Data: The Essence of a Digital Lifestyle


A space for seeing the world in a different way

A column by Dirk Knemeyer
November 3, 2005

“There are those who look at things the way they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’”—Robert F. Kennedy

Imagine: A space for seeing the world in a different way is Dirk Knemeyer’s forum for asking “Why not?” and dreaming about things that never were—but certainly could be. This column will explore innovative and progressive topics in digital product design today and look at where current trends and patterns are taking us tomorrow.

I’ve been thinking a lot about metadata recently, but not from the standpoint of XML or programming or helping to organize and index data. My interest is in the future of content ownership, delivery, and value. I see a future for media that looks very different from the media of today. The germ of this idea actually came from my experiences with online movie rentals.

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I’ve been a Netflix® customer for a few years now. Their user experience adds tremendous value beyond traditional brick-and-mortar video rental stores, with home delivery of movies, a no-late-fee policy, and robust management of information about my previous rentals on their Web site, shown in Figure 1—through their ratings and cataloging features—as well as keeping track of my selections for future rentals.

But as much as I like Netflix, a funny thing happened recently: Blockbuster® entered the home-delivery movie rental business, trumpeting lower rates and integration with their brick-and-mortar stores. And I’ve heard rumors that other major corporations like Wal-Mart® and® may join the fray. Almost immediately, Netflix became commodified in my mind. How much cheaper would these other providers be? What kind of packages would they offer? Might their delivery be even quicker? My loyalty to Netflix quickly disintegrated. I took it for granted that their competitors would offer the same movie catalog, delivery speed, and Web application features and user interface. It seemed like I could rent videos based only on price.

Figure 1—Netflix

But as I continued to use Netflix while investigating other providers, I suddenly realized that—unless the cost difference was significant, say more than $5 or $10 per month—I would not be leaving Netflix. Why? They have all of my personal movie data.

I have taken the time to rate over 200 movies and provide data for their databases that enables them to make smart recommendations on the basis of my past behavior. I had created a queue of about 100 movies that I had already read about, decided I want to see, and put in my virtual shopping cart. Some of my friends also have Netflix accounts, and their history and data operates in concert with my own, enhancing the quality of my movie selection experience. It would take hours to transfer my movie ratings and the movies in my queue to a new service. And what about the participation of my friends? It would require a strong sales job to get my friends to move to a new video rental service, too. I might, at best, get half of them to switch.

So, Netflix has essentially got me. Why? Not because they’ve created exclusive content. Not because their service is better or their prices are lower. Not because their Web application provides a killer user experience. They’ve got my personal data, my history, my preferences, and my viewing plans for the future. Netflix is essentially plugged into me, taking what is inside my head and using that information to help me enjoy a more robust movie-viewing experience. The content—the movies themselves—has become commodified. The value and differentiation is in the ownership of my personal data.

But this lesson goes so much further and applies in many different contexts.

Thanks to enormous, inexpensive digital-storage capacities, there is no longer any reason for digital media to exist in a physical form. The notion of people physically possessing software applications, video games, or other digital media on compact discs, videotapes, DVDs, cartridges, or other media will become quaint—if not an indulgence. A single device—perhaps the size of a Mac mini or smaller—could hold all of it. And since broadband connections and even wireless connections to centralized networks are becoming faster and more ubiquitous every day, we don’t need physical media to conveniently deliver software or content to people. There is no need to store digital media locally. It can reside on remote storage devices.

Virtual digital media represents a fundamental shift in people’s conceptual model of possessions. We are accustomed to our possessions existing in some tangible way. Now, all we need is a user interface and the right to use or access software or content—a license or user account—not to possess them on physical media. However, from the standpoint of usability, there may still be a preference for certain types of media to continue to exist in a physical form, particularly written content like books or periodicals.

Let’s examine the juxtaposition between the businesses and applications we participate in conceptualizing, designing and creating and the soon-to-be-realized ubiquitous computing infrastructure with its almost limitless amounts of inexpensive digital storage space.

Future value points lie in extending and enhancing the behavior, preferences, and minds of people. It’s no longer enough to provide content or an application that enables people to complete specific and predetermined tasks—such as purchasing items or managing their checking accounts. The killer digital applications of the future will gather, use, and leverage people’s data to satisfy needs that they don’t even realize they have and fulfill desires that are beyond either their conscious understanding or their personal knowledge and ability to conceive of.

The model is a good early—if ultimately clumsy—example of this concept in practice. They assiduously collect data and incentivize us to share our preferences, so they can provide recommendations that expand our purchasing behaviors and more deeply integrate into our lives, as shown in Figure 2. But beyond those top-level, business-driven functions that their data collection, processing, and model of use provide, there are some benefits for people.

Figure 2—Amazon
Amazon keeps a record of our entire purchasing histories, enabling us to go back in time to see what we have purchased. This can help us to find answers to questions that, in the past, we haven’t even thought to ask. Because there was no record of our behavior, we had no expectation that there could be answers to such questions. Did I already buy my father a book on bird watching or was that for my uncle? What was the name of that video game I bought for my friend’s son, which might be a perfect gift for my niece? What specifically have I been spending my disposable income on and in what proportions? Imagining, for a moment, that had been my primary purchasing vehicle since I was, say, five years old, I could start to really explore some interesting questions that relate to my personal identity. I could begin to understand my own development—at least as seen through the products that I’ve purchased or, stretching a bit beyond the boundaries of the data that Amazon now accumulates, people have purchased for me.

The fatal flaw is that Amazon now owns my data. And Netflix owns a different set of my data. So does Google™. So do my financial institution and countless other companies. Our data is dispersed, existing only in shards that we do not own. The companies that own our data use it for their own business gain and make it available to us only as it serves their corporate needs. If I asked them to provide the data to me in a format that would work in a database that I owned, they probably would not even respond to my email message or would do so only with some outrageously generic stock response that didn’t even deal with the issue. So, my data, which remains splintered and owned by corporate interests, does not serve my own personal needs for its use, preventing me from leveraging what could, in an aggregated form, represent an incredibly powerful data record that would provide an interesting tapestry of my life.

The very constitution of our products and user experiences is changing. Data will increasingly be where the value is. The physical world is becoming digital. How we do things will change, and the power of ubiquitous computing will revolutionize many of our behaviors that we today largely take for granted. Realizing and understanding that this shift is about to occur will enable all of us to anticipate the future and productively participate in creating it. 

Managing Director, SciStories LLC

Co-owner of Genius Games LLC

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Dirk KnemeyerAs a social futurist, Dirk envisions solutions to system-level problems at the intersection of humanity, technology, and society. He is currently the managing director of SciStories LLC, a design agency working with biotech startups and research scientists. In addition to leading SciStories, Dirk is a co-owner of Genius Games LLC, a publisher of science and history games. He also cohosts and produces Creative Next, a podcast and research project exploring the future of creative work. Dirk has been a design entrepreneur for over 15 years, has raised institutional venture funding, and has enjoyed two successful exits. He earned a Master of Arts from the prestigious Popular Culture program at Bowling Green.  Read More

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