Your web, or theirs?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Yahoo! Internet Life on 1 December 1999

IF TODAY’S MARKETERS GET THEIR WAY, by the year 2010 we will no longer have a separate, classifiable human activity known as shopping. We won’t think of ourselves as engaging in shopping any more than we now think of ourselves as engaging in circulating our blood, or complying with gravity. That’s right: The object of the game for the next century’s marketers will be to make the process of shopping and payment absolutely invisible.

The communications infrastructure we know and love–the Internet–is just the testing ground for the completely self-regulating and self-sustaining marketing engine of tomorrow. Sticky Web sites will be remembered as the quaint and primitive equivalent of flypaper once the true power of e-commerce is effectively tapped.

The only reason the scenarios I’m about to depict have not yet been carried out is that advertisers and technologists have not yet joined forces. Ad folk are still desperately attempting to justify their own existence in a mediaspace where advertising has no place, and technologists are too shortsighted to see past their own IPOs or exit strategies.

But as business plans evolve to match the sophistication of the technologies they justify, we will begin to see alliances between marketers and engineers. And when this happens, look out. The psychology underlying consumption will be turbocharged beyond our ability to understand or regulate it. Our computer programs and networks will guide human behavior toward the single end of buying more stuff more rapidly. They will have been designed and built by us to do so. Everything else be damned.

■ The first thing to disappear from the marketer’s arsenal will be advertising. Although it has served a useful purpose up until now, why should anyone want to publicize the fact that an object or service needs to be actually purchased? The successful marketers of the 21st century will be the ones who get us to buy things we don’t even know we’re buying. Besides, why let customers see you pay money to middlemen when you could be paying all that money directly to them?

This is why advertising will be replaced by positioning. Instead of extolling the ethereal “brand images” of products in expensive television commercials, marketers will hand over their budgets directly to consumers in the form of kickbacks. They will simply pay consumers to buy their products. We already see the beginnings of such policies in alliances through which airlines give frequent-flier miles to credit-card users, who also earn discounts on long-distance charges. The Internet gives companies the ability to create much larger networks of alliances. The customer need only choose which cartel of providers to subscribe to, and everything else–telephone, utilities, tolls, cable TV, online trading–will be provided, paid for, and processed automatically through a single electronic account.

■ Demographics and psychographics will no longer be necessary, because there will be no need to appeal to more than one person at a time. Currently, marketing research techniques seek to identify “target markets” as a way of lumping hundreds of millions of consumers into more easily manageable and understandable groups. Thirty-five-year-old businessmen over 6 feet tall are more likely to go to certain kinds of movies, for example, and 65-year-old widows west of Wyoming are more likely to purchase a detergent that smells a certain way.

But these generalizations were invented as a way of creating marketing messages that could arouse people’s interest with greater specificity than a nationwide shotgun approach. Computers have the processing power to keep separate records of each consumer. Dynamic Web site configuration programs will be able to build customized pages in real time that induce the greatest number of purchases from each individual human being. If light-blue pages with Buy buttons along the left side or offers in which the price ends in 87 cents tend to make you buy more, then that’s what the com- puters will settle on—until your predilections change.

■ In exchange for discounts on your favorite items, you will give market researchers permission to observe your keystrokes and behaviors through cookies installed in your computer, as well as your Net-ready automobile, television, oven, grocery cart, and pacemaker. The more our behaviors are understood, the more easily they can be tweaked and adjusted to yield more buying.

Our machines and networks are already in the process of being tuned to make us buy more things, regardless of whether we need or even want them. All this is being justified as a way to make our lives easier and more fun. At least it’s bound to keep the Internet-speculation bubble afloat for another few years.

While I won’t presume to judge whether the computerization of marketing in the coming century is a good or a bad thing, I’d like to ask the designers of the automated consumption engine not to forget one potentially very important feature: a way to turn it off.