Taking the Private Public

Don’t worry. The Analog Underground hasn’t gotten swept up in IPO fever. If there was a social equivalent for IPOs though we could safely accuse ourselves of indulging in irrational exuberance for offering up in public everything that once was private. There seems to be no end to our desire for acting out our personal lives across an ever-widening slice of the public domain, whether through reality T.V., the seemingly ubiquitous blog, or just plain loud obnoxious behavior. Is Digital to blame? Maybe, maybe not, but like the perpetrator a DA can never quite nail, Digital always seems to be hanging around at the scene of the social crime.

It’s not that human nature has changed. We still want to be known, to have our existence validated by some external community, and we still want to be safe and secure, anonymous in the herd, unseen by the wolves looking for the weak one. What has changed is Digital’s capability to create more or less high fidelity representations of ourselves which we can fling across the public cyberspace with at least a feeling of invulnerability, if not the actuality, and how that practice seeps into our all our interactions, analog or digital.

What We Do With Tools and What They Do To Us

In the early industrial revolution we got really good at power generation very quickly using steam and coal. What we weren’t so hot at or even aware of, was the lasting impact of using that particular tool until many cities like Pittsburg literally disappeared under a black cloud of power making detritus. I’m thinking that Digital will be like that. A hundred years from now, I’m convinced that we’ll look back at some aspects of the “Digital Revolution” and wonder what on earth we were thinking.

I’m suspicious that Mass Personalization will turn out to be one of those “What were we…” conversations. Not that there aren’t benefits to be had from applying digital to tailoring many of our common realities. I like the idea of a computer watching over my various prescriptions to prevent some kind of personal pharmaceutical melt down. In the same way I like walking into a local restaurant and having a Mountain Dew show up on my table without me asking, I like being “recognized” when I return to web sites I visit frequently. I may not like that the state DMV and consequently any state trooper knows exactly how many points I have on my license, but it’s comforting to know they’re using the same personalization of records to track various more serious miscreants. In my book that’s all turning Digital to Analog ends.

My skeptic meter begins to twinge, though, when we blithely assume that such carrying of personal information into public forums doesn’t represent a fundamental change in the rules. All that “New Economy” chatter didn’t change the fundamental economic exchange of “Something I have for Something I Want.” Mass personalization, on the other hand, does require a basic change. Instead of our currencies of exchange being money or time or something else outside of ourselves, mass personalization almost always requires that I cough up some bit of myself, who I am.

In the future we will probably shake our heads ruefully about the trend to require more and more irrelevant personal data for even the most trivial of services, and the consequent loss of privacy. However, the real chagrin will be reserved for the impact of mass personalization on the division of the public and private. We’re dramatically increasing the number and variety of tools available to shape our public presence to our personal whim. Like teenagers with a full tank of gas, a new license and a deserted back road, we’ve got our foot on the accelerator. It feels good and the details of physics and that tight corner two miles up the road aren’t even a passing thought.

The Personal Impact of Mass Personalization

There are two aspects to the mass personalization dynamic that every individual and every manager should pay attention to. The first is potential for mass personalization to atrophy our capabilities for intelligent compromise and useful collective action. The second is the corrosive effect of mass personalization on individual meaning.

Thinking Personally and Acting Out Locally

How many times, during that first commercial rush onto the internet, did we hear or even, God forbid, say “Your competitor is only a click away.” This was not only a statement about pricing, but also about capabilities, presentation, and locality. The intent was to suggest that consumers’ expectations were influenced not only by their experience of your store, but also by the experiences they had in every store they visited. The internet tended to make expectations from one set of experiences bleed over into others.

As we’ve brought stores, public discourse, blogs, chat rooms and all the tools of the internet into our family rooms and our kid’s bedrooms, our expectations for our personal control of and responsibility in public forums has evolved, not always for the good. Like the early commercial web, those expectations are bleeding over into the work place, various social settings, and even the way we drive (road rage, anyone?). As our boundaries between public and private crumble, the “Public Place” nature of work can no longer be counted on to contain non-work issues, behavior and attitude. In addition to being effective advocates for their own interests, successful managers and peer leaders will have to champion the compromise, respect and discretion that are the foundations of successful communities, professional or otherwise.

Personalization, Identity and Meaning

Paradoxically, the rush to massly personalized individual experience seems likely to diminish the individual value and meaning we derive from those experiences. Individuality may give us identity, but most meaning still bubbles up through association with others. Our ability to share, either in the moment or after the fact, with others is imperiled if those experiences become too personalized. So what? Well, roughly speaking, we have a name for folks who cannot hold common perspective on their experience with a wider community. They’re called psychopaths.

When personalization breeds a sense of entitlement and dulls our sense of place and fit in a wider society, then the death of satisfaction can’t be far behind. If we are owed everything, than nothing is ever a gift. No one or no thing can ever exceed our expectations or delight or pleasantly surprise us. Just as the capabilities of any one web site raise the bar for all web sites, any tidbit of automated personalization begins to set expectations of a reliable, continual drip of recognition and customization. Unfortunately for the easily addicted, the analog world, with its fits and starts, crafted moment by shared moment, is not so hot at that kind of predictable, six sigma consistency.

I guess it’s not too surprising that individuals faced with the near deification of “Global” in economic and business circles will respond with an ever more relentless personal point of view. Perhaps it only seems more personalized when thrown in relief against a bigger canvas. In any event, whatever the potential of Digital to bridge the gap between the individual and the global, we have to remember that MacLuhan’s Global Village was as likely to turn into a terrifyingly tribal, post‑civilization as it was some kind of Kumbya global utopia.

So bring on the automated, digital representations of each of us in the wider world. Take those mundane and ritualized decisions off our plates and let the computers tend to the tasks we’d rather not. Free us up for better relationships, brighter professional contributions, a more meaningful existence. Just don’t forget that controlling everything, remaking the whole world for our own pleasure, convenience, and efficiency will not necessarily give us more meaningful lives, especially if the cost is insulation and isolation from each other on the way there.

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