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Weighing costs, benefits od Database Nation

The View From Here

In a clever bit of publishing, Reason magazine subscribers received personalized copies of the June issue.

Sifting through the pile of mail on my desk a few afternoons ago, I was startled to see my name blazing across the cover, in all caps, and this unpleasant announcement: They Know Where You Are! Along with that bit of news was a grainy satellite photo of the Mississippi Business Journal`s neighborhood in North Jackson.

It was an X-Files kind of moment.

Opening the magazine was more revealing – about me. Inside a personalized note from editor Nick Gillespie, along with data about the 39206 ZIP code where I receive my copy of Reason. A few of the factoids: 38.72% of the residents have college degrees, the population is 28,321 and the median income is $33,335.

Why did the magazine embark on this little customized publishing stunt?

Back in April, Gillespie told The New York Times’ David Carr, “Our story is man bites dog. Everybody, including our magazine, has been harping on the erosion of privacy and the fears of a database nation. It is a totally legit fear. But they make our lives unbelievably easier as well, in terms of commercial transactions, credit, you name it.”

More choices, lower prices

In the magazine`s main feature, “Database Nation: the upside of ‘zero privacy’,” writer Declan McCullagh asserts: It`s easy to complain about a subjective loss of privacy. It`s more difficult to appreciate how information swapping accelerates economic activity. Like many other aspects of modern society, benefits are dispersed, amounting to a penny saved here or a dollar discounted there. But those sums add up.

And they do.

McCullagh adds: Markets function more efficiently when it costs little to identify and deliver the right product to the right consumer at the right time. Data collection and information sharing emerged not through chance but because they bring lower prices and more choices for consumers.

Making sense of those many choices also makes it more likely that we`ll buy something. When I go online looking for a specific book at Amazon.com, I also end up with a list of related books and products that the company`s database thinks I might have an interest. Often, I do, and so I end up – buying more.

I get what I want, along with something I wasn`t necessarily considering, Amazon makes a few extra bucks, and a few days later my order arrives. All of it smoothly and efficiently facilitated by sharing information and good databases.

Not a bad way to do business.

No going back

The simple ideas of anonymity and privacy have been changed significantly by the proliferation of technology and online communication.

Several weeks ago, one of the MBJ`s writers received an unsigned e-mail message criticizing a story – a rare but not unheard of occurrence, although most of our critics are courageous enough to sign their names.

We wanted to find out who sent the message, and so off to Google. Within minutes of searching for the sender`s e-mail address, we knew his name, telephone number and where he worked.

A few simple steps and he could have thwarted our attempts to track him down, but most of us don`t spend too much time covering our electronic tracks. And perhaps in the end, it doesn`t really matter.

The risks of too much information, of identity theft and of data abuse are real, but the benefits of our interconnected and online world do seem to outweigh these darker possibilities.

So, is living in a database nation good or bad? Only time will tell, but remember: they probably knew where you were, are and will be already.

Contact MBJ editor Jim Laird at jlaird@msbusiness.com.


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