Defining #customertech

Look at your phone.

What apps there are yours? I mean yours in the way a hammer in your hand is yours. Or your car when you’re driving it. In other words, an extension of yourself.

The phone itself may seem to be that. But the apps? Not as much. Not yet. Especially not in the commercial world where we operate as customers. While there is an abundance of tech on the corporate side, all meant to give us a better “customer experience” (or just to sell us stuff), there is a paucity of instruments that extend ourselves as customers.

We have those in the physical world. Your clothing in a drawer is not an extension of your self, but it extends you totally when we wear it. Same goes for your wallet or your purse.

Clothing is many kinds of tech at once: privacytech, expressiontech and fashiontech, to name three. Unless you shop naked, which you probably don’t, clothing is also customertech: a way of extending your sovereign self into the marketplace, signaling your fitness as a customer, whether or not you are conscious of doing so.

Likewise your wallet. In that you carry a portfolio of instruments—cash, credentials, credit cards—that you can use selectively and expertly in every store, restaurant and other commercial setting we visit. In this sense wallets have scale. If you carry a purse, it might also contain a second wallet of loyalty cards and perhaps an address book where we keep notes and a list of contacts. Those tools—wallets, purses, address books—are all extensions of yourself that work everywhere in the marketplace. That’s why you carry them.

All of those things are now moving onto our phones as well, but not in ways that are fully ours. For example, there is no digital wallet made that’s as personal and private as the ones we carry in the physical world. And there should be. If anything, the customertech we have in our phones should start with the graces we enjoy in the physical world—of privacy, control, scale, convenience and expression—and expand them into the virtual one through the amazing graces of digital technology and the Internet. Instead we get lots of conveniences that offer scale only inside the silos of Google, Amazon, Apple and dozens of retailers, banks and other entities that mostly just want to acquire or move our cash and data. (In many cases they also want our attention, our loyalty—always coerced—or other scarce resources of consciousness.)

One example of good customertech we don’t yet have is a contact app that tells every company we know that we’ve changed your phone number, email address, or some other field in their databases. Another would be a wallet that’s not a service provided by one company but a personal tool that engages with all of them. Bots and APIs that belong to us, or are under our control, should be able to do that.

We can only begin to imagine these things, and how they should work, if our job is to equip the customer with tools that are fully hers. If the tool we imagine is a service, it should be one that gives the customer scale.

One real-world model for this is a rental car. When the customer has one, it’s hers to drive anywhere she likes. It isn’t a shopping cart with a steering wheel that only works inside one retailer, or only with the rental agency’s partners. She also has a reasonable expectation that the car is her private space as long as she’s driving it.

So, toward making customertech happen in a big way, Customer Commons will soon be issuing challenges for developers to make true customertech.

But first we’ll be defining it. We invite your help with that.

Meanwhile, a hat tip to Hugh MacLeod of @Gapingvoid, who drew the image above in 2004, to help explain exactly what we’re talking about here, way before the world was ready, which it is now.

Privacy is an Inside Job

The Searls Wanigan, 1949
Ordinary people wearing and enjoying the world’s original privacy technology: clothing and shelter. (I’m the one on top. Still had hair then.)

Start here: clothing and shelter are privacy technologies. We use them to create secluded spaces for ourselves. Spaces we control.

Our ancestors have been wearing clothing for at least 170,000 years and building shelters for at least half a million years. So we’ve had some time to work out what privacy means. Yes, it differs among cultures and settings, but on the whole it is well understood and not very controversial.

On the Internet we’ve had about 21 years*. That’s not enough time to catch up with the physical world, but hey: it’s still early.

It helps to remember that nature in the physical world doesn’t come with privacy. We have to make our own. Same goes for the networked world. And, since most of us don’t yet have clothing and shelter in the networked world, we’re naked there.

So, since others exploit our exposure — and we don’t like it — privacy on the Internet is very controversial. Evidence: searching for “privacy” brings up 4,670,000,000 results. Most of the top results are for groups active in the privacy cause, and for well-linked writings on the topic. But most of the billions of results below that are privacy policies uttered in print by lawyers for companies and published because that’s pro forma.

Most of those companies reserve the right to change their policies whenever they wish, by the way, meaning they’re meaningless.

For real privacy, we can’t depend on anybody else’s policies, public or private. We can’t wait for Privacy as a Service. We can’t wait for our abusers to get the clues and start respecting personal spaces we’ve hardly begun to mark out (even though they ought to be obvious). And we can’t wait for the world’s regulators to start smacking our abusers around (which, while satisfying, won’t solve the problem).

We need to work with the knitters and builders already on the case in the networked world, and recruit more to help out. Their job is to make privacy policies technologies we wear, we inhabit, we choose, and we use to signal what’s okay and not okay to others.

The EFF has been all over this for years. So have many developers on the VRM list. (Those are ones I pay the most attention to. Weigh in with others and I’ll add them here.)

The most widely used personal privacy technology today is ad and tracking blockingMore than 200 million of us now employ those on our browsers. The tools are many and different, but basically they all block ads and/or tracking at our digital doorstep. In sum this amounts to the largest boycott in human history.

But there’s still no house behind the doorstep, and we’re still standing there naked, even if we’ve kept others from planting tracking beacons on us.

One of the forms privacy takes in the physical world is the mutual understanding we call manners, which are agreements about how to respect each others’ intentions.

Here at Customer Commons, we’ve been working on terms we can assert, to signal those intentions. Here’s a working draft of what they look like now:

UserSubmittedTerms1stDraft

That’s at the Consent and Information Working Group. Another allied effort is Consent Receipt.

If you’re working on privacy in any way — whether you’re a geek hacking code, a policy maker, an academic, a marketer trying to do the right thing, or a journalist working the privacy beat — remember this: Privacy is personal first. Before anything elseIf you’re not working on getting people clothing and shelter of their own, you’re not helping where it’s needed.

It’s time to civilize the Net. And that’s an inside job.

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*If we start from the dawn of ISPs, graphical browsers, email and the first commercial activity, which began after the NSFnet went down on 30 April 1995.