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Can't Buy Me Dignity
When one e-business uses a digital agent implanted in your browser to follow you step-by-step and report every movement in real time to someone who's going to sell that information, we all lose.
Posted Jul 17, 2000
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E-business, made possible by technology, is most threatened, it seems, by technology. This paradox arises because technologists as a subculture drift into what I call "Tellerism," after Edward Teller, a physicist who believed that because you could build an atomic bomb, you had to build it and because you had built it, you had to drop it on someone. The e-business equivalent of Tellerism is if you can build a feature, you must.

If you hope to succeed in an e-business endeavor, beware of this and other obstructive traits of IT subculture. All subcultures tend to be introspective, testing ideas mostly among themselves, but technologists are even more likely to be self-referential than other subcultures. Cathy Cook, Apple's original public relations guru, calls this process "breathing each others' fumes." She argues that such technocentrism can blind participants to issues outside the immediate technical minutiae-critical issues in this case including privacy, democracy and dignity.

Combine Tellerism with Cook's Observation, and you get a recipe for friction in e-business initiatives. Some recent cases include clamor over two startups, DoubleClick and Radiate. It's not established that either company had evil intent when designing its business; perhaps they just had the talent to develop technology to make money legally and didn't talk about their ideas to anyone who wasn't a technologist or marketer. However, once their designs were exposed to the general public, they were stunned by the intensity and extent of the outrage.

DoubleClick is a service that plants cookies that allow companies to see how you navigate the Web. The data is useful for advertisers and sites because it helps them to target ads to you more effectively (if you like ads, you may benefit by seeing a higher percentage of ones you like) and to link sites that have users in common. Although it's an intrusion, most people don't seem to mind it. For decades marketing database companies have tracked our demographic data.

We've been able to buy from them lists of, say, 45- to 65-year-old women who play tennis and garden. The database companies collect demographic data and flesh it out when individuals with names they know subscribe to a special-interest magazine or join a club that sells their names to the marketer. Most people don't know about this intrusive practice; of the ones who do, the prevalent opinion is it's a minor nuisance.

But what happens when DoubleClick considers integrating its surfer-tracking technology with name-specific marketing databases? The masses go ballistic, and rightly so. All of a sudden a digital agent implanted in your "eyes" is following you step-by-step and reporting every movement in real time to someone who's going to sell that information about you to anyone who pays for it. Mainstream American culture doesn't care for that, as DoubleClick discovered too late. The fact that they couldn't foresee the dominant culture's reaction is a testament to Cook's Observation.

Just as bad
The Radiate case is even more lamentable. This company builds a tracking engine that goes into over 100 freely distributed programs so their developers can support themselves through advertising. But according to Steve Gibson, a systems programmer who has closely examined the Radiate software, it is installed without informing the user; communicates back to Radiate without telling the user; runs even when the program you got it with isn't running; and, if you remove the program it came with, might not be uninstalled and could continue to operate stealthily in the background. If you execute a buying transaction over Radiate's system, giving them your name and credit-card number, the company conceivably could make the link between your name and your behavior that DoubleClick was going to make. Apparently, even though that's not part of Radiate's business model and there is no evidence that they have ever done it, people find it unnerving.

That's like giving nuclear first-strike capability to a dictator who says he won't use it. Maybe he won't, but who wants to take the risk? And with the rampant Tellerism among the technology subculture, do you think it's impossible they would resort to it if the money to buy the data was there?

If e-business is to succeed, companies will have to transcend the technologist subculture and acknowledge the dominant culture's point of view on informed consent and the amount of privacy necessary to support a democratic existence. There is a beacon of good sense to guide them: the dignity-protecting model that has been commercialized by Tacit Knowledge Systems in its product KnowledgeMail.

KnowledgeMail solves the expertise discovery problem by automatically mining everyone's e-mail. No one has to initiate an expertise profile, with all its opportunities for errors and accidental omissions. But there's also a powerful, embedded dignity model. While many companies view the people who work for them as company property and those folks' knowledge as the same, the default Tacit expertise profile is private and managed by the individual. She can reveal (or not) what she knows. The company gets opportunities to try to convince her to share, although without knowing exactly who is the person with the knowledge.

In the e-business consumer market, the dignity must be part of the process and extended to customers. The fact that most technologists don't give a bucket of warm spit about the issue threatens, more than anything else, the success of e-business.

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