whole idea of ‘Oh My God, when I publish something on Facebook, anyone can see it’ is actually taking it the wrong way around. If I’m a 15-year-old kid walking around smoking a cigarette, I don’t care if strangers see it, but I do care if my parents see it. So this whole notion of needing fine management of who I’m sharing information with applies more to what sociologists call my strong ties rather than the weak ties.”

Here comes the privacy bit. Unlike Mark Zuckerberg, Giles believes that private is the default. Social networks, according to him, are shaping peoples minds in a way that goes against the way that people live. “Not sharing something with no one doesn’t mean I share it with everyone, it means I share it with some people. And therefore it’s not public, it’s private. As soon as we start thinking about privacy in that way, that it’s shared with some people and not all, then what we realize is that just about everything in our life is private, and if we don’t start giving users easy ways of managing these kinds of privacy, then the consequences are going to be substantial.”

Giles then gives me an example of how he could use anonymous data–information on people’s movements and friendships–to identify every gay person in London, to highlight just how important the whole privacy issue is. “It’s fine in a gay-tolerant society, but maybe I could do the same thing with Muslim fundamentalists, or Christians, if I was in a different society–and all of a sudden I can start identifying precisely who’s doing what and where they live.

“Our lives are private, and the problem is, we still haven’t worked out what the cost of disclosure is. We haven’t yet worked out what it means that something can move into the social ether and stay there for eons.”

What Giles calls digital dementia (last month it was known as digital fading), seems like an obvious way for all those data harvesters like Facebook and Google to confound their critics. He doesn’t think that youthful indulgences documented for posterity on Facebook and MySpace will really harm a teenager’s job prospects–“HR managers will be so overwhelmed with stuff that they won’t care about it, and if they do, they recognize that they did the same things, but just didn’t have the tools to brag about it.”

Dementia is “basically a lazy way of managing data without people having to go through the hassle of saying, ‘I want to remove that, or share that with this group of people. It’s a safety net. So my recommendation would be to give users complete management of their data through easy interfaces, and secondly have a safety net.” Would this not strike terror into the hearts of Google and Facebook, though? “I don’t believe that Google’s business would actually be impacted one little bit if it didn’t store data beyond six months.”

ON users get complete control over their location data so, for instance, only certain places are shared. “So I can tell my work colleagues when I’m working, or tell everybody I’m at the office when I’m actually shopping.” The ON servers don’t differentiate between the level of truthiness.

Ha! That signifies the absolute antithesis of Zuckerberg’s belief, that more sharing will lead to a better society. Indeed, in his TED talk, Giles touched upon the right to lie. “It’s what we do,” he says, referring, I think, to humankind. “The right to lie means imperfect disclosure, and it’s absolutely essential for social harmony. Ask 100 people whether they’ve ever said on a cellphone, ‘Honey, I can’t hear you, the network’s really bad, I’ll call you back.’ We’ve learnt to love bad network coverage because it provides us with what designers call plausible deniability. It provides is with an elegant way of avoiding a conflictual situation.

“These lies are not necessarily bad lies. I can tell colleagues I’m in between meetings, while I can tell my friends I’m shopping between meetings at Westfield. Both of those things are absolutely true, they’re just not the whole truth. By doing this we’re not going to change morality. I’d put it the other way round. If all of a sudden we moved into a situation where everything was disclosed to everyone the whole time, then that’s the thing that would change our relationships and shape the way we’d behave. That’s the thing that makes everyone so worried about Big Brother attitudes. If indeed my employer could see where I am the whole time, then many things in my life would change.”

[Top image Mohammad Tauheed via Twitpic]

About the author

My writing career has taken me all round the houses over the past decade and a half--from grumpy teens and hungover rock bands in the U.K., where I was born, via celebrity interviews, health, tech and fashion in Madrid and Paris, before returning to London, where I now live. For the past five years I've been writing about technology and innovation for U.S.