In a deeper sense, personalization provides comfort, security, and self-esteem. It is the means by which we are understood and express ourselves as individuals. The benefits of being unique can be as mundane as getting greeted by name or as magical as ordering a full meal with nothing more than a nod. It can be as complex as a long friendship that allows another person to understand, for example, the difference between what you mean and what you say. You know they know and they know you know they know. That is personalization.
Acquaintance is the tool humans use to draw inferences, to unravel ambiguities and fill in missing information. Knowing a person makes communication much easier. But if we are not careful, that knowledge will leak into unwanted places, and we will pay the price in lost privacy. And by privacy I mean not just a theoretical and God-given right, but an everyday need and convenience.
Humans like to delegate. (You cannot do everything yourself anyway.) And because modern society increasingly engages other people in our personal affairs, we knowingly and unknowingly trade off the risk of betrayal for the value of personal attention. In the case of some services, like the practice of law and medicine, the potential hazards of revealing facts about yourself are reduced by legal or ethical practices. By contrast, a high-society butler or upstairs maid is not bound by a professional code and is often the star witness in domestic disputes. Nobody knows you better than the person who has been serving your idiosyncrasies, filtering your information needs, running your bank accounts, or making your bed.
Most of us don't mind the risk. The quality of life is so greatly enhanced by personalized service that we are willing to freely reveal a great deal about ourselves to many other people. It is important to note that several parties are usually involved, even in our inner circle of friends and assistants. Fortunately, no one person has a complete model of us, and it is hard for them to share the parts.
I will even entrust a machine with much of the same personal information. This information, however, is much more easily shared among other computer and human agents.
In fact, far too much of the information about me - my "digital self" - is not coming from me directly. It is being culled without my knowledge and used for things that have no direct benefit to me. It is being pirated for purely commercial purposes, turning my personal data from an asset into a liability. Junk email and telemarketing solicitations are increasingly frequent examples of what result from this hijacked and repurposed information - of how good can change so quickly to bad.
Because digital buccaneers gather their information surreptitiously, all too much is wrongly inferred and not fact. If my credit card shows lots of charges at Japanese restaurants, it may mean I like sushi, or it may mean I have Tokyo-based business associates but hate Japanese food. American Express will never know which. I would be happy to tell them, of course, if there were any value to me in my doing so. In the meantime, I'll pass whenever I can on becoming a data sample every time I visit a Web site, thank you very much.
My wife and I keep a home in France. With the exception of the driver for Federal Express, nobody knows us, or even our name. The luxury of anonymity is just as extraordinary as the opposite extreme we enjoy elsewhere. (Keeping it, of course, is an art form.) And anonymity has lots of small benefits, especially when it comes to peace and quiet. In a physical place, unfortunately, you cannot have it both ways. In cyberspace you can.
A lot is written about digital identity, particularly about using the Net to role-play, to pretend you are somebody other than who you are. Almost nothing is written about the value of being nobody - not somebody different, but nobody in particular. The power of digital anonymity first struck me watching an electronic community for people worried that their spouse might have Alzheimer's. Because of the anonymity afforded by the chat room, people were willing to ask questions they would never have addressed under other conditions - and to become part of the community.
A less moving example of the value of being nameless is ecommerce. How many times have you arrived at a site and not purchased something because you were asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire? Independent of worrying whether Ken Starr might subpoena your book-buying records, you don't respond because you just don't want to hear back from everybody who sells you something. When Amazon.com emailed some advertising after my first purchase, I asked that they stop - they have been terrific about honoring the silence I requested. This type of digitally responsible company deserves to be successful.
Sadly, not all merchants will be as respectful of your privacy, and there's no accepted way of making a payment without revealing your identity. Even smartcards have to reveal their identity in order to be secure.
The conventional wisdom in the payments field places little value on anonymity: "Privacy," I repeatedly hear, is the fetish of ponytailed paranoids who have something to hide. Wrong. Digital privacy is a simple, practical matter, a necessary step so we can get on with ecommerce without creating an avalanche of unsolicited interruptions. The digital world is already too noisy - I want anonymity for reasons of tranquility, not dishonesty.
If done right, digital money is far better than cash. Beyond ease of payment, it could allow governments to eliminate money laundering, and let parents give children an allowance that can't be spent buying Penthouse. Furthermore, anonymous payment systems need not be symmetrical, as the physical world demands. You can pay anonymously, but retain the option to change your mind should you later need to prove that you paid. Still, on far more occasions than you can imagine today, you will want no identity in transactions. You will want to be nobody.
Next: Pricing Our Future
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[Copyright 1998, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 6.10, October 1998.]