The policy tells you that, if you fill out this guy’s form, he will plant on your person a tracking device that will report your movements back to him. Collected data might include the type of car you drive, the routes you take, the names and addresses of the places you visit, and the times and dates for all this activity — just to improve his services and your “experience” of them. The form assures you that this information is all kept “private”, but on terms that he defines, and reserves the right to revise. For example, the form says this guy does not “currently provide” personal information to “third parties”, except for those “who may perform certain services” either through him or on their own. “Nevertheless”, it continues, “I may at a later time choose to make certain offers or services available to you from third parties”.
“And your ‘Terms and Conditions’ are something else? Did I hear that right?”
“Let me see those”.
“Okay”, he says, and pulls another form out of his back pocket. He hands it to you.
At the top it says “Terms and Conditions of Use”. Your eye scans down to the all-caps paragraph at the bottom, under the heading “DISCLAIMER OF WARRANTIES”. It says,
YOUR INTERACTION WITH ME IS SOLELY AT YOUR OWN RISK. I AM PROVIDED ON AN “AS IS” AND “AS AVAILABLE” BASIS. I EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS ALL WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND WITH RESPECT MYSELF, WHETHER EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, TITLE, AND NON-INFRINGEMENT. I MAKES NO WARRANTY THAT I AND/OR ANYTHING I SAY OR DO WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS, OR WILL BE UNINTERRUPTED, TIMELY, SECURE, CURRENT, ACCURATE, COMPLETE OR ERROR-FREE OR THAT THE RESULTS THAT MAY BE OBTAINED BY USE OF ME AND/OR ANYTHING I SAY OR DO WILL BE ACCURATE OR RELIABLE. YOU UNDERSTAND AND ACKNOWLEDGE THAT YOUR SOLE AND EXCLUSIVE REMEDY WITH RESPECT TO ANY DEFECT IN OR DISSATISFACTION WITH ME IS TO CEASE CONVERSATION AND WALK AWAY.
So, at this point, what do you do?
If you’re a normal human being, you walk away.
If you’re a normal Web user, you accept all of it, use the provided services, and blithely browse on, carrying a cookie that reports back your activities.
Without normal Web users, sites like SignalPatterns.com, which inspired this post, would not be able to do what they do.
I was directed this morning by a friend to SignalPatterns, which I had never heard of before. At the top of SignalPatterns’ home page it says they develop “psychology-based mobile and web applications that help their well-being and relationships with others”. Their iPhone apps include Stress Free with Deepak Chopra and Great Career from Franklin Covey. They have social network apps that run on Facebook. They have Web apps that test for musical tastes, parenting styles and personality patterns. I took the last one of those. That’s where, just after flashing the results, they turned the screen gray and gave me one of these:
So, why do companies behave like this? Why do they act on the Web in ways that nobody would act in person, whether at a party or even in the privacy of, say, a doctor’s office? The answer is that the Web isn’t human. At least not yet.
You are not a human being on the Web. In fact, as Paul Trevithick put it (at one of our first VRM meetings at the Berkman Center), the Web has no concept of a human being. It is fundamentally an arrangement of files and connections between those files. Hyperlinks on the Web may subvert hieraraches, especially when they are authored by human beings (such as here, in a blog, which is a human expression); but the Web itself is oblivious to that. We still lack the means, on top of the Web (and the Net) to form and maintain relationships that are anything more than a very crude, partial and highly distorted imitation of those we have out in the real, human, social world.
Put another way, social contracts in cyberspace have a long way to go before they catch up with those in real-world social space. In fact, they may be two hundred and fifty years behind. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”, Rousseau wrote (in The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique), in 1762. The Age of Enlightenment followed, during which we began to work out a variety of social contracts involving governance, commerce, education and religion. I submit that we have hardly begun to do the same on the Net or the Web.
“Markets are conversations,” the famous first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto (and later a chapter of the book by the same title) was meant to help model the social contract in cyberspace after the ones we have in meat/meet space. This has happened only in those places where the interactions are most human. It has barely happened where the interactions are most corporate.
I am sure that SignalPatterns is a fine company. The person who recommended them to me says they’re among the best of their type. But, in the absence of a social contract that says “this is a line you will not cross,” the line simply isn’t there. And, in its absence, systems for scaffolding real relationships, modeled on real interactions between real human beings, don’t get built.
We’ve been talking lately on the ProjectVRM list about defining that line, perhaps by creating a site where we can talk about it. The idea would not be to beg companies for better treatment (which would be like petitioning sovereigns in Rousseau’s time for rights they would rather not yield), but to explore how best to define in cyberspace those lines of rudeness one either does not find in civilized discourse, or finds only where suckers don’t get an even break. (Meaning, a lot of real-world business, still.)
Your thoughts are invited.