Personal Information Is the Currency of the 21st Century

minority reportThe currency of the 21st century digital economy is your personal information. It has no transaction costs and does not decrease in value when the supply increases. Contrary to the laws of economics, it may even increase in value with greater supply. The more information you provide to companies, the more value they can extract from it.

Now that 21st century digital behemoths such as Facebook and Google have discovered how to make personal information the most valuable resource in the history of humanity, they are strip-mining mountains of it into completely unrecognizable states.

Conversely, we tend to ignore this process because the most magnificent, technologically advanced and socially connected digital city is being built from it.

You are living in this growing digital city, and I’m guessing that you really like it here. Unfortunately, you can’t live in this city for free. Your rent is due in the form of your personal information, and you have to accept a certain loss of your privacy.

There’s no credit check to move in. You just need to share your name, birth date, where you’re from, your alma mater and a few more personal details. It’s effortless to hand over your information, and will only take you about 60 seconds to sign a lease.

But if you don’t read the fine print of your lease, you’ll gloss over the fact that surveillance cameras and microphones have been installed to cover every square inch of the city and that you have consented to being watched at all hours.

Meanwhile, marketers and advertisers will eavesdrop on your conversations and abruptly interrupt when you bring up any topics related to their products. (Bizarrely, you are also required to eat a complimentary cookie every time you enter a building.)

Real estate metaphors notwithstanding, losing your privacy is not such a bad thing. You pay into the new digital economy with your demographic and behavioral information.

Some people raise legitimate concerns, but claims of an Orwellian dystopia are alarmist hyperbole. There is a level of discomfort that comes with voluntarily divulging private information, and, understandably, greater anxiety results from being watched at all times.

As a society, we need to define the rules under which our personal information can be mined. Our collective unease is largely the result of not having clear parameters to create an equilibrium between privacy and personalization.

These parameters will help shift our focus from the negatives to the positives, because in return for your personal information, you realize a net benefit with tremendous value.

Access to Your Data From Anywhere, at Any Time, Using Any Device

I don’t want access to my data being constrained by the time of day, where I am or what digital device I have access to. I shouldn’t have to go to work to grab an Excel file off my computer and I shouldn’t need my personal device to show a photo of my dog to coworkers.

The solution is adopting a cloud service like Dropbox, Google or Facebook. They become the stewards of your data, responsible for keeping it secure and accessible at all times. In exchange, you grant them full visibility of your data and permit them to monetize it.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like carrying a USB stick around and I definitely loathe the pain of a hard drive failure corrupting three years of photos and memories. I’m sticking with the cloud.

Personalized Experience

A personalized experience is why companies like American Express, Brooks Brothers and USAA consistently rank at the top of consumer surveys. These are giant corporations, but they make you feel special by focusing on you. They also happen to know a lot about you and your spending habits.

The sheer volume of information online is overwhelming and often leads to decision paralysis. You need help cutting through the noise; the best companies personalize your digital experience, only presenting information that is relevant to you.

I don’t want to dig through the iTunes or Netflix libraries. I want to choose from recommendations based upon what I’ve watched in the past and what my friends are watching. If I’m buying something on Amazon, or planning a vacation on TripAdvisor, I’d like to see reviews and recommendations from my friends. I’m far more likely to make a better and more informed choice with the trusted validation of my social circle.

Proactive Digital Assistant

Google knows where I live, where I work and the typical route I take to commute between them. I find it extremely valuable when I am alerted about an accident before I’m already stuck in the horrific traffic jam for over an hour.

Facebook pings me with a push notification about my friend’s birthday so I don’t forget yet again. I can see from Instagram photos that my friend went to the Nationals game and I can ask him how it was. Foursquare will let me know if one of my friends has checked in near me and we can now meet for a serendipitous drink.

Our 21st century digital economy makes my life better. I have access to what I need, when I need it. My online experience is largely customized to suit my needs. And, I have better ambient awareness of what’s happening in my social circles.

The cost to improve my life is sharing my personal information. A barter economy is based on the exchange of goods and services of perceived equal value. In my mind, I’m receiving far more than I’m giving up.

There is a zero-sum relationship between personalization and privacy. To get the personalized digital experience you want and have grown accustomed to, you have to accept the loss of your privacy.

Tom Cochran is CTO at Atlantic Media, publisher of the Atlantic, Quartz, National Journal and Government Executive. Prior to that, he was at the White House as the Director of New Media Technologies. Follow him on Twitter at @tommer.


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