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From the Ephemeral to the Eternal

By - May 06, 2004

OlduvaiFoot
(Part 1 of …?)
This is an idea I’m starting to rough out. As I said earlier, I will be testing your patience over the coming weeks as I do this more frequently. These essays are not intended to be the “book,” but rather sketches that lead to the book. (Lord knows, I can’t assume a general readership will be nearly as forgiving as you hardy souls have proven to be.)

I’m interested in what I’ll call the shift from the ephemeral to the eternal. Gmail is a good example of this, as are Plaxo, social networks, and most ecommerce sites that keep profiles of our browsing and buying habits. And search – in particular, the approach to search that A9 has taken – is perhaps the most interesting and difficult to classify expression of the trend.

In the past few years, a good portion of our digitally mediated behavior – be it in email, search, or the relationships we have with others – has become eternal – in other words, recorded and preserved by one entity or another, usually commercial in nature. And as this information has become eternal, we, as creators of that information, have lost a large degree of control over how that information is used and in what context. In fact, in many cases we have lost ownership of the information altogether – arguably before we even knew it existed in the first place. Whether this matters at all is worth debate – after all, how could we lose that which we never had? It’s not my goal to write a privacy screed here, nor take “evil corporations” to task. But it seems to me the issues raised by the ownership of our collective data exhaust are certainly worth raising and discussing, with a particular eye toward the Law of Unintended Consequences, if nothing else.

So cast yourself back to the pre web days, the “PC era” of 1985-1995. In this phase of the computing revolution, we brought our habitual presumptions to communication and discovery via the computer keyboard – we assumed (rightly or wrongly) that there was no permanent record of our actions on the computer. When we rummaged through our hard drives or, later, across LANs and WANs, we assumed the digital footprints we left behind – our clickstream exhaust, so to speak – were as ephemeral as a phone call – fleeting, passing, unrecorded. Why would it be anything but? Clickstreams had no value beyond the action they predicated, serving only as a means to an end of finding a file or passing along a message.

The same assumptions clothed our email. Sure, we understood that email might reside (briefly) on servers, but for years we assumed they were our emails, and the ISP or network over which they passed had no rights to examine or manipulate them, much less own them. (In fact, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 codified this sentiment into law, at least for private email). While the more sophisticated email user among us has grown to understand that the folly of this assumption in a corporate environment, the idea that email is an ephemeral medium is still widely held. Just this week Frank Quattrone, one of the technology sectors’ most powerful players and hardly a rube, was brought down by such a presumption.

But for most of us, the possibility of such negative consequences is remote, and I’d argue that most users still believe email is an intensely private and ephemeral form of communication. And this holds true even when that email lives on the servers of yahoo.com, hotmail.com, or gmail.com.

As for social networks, in the PC era the very idea that our relationships to others (our social network) or our relationships to goods and services (our commercial network) were anything but ephemeral was presumed: without the internet, how could it be otherwise? Sure, once in a long while someone got a hold of your calling card or your credit card slip, and your privacy and security were breached, but like email, the chances of this occurring were so minute as to be irrelevant . And before Friendster, “social networks” were simply records in your private contact database.

In short, before the web, we could pretty safely assume that our hard drive rummaging, our email, and our networking habits – in short, our clickstream – were ephemeral, known only to us (and soon forgotten by us, I’d wager). 
 
But as I’ve posted before, and as many have noted before me, as an internet culture we are steadily moving our ephemeral habits from the desktop to the web, and from our local control to the servers of corporations. (I was not surprised to learn yesterday that one in ten internet users have registered at a social network, for example, and one in five have visited one). The reason for this shift is simple: innovative companies have figured out how to deliver great services (and make money) by divining clickstream patterns, be it a underlying divination, like PageRank, or a more direct one, such as AdWords or Amazon’s recommendation system. And from a consumers’ point of view, there are also very simple and compelling reasons for this shift: services like search, Plaxo and Gmail make our lives easier, faster and more convenient. But as we move our data from the edges to the center, a question arises: Have our assumptions moved with our data?   

Brad Templeton, among many others, offers perhaps the most reasonable assessment of this question as it relates to Gmail (his conclusion: we need to revise our assumptions about privacy and ownership), but I’d argue that the issues he raises can be more broadly discussed in relation to search.

Search provides a framework for thinking not only about mail (what is it about Gmail that makes it really unique? It’s searchable…), but for our entire clickstream, which is fast becoming an asset – certainly to the individual, but in particular to the internet industry. Search drives clickstreams, and clickstreams drive profits. To profit in the internet space, corporations need access to clickstreams. And this, more than any other reason, is why clickstreams are becoming eternal. As we root around in the global information space, search has become our spade, the point of our inquiry and discovery. The empty box and blinking cursor presage your next digital artifact, the virgin blue link over which your mouse hovers will transform into one more footprint through this era’s Olduvain ash.

But once eternal, what then? Beyond commerce, what happens to our culture when the previously unknown becomes knowable, and, to ping Kevin Kelly, out of control? I’d love to hear what you think, I’d guess that the consequences are pretty far reaching.

(Part 2, coming soon: “Whose Data? – Examples of Clickstream Creation (A9, Furl, et al) and the Tricky Issues They Raise.” At least, I think that’s what is coming next…)


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7 thoughts on “From the Ephemeral to the Eternal

  1. Steve Krause says:

    Where you shop, when you shop, and how much you spend has already made the jump from ephemeral to eternal–if you use a credit card. A lot of people do. Has round 1 of this issue already occurred?

  2. Interesting stuff. Would like to point you to my previous post:

    Googling Paranoia
    http://blog.outer-court.com/archive/2003_05_23_index.html#200334462

  3. I think you are making a mistaken assumption. Very little of our behavior was ephemeral before during the PC Era. Video cameras took in our every move at 7/11s, bank machines, and inside most chain stores. Our credit card companies tracked our purchasing habits, as did the supermarket chains with their little club cards. Car repairmen tracked the mileage on our cars. Blockbuster tracked the videos we rented. What IS different now is that this datastream has become more easily accessible and, in many cases, totally accessible to all. We never had any privacy before. It just was harder for people with no time/money/strong inclination to pierce the veil. You could have easily ordered up the President’s credit report a decade ago. The point is you wouldn’t have thought of doing so. In that sense, the Internet has eliminated the illusion of ephemeral existence that we all had. McNealy had it right a long time ago. You have no privacy. Haven’t had any for several decades. Get over it or encrypt everything you do, cut up your charge cards, rip off your license plates, buy a bunch of wigs and get plastic surgery. Oh, and move to Mexico.

  4. Arnaud Leene says:

    We should talk about the ownership of this (private) trail information. It is clear that the user should own his own profile, whether it is his surfing trail, credit card trail or whatever. A user’s profile is also his weblog, the comments on someone else’s weblog, his music list, his SNS-profiles, FOAF file, anything that he does, writes, speaks, etc. The more explicit this information, the better is the profile. Only the user knows his own profile, not what companies mined in his trail. Take responsibility for your profile.

    So be in control again. A user should make this profile explicit, as some users are already doing in their weblog. Make sure that this profile represents yourself (or one of your personae) or otherwise the world might invent your profile and they might guess wrong. And publish this profile on your own website, weblog, whatever. The user becomes a writer and a publisher. This profile information could be published under some Personal Commons arrangement, i.e. personal information that is available to the world.

    This user profile has value for companies. Companies can access this profile under a Personal Commons license in a standardised and legal way. Then they can adapt their interaction with a user accordingly. They might even give discount if an user profile is available, as it makes their live cheaper (less marketing cost). This profile can also be the basis of the various Social Networking Services, which can then focus on their business: networking. A user’s wishlist and transaction trail is no longer available to just Amazon, but all book shops.

    Once this profile has more value than the trail we leave behind, the user is back in control. Next step will be to regulate access, so we know who had access and what the profile was used for. And hopefully we can come up with some enforcement in the even longer term.

  5. Hey Alex – I don’t entirely agree. While it is true that the modern world has already draped a cloak of data and video trails around us, they are disconnected and difficult to track, providing, in essence, a sense of privacy for most (but apparently not for you or McNealy, or Kevin Kelly, for that matter, with whom I’ve debated this back in the Wired days). But “eternal data” is a new beast entirely, I’d argue, and the implications are more far reaching than just privacy. I didn’t mean for this post to be only about that issue, though securing it (agreeing to a social contract regarding it, in other words) seems foundational to building upon it as a platform. A big issue is also ownership, as Arnaud points out, as well as what applications and services can be imagined and built on top of such data. I hope to explore these ideas in future posts.

  6. Patrick says:

    John – Have you read David Brin’s _The Transparent Society_? I’d be interested to hear how you think his arguments about reciprocal transparency fit with your evolving ideas.

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