April 05, 2001, 3:37 PM — I PREBOARDED A FLIGHT from Boston to Los Angeles as soon as the jet-way door opened -- one of the several useful perks of first class. Soon the rest of the gentry settled in around me. As we pushed back from the gate, a flight attendant stopped at my row. "Mister, uh, Barker?" she said, awkwardly consulting a computer printout attached sideways to a clipboard. The man next to me nodded. She leaned conspiratorially close to him, and said, "Just so we don't run out of something you want, I'll take your dinner order now." He went with the chateaubriand and she vanished. Having been deprived of a slightly-better-than-leather steak on earlier flights, thanks to the vicissitudes of seat placement even in the first-class cabin, I stewed anew. Is the airline food selection lottery now loaded? Did she somehow know that I earned my front cabin seat thanks only to a frequent-flier upgrade, while Mr. Barker paid full price? Should I care, especially since those in coach weren't even allowed a ticket to the decent food lottery up here?
Where the airlines are going the Internet will follow, and with it may ultimately go most of our daily transactions.
Here's what's happening. First, as we all know, merchants are learning lots about us as we surf the Net. We willingly part with personal information as we fill out order forms and delivery addresses for CDs or groceries, and, of course, our ZIP codes say a lot more about us than just where to find us. In addition to the stuff we type, there are the now-classic mouse droppings: How long do we linger on a page, in microseconds, before we click "buy"? What are we apparently shopping for but not yet ready to buy? These sorts of questions can be answered by our very surfing, rather than by anything we explicitly seek to tell an online vendor. And yes, thanks to cookies (or, increasingly, the tracking of IP addresses assigned to individual computers), websites can recognize us as people who have visited and developed a profile before.
This sort of data collection has those sensitive to privacy up in arms, but the nightmares they describe are usually quite tame. Most revolve around a distaste for junk mail. With a good sense of my preferences, merchants can push advertisements at me that I'm more likely to respond to, and information vendors can tailor my news to accord with my projected interests. (See Andrew L. Shapiro's insightful lament over personalization, "Too Close for Comfort," in the Aug. 1, 2000, issue of CIO.) Still, this is privacy Armageddon?
Soaking the Rich