The Intention Economy
When Customers Take Charge
by Doc Searls
Review by Kelly Mackin, editor, Personal Data Journal.
Reprinted with Permission.
Before the middle of the last century, economics was called political economy. With the rise of computing and advanced statistical techniques after World War II, political economy gave way to econometrics and the rise of quantitative analysis. Political economy was always a broader, and in my opinion better, subject than its descendants for it allowed writers to connect economic thinking to the broader societies and issues that it directly affects.
Working on a four-year fellowship at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Doc Searls, an award-winning writer and journalist, has been spearheading a deep and important project on the role of intention in the structure of human action. His project centers on the development of an intellectual and technology consensus to further an improved political economy of the web. The internet was created by engineers who cared more about creating things and worried less about making money. That's why they favored open systems over closed ones.
Searls points out that the "open" internet is now overshadowed by the web as a sort of a Blade Runner "shopping mall." Relationships in this commercial web are governed by an essentially feudalistic rubric where sellers - in their crush to maximize revenue streams - essentially control all the material terms of a relationship. This feudalistic model developed in the absence of a technical infrastructure that would support other models.
As in the case of proprietary email systems, the need exists to develop interaction methods that support a 1:1 correspondence between buyers and sellers. In the current model, by promoting adhesion, where sellers enforce a take-it-or-leave-it model that attempts to control the customer, the consumer is disempowered, as adhesion strongly encourages or even enforces customer actions that benefit the seller more than the buyer.
In Searls' view, the commercial web arose as a consequence of the Taylorist viewpoint that the holistic person or entity that is seeking something matters only for behaviors that support the goals of the seller. This model creates all manner of problems and he devotes over 150 pages of the book to tracing the history of networking and the evolution of commerce in the last century to show how we arrived at this point.
Searls does a superb job laying out the development of the quiet technologies that underlie the web and convincingly shows that the nature of these open systems enables players on the web endpoints to share without the permission of players in the center who supply connectivity. The bright group of developers and thinkers who animate this quiet internet, who create the structures that the success of the internet relies upon, are now bringing these principles into operation at the service level.
Examples abound, but one of the best is Personal's approach to fourth party services. Personal declares in their legal agreement that the customer is the owner of their data. Alan Mitchell of CNTL-Shift, the founder of MyDex, led the charge in Britain to embody similar principles and has gotten the support of many companies and government officials in England. [Personal is a PDEC member -Ed]
Searls'model is an attempt to reform the commercial web with technologies and services that enable the internet's open systems principles to rise to the level where they can change the dynamic between customers and sellers, between publishers and readers, and any other scission where the balance of control rests squarely in the laptop of the more powerful interest.
Personal Vendor Relationship Management is tightly defined in the tract with a set of principles that follow from a belief that the `free' customers are more valuable than captive ones. For those new to pVRM, the principles (from the project's website) are:
* Customers must enter relationships with vendors as independent actors.
* Customers must be the points of integration for their own data.
* Customers must have control of data they generate and gather. This means they must be able to share data selectively and voluntarily.
* Customers must be able to assert their own terms of engagement.
* Customers must be free to express their demands and intentions outside of any one company's control.
In the book, these principles are described at the end of the chapters. On the future relationships of customers to sellers, he says:
"Relationships between customers and vendors will be voluntary and genuine, with loyalty anchored in mutual respect and concern, rather than coercion. So, rather than "targeting," "capturing," "acquiring," "managing," "locking in," and "owning" customers, as if they were slaves or cattle, vendors will earn the respect of customers who are now free to bring far more to the market's table than the old vendor-based systems ever contemplated, much less allowed."
There exists an intense social meme recently that fairness has to be the basis of any sustainable political system. The question and the rub is always how fairness is to be achieved. Is fairness to be achieved by the actions of government to regulate, control, (and thereby distort) economic activity? Or is it better achieved by enabling participants to thoughtfully manage their participation by giving them tools and services that allow them to have an equal seat at the market table? This of course leads to a discussion of the commons.
The venerated economist Adam Smith, in his book of political economy, "The Wealth of Nations" was promoted as an intellectual tour de force at the time of its publication and thereafter. But, as many economists have pointed out, Smith's distorted and incorrect analysis of the "problem of the commons" was used to justify and cement control mechanisms of monied interests that were opposed to self organization and the concept of the commons. Searls correctly points out that in the UK, the commons has altogether disappeared; replaced by private control. To a great degree, says Searls, the web in the commercial sphere has itself fallen victim to feudalistic structures in a similar way; although at the network and protocol layers, this openness still mostly operates.
"For free markets to mean more than 'your choice of captor,' we need new systems that operate on the principle that free customers are more valuable--to both sellers and themselves--than captive ones. Improving slavery does not make people free. We need full emancipation. That's the only way we'll get free markets worthy of the name."
Intention Economy is a groundbreaking work, full of mentions of fellow travelers and of earnest work designed to help people participate fully as sovereign individuals on the internet surface. It would not surprise me if one day this book will be as venerated in internet circles as Adam Smith's was in the temples of the elite. Perhaps another title could have been, "The Wealth of Internets."