When the history of this period comes to be written, our great-grandchildren will marvel at the fact that billions of apparently sane individuals passively accepted this grotesquely asymmetrical deal. (They may also wonder why our governments have shown so little interest in the matter.) And future historians, diligently hunting through digital archives, will discover that there were only a few voices crying in the wilderness at the time.
Of these prophets, the most prominent are Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who was one of the pioneers of virtual reality, and Doc Searls, one of the elder statesman of the old internet who is now at the Berkman Centre at Harvard. In his book Who Owns the Future?, Lanier argued that by convincing users to give away valuable information about themselves in exchange for “free” services, firms such as Google and Facebook have accumulated colossal amounts of data (and corresponding amounts of wealth) at virtually no cost. His proposed solution is to make online transactions bidirectional, to ensure that the economic value of personal data can be realised by individuals, who at the moment just give it away.
Doc Searls has much the same argument in his book The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge but proposes a different kind of software solution – “vendor relationship management”. The basic idea is that “many market problems (including the widespread belief that customer lock-in is a ‘best practice’) can only be solved from the customer side: by making the customer a fully empowered actor in the market place, rather than one whose power in many cases is dependent on exclusive relationships with vendors, by coerced agreement provided entirely by those vendors”. In that sense, just as most big companies now use “customer relationship management” systems to manage their interactions with users, Searls thinks that customers need systems that can manage their interactions with companies, but on customers’ terms.
The underlying philosophy underpinning all attempts to level the online playing field is a belief that an individual’s data belongs to him or herself and that no one should have access to it except on terms that are controlled by the data owner. The hunt is on, therefore, for technologies (software and/or hardware) that would make this both possible and be easy to use.
Also in the UK, Lee Henshaw asks, Is Advertising Broken? Specifics:
We’re currently reading The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge by Doc Searls, an American journalist working from Harvard University who writes about the future of business.
Advertising is broken, he says.
He argues against the trend in online advertising for reducing customers to data points and delivering us personal advertising.
“Perfectly personal advertising is a dream of advertisers, not of customers,” he writes.
Personal advertising puts us in the uncanny valley, he says. In the uncanny valley, robots start freaking us out because they appear too human.
His alternative is the intention economy. In the intention economy, we – the customers – tell the market of our intention to buy something then companies compete to sell it to us.
“The intention economy is about buyers finders sellers, not sellers finding (or ‘capturing’) buyers,” he writes.
He invites advertisers to give up what he calls their cat and mouse game and start building more meaningful relationships with customers through our personal data stores instead.
“Nothing big data offers today, in any business, is a substitute for intentionally delivered intelligence from real customers who are engaged, one to one, with retailers in a marketplace, in their own ways, on their own terms,” he writes.
Searls works from Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, where he runs Project VRM – VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management.
“VRM tools work as the demand-side counterpart of vendors’ CRM (customer relationship management) systems,” he explains.
Project VRM, he hopes, will liberate customers through tools that help us make requests for proposals to companies that are selling something we want to buy. This kind of engagement, he writes, “is the only evolutionary path out of the pure guess-work game that advertising has been for the duration”.
And he asks for answers. Feel free to volunteer some.
Also see Meaningful Consent in the Digital Economy (aka MCDE) I’ll be participating in a workshop on MCDE on 23- 24 February in Southampton, UK. It’s described as “an interdisciplinary workshop on issues related to giving and obtaining user consent online, with special emphasis on privacy and data protection.”