This Time, It's Personal

Back in the mid-1990s, there was a service called Pointcast, which I recall as one of the first and most impressive attempts at the time to personalize the news for users. Activated as a screensaver, which was more meaningful in the days of CRTs and screen burn-in concerns, Pointcast made you linger over the news before you left your desk. It had a beautiful design , and worked quite well — if your organization allowed it, that is. In those days, bandwidth was a major concern, and Pointcast used a lot of it, leading many IT departments to ban it, which became a major factor in its ultimate demise.

Back then, personalization was a big idea, but always geared to understanding some general factors about a user — where they were, what teams or topics they liked, what professional and personal interests they had, and so forth. The idea of social media, with profiles, likes, and algorithms, wasn’t on the radar. Online advertising was in its infancy.

The 1990s type of personalization wasn’t anything like the behavior modification systems we see now, which use psychological operations techniques perfected by Cold War intelligence services to influence populations and people.

Old school personalization didn’t integrate and monitor devices people carried with them everywhere and used for hours every day.

Initial approaches to personalization didn’t have data from browsers, GPS, wearables, IOT devices, and more to target and retarget users.

Personalization has been transformed into a psychological and behavioral manipulation system, often making it so that people aren’t always on the same page with reality. In fact, reality’s boundaries have become quite personal. These new systems have personalized reality.

And that was always the fear of personalization, even in the days of Pointcast and constrained bandwidth. The feeling you had watching personalized news pop up was a little discomfiting. You didn’t know what you were missing. You were learning less and seeing less, ostensibly to save you time and spare you the pain of having to see something irrelevant.

But information is about learning new things and expanding your view of the world, making the contradiction of personalization apparent even then — the contradiction of limiting your view of the world based on who you appear to be.

That contradiction would be relatively benign if not for what changed — rather than the personalization of information, much of the commercial Web traffics in the information of personalization, scraping more about you from you than you realize, and selling this to credit card companies, advertisers, and political campaigns. And the business model leaves the people being exploited with little leverage.

The business model is the core problem. If anything, we should by now realize how dangerous a statement like, “It’s just another business model” is. A business model is a set of governance incentives that drive a company’s behavior. Social media is driven by a business model that makes the customers the product being sold to third parties monitoring those customers. Change the business model, and that all changes.

That’s why I’ve pulled back from social media — from a blog that allows comments, from Facebook, and from Twitter. Because, when it comes to the digital economy, this time, it’s personal.