The Internet: A dream deferred

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Idealists (and I admit to being one) fell easily for the lie that the Internet was somehow the people's Internet, that it would expose the best of people from all parts of the world to each other and help them win respect and appreciation for their cultures, their ideas, and in doing so, overcome the social barriers built by governments and maintained in the name of competition, fear and otherness.

It's naive to think that the Internet was ever about anything but business. Like the railroads that were never about bridging people from East and West, but about commerce and the transport of goods, the Internet is all about commerce and consumption. We--the brilliant, witty, gregarious, concerned, empathetic, and sometimes self-important citizens of the world, builders of great things and creators of boundless art, defiant communicators armed with free speech who thought it was all for us--are just consumers after all.

Thanks in part to the data explosion and the big data analytics it spawned, the commerce engine that once demurely played the role of the wind in our interconnected sails, the dutiful butler serving our every digital need as we grew increasingly dependent upon him, has stepped out in front to claim its rightful place as the true driver of not only the Internet, but our use of it. We aren't making choices anymore; the engine is.

In the February issue of Scientific American, Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.com, a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet, says we are all now living on the wrong side of a one-way mirror and on the other side "unseen hands curate your entire experience. Where third parties pre-determine the news, products and prices you see--even the people you meet. A world where you think you are making choices, but in reality, your options are narrowed and refined until you are left with merely the illusion of control."

Fertik's commentary was primarily about the evolving (or devolving--depending on which side of the mirror you're on) of two Internets--one for the rich and one for the poor. The two Internets are an outgrowth of data collection and analysis, and a result of the personalization of messaging that results, personalization that he believes will soon go too far. He also is concerned that marketers are beginning to skirt laws designed to prevent discriminatory pricing and targeting of certain "communities" to offer or not offer such things as credit opportunities.

My concern is for us idealists. Fertik touches on this at the end of his piece, but it is worth lamenting the loss of any romance we may have had about a world community being spawned by the Internet. If retailers are tailoring their messages, then so are peddlers of information and infotainment. Where once we were breaking out of our bubbles and experiencing unfamiliar worlds beyond our borders and outside our comfort zones, or sampling different schools of thought and questioning traditions, the technologies inherent to big data and the personalized messaging that it supports are closing those bubbles once again. By spoon feeding us the content our preferences say we want, we will re-enforce the growing plague of echo chambers.

As Fertik said, "Segregation and separation are on the rise. The fun of personalization has a dark side."

Although I don't believe we are there yet, there doesn't seem to be any good reason to think this is not where we are headed. At the same time, there are many reasons why big data analytics and personalization will do marvelous, important things. The question becomes: Can we steer this thing in the right direction?

We can if we recognize that the 99 percent on the wrong side of the mirror do have the most power, should they choose to exercise it. We can if we accept that there will be growing pains. Ugly things are going to happen, but if we learn from those things rather than overreact with draconian restrictions, we can make it work. Or can we? What do you think? - Tim