Are you Trapped in an Internet Universe?

The other day my friend, Denise, came over for dinner with her long-distance boyfriend who was in town for the weekend. The two visit each other a few times a year and often take trips together to various parts of the world. As the boyfriend consulted his smart phone, a dialogue box popped up with the question: “are you traveling with Denise?’ Over time, it had learned their habits and patterns. It was startling for a second, but should it really be that surprising? How many times a day do our smart phones complete our words or sentences when we text, read our locations, remind us of appointments, inform us of bus routes, book reservations or alert us to news and messages? And to perform these tasks, they depend on endless data we yield about ourselves and glean from others. Data that, according to Jessie Hempel, a senior writer at WIRED, we cannot opt out of. Unless of course we are very rich !

 “…the only people who can avoid the Internet are the privileged, the people with a trust fund. To scrape together a living in a knowledge-based economy, you pretty much have to participate. Most people can’t afford not to be online.” 

I was taken aback hearing this from a journalist at Wire. I associated the Internet with heroic notions of freedom to be anywhere with anybody you wanted, aggregating and learning from anything you desired, regardless of distance. At least this was the beauty of its potential. Hempel of course is not against the Internet. Who could be, given how our way of life and ability to do business and communicate are dependent on it? But she is beginning to feel that “technological advances can become coercive, even as they create new opportunities.”  When attending a technology conference in Half Moon Bay last month, the question of ethics came up in a conversation with colleagues.  What were the responsibilities of software companies in developing web services in the age of artificial intelligence? Are people even aware of how much information they are giving up?

There is also the question of the psychological and cultural effects of total Internet immersion. At time, Hempel finds herself hungering "to opt out of the endless noise and distraction of the Internet.” Each year she takes a whole month off from social media. (Even the idea of a whole day away from social media covers me in a cold sweat).  During this month, she notices the levels of her anxiety plummet.

The Internet is ubiquitous, Hempel says. If we think we are avoiding giving up too much data about ourselves and limiting our online use, we are fooling ourselves. “Even if you don’t seek the web out, somewhere an Internet-powered service is logging and analyzing your behavior. There’s no going off the grid, because life is the grid.”

 So what is her conclusion since she is adamant that there is no “opting out?”  She believes that the answer is corporate ethics. “We have invented the Internet, and it is now a staple of human life, infusing itself into our daily routines and informing our habits. Smart software companies are harnessing artificial intelligence to improve the products and services they offer up. It’s incumbent upon these companies to put ethics at the center of their product development strategies, because, while the services they offer are commercial, they’ve also become utilities.”

Elizabeth Engel and I have been talking to executives to test and develop a concept about a type of mastermind CEO group—bringing together association leaders on an intensive discovery and development process for the purpose of solving a specific strategic challenge facing them. In spite of limitations of time and geographic distance they all agreed on one priority: in person vs. virtual meetings.

From our end, as knowledge service providers, we have to design services for the pace, habits and new modes of learning and solving problems of the Internet consumer. At the same time, we must resist the fascination wit big data  as the magic formula for understanding and serving members or customers.

Most organizations still labor under the illusion of the postindustrial age vision of machine-like efficiency. As a result, they focus on products, policies and processes, devaluing meaningful connections with members or customers and treating these customers as commodities.

The new, additional danger is the mystique of big data as end unto itself, replacing labor-intensive relationships with techniques for data gathering and mining; and devaluing entrepreneurial market instincts and customer insight.

I am always surprised when I hear executives express pride in their organizations being “data-driven.”  Above all else, associations have to be human-driven, keeping intact the intimate conversation and human-level interaction as foundations of our business.   


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