Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Confronting the Internet
Robbing you of your dignity and your personal life. Taking over your home, your peace of mind, your social time, in short: your freedom. These are the offenses Berlin's trendy culture rag Zitty recently accused eBay of committing. The online marketplace's ability to increase personal freedom by allowing you to buy or sell exactly what you want from your bedroom, freeing up the time you might have spent searching for the item in stores or giving you back the money you would have lost by not being able to otherwise sell it, went unmentioned. Even though the author quotes 19-year-old teenager-come-jewelery-designer Ulrika's satisfaction at being able to sell her wares on eBay rather than sit at a supermarket check-out for extra cash, he manages to sum up her seller activites thusly: "All of that eats up time--Ulrika's free time."

Meanwhile, over in eBay's neighborhood, Siliconvalley.com reported on Attent, a new system developed by software company Seriosity, designed to help people filter their junk mail a bit better. Attent gives each employee virtual cash to attach to emails of great importance, which is paid back by the recipient if the email was worthy, and lost forever if not. This virtual cash can later be redeemed for real-life compensation. "Never again will you read the email warning you to take your food out of the company refrigerator by Friday," a Seriosity consultant proudly claimed.

Like the folks at Zitty, Seriosity sensed a growing concern that the computer screen was eating up too much time. The solution they discovered, however, was not to accuse email of viciously devouring employees' lives, but rather to monetize exchanges to change they way people view email: as an exchange of real value, rather than a quick way to convey even the most piddling of information. Of course, their system also relies to a startling degree on trust, as well as parallel values: if the board members forget to reward my "urgent memo," then I lose just as much as if I'd forwarded the latest Youtube video; alternately, if my co-workers and I decide Youtube videos are more valuable than product updates, the firm has a problem on its hands. Nonetheless, it is an interesting solution to the helplessly entrenched problem of clogged inboxes and resultantly lowered productivity.

Yet the problem for Zitty isn't truly that the technology takes up too much time; it's how it forces the user to reconsider time, blurring the boundaries between "work" and "non-work." The author claims that being a seller on eBay eats up Ulrika's "free time," as though bagging groceries would not, portraying eBay as an invader of "free time" because the work takes place amongst shipping boxes in Ulrika's bedroom. The author feels threatened by the evaporated demarcation between traditional "work" and "home" spheres, viewing eBay as a foreign body tredding all over the private sanctum. Hence the ludicrous accusations slung eBay's way, when all evidence to the contrary points to the conclusion the commercial giant only gives people more freedom of choice, time, and livelihood.

The eBay article betrays a deep preference within German culture, one readily denied yet borne out by social practice and articles like this: Germans generally prefer rules to order their days. Things segmented, with a given order, known times, borders, and customs, in sum, the entire neat logic of rules, is much more comfortable for the national psyche than blurry boundaries. This is a nation that for decades had specific store-closing times that would drive any free-wheeling shopper nuts. The recent alterations caused a heap of press actually asking if the excess of choice--milk at 9 pm?! jeans at midnight?!--would confuse and upset consumers. They might, suggested some, end up less happy with this confusing world of options, and desire the comfort of knowing they absolutely could not go grocery shopping after 8pm.

To perhaps no American's surprise, this has not been the case. Some stores discovered the longer closing times didn't make up extra operational costs with increased sales and shortened the times back to the old way. Other discovered people did indeed want to walk in 8:01 and get what they want, and have kept the open times.

Zitty and Seriosity form a study in two different cultural attitudes: when the technology spins out of control and seems to be functioning too intrusively, Americans respond by crudely monetizing it and throwing more technology at the problem. With a money value on everything, the Silicon Valley inventors seem confident that junk mail should be gradually phased out. It's dubious, but perhaps a better response than viewing the technology as disruption of the older, more trusted ways, the more German viewpoint expressed by Zitty. The troublesome intrusion into the private sphere, as well as the time-intensive nature of e-commerce, are read as threats rather than challenges to be met with more technology.

Don't get me wrong: the nation of strict closing times is also a place of innovative brilliance. MP3 technology that has changed our world was invented here. But most of the profits go to firms outside of Germany, because, as the director of the Frauenhofer Society that led MP3 research recently lamented to Business Week, "German companies...were often too slow" to warm to the new technology. Perhaps the companies just didn't get the memo about adapting new technology--it may have been lost between car pool requests and eBay advertisements.

Source: Jack Ewing, "An Idea Incubator Tries to Grow Cash," BusinessWeek, 12 March 2007, 61.
People staring at screen courtesy http://www.vedior-brand-leaders.com/Default.aspx/71
Cash image courtesy http://www.lumpsumusa.com/

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