The Post-Information Age13

Beyond Demographics

The transition from an industrial age to a post-industrial or information age has been discussed so much and for so long that we may not have noticed that we are passing into a post-information age. The industrial age, very much an age of atoms, gave us the concept of mass production, with the economies that come from manufacturing with uniform and repetitious methods in any one given space and time. The information age, the age of computers, showed us the same economies of scale, but with less regard for space and time. The manufacturing of bits could happen anywhere, at any time, and, for example, move among the stock markets of New York, London, and Tokyo as if they were three adjacent machine tools.

In the information age, mass media got bigger and smaller at the same time. New forms of broadcast like CNN and USA Today reached larger audiences and made broadcast broader. Niche magazines, videocassette sales, and cable services were examples of narrowcasting, catering to small demographic groups. Mass media got bigger and smaller at the same time.

In the post-information age, we often have an audience the size of one. Everything is made to order, and information is extremely personalized. A widely held assumption is that individualization is the extrapolation of narrowcasting--you go from a large to a small to a smaller group, ultimately to the individual. By the time you have my address, my marital status, my age, my income, my car brand, my purchases, my drinking habits, and my taxes, you have me--a demographic unit of one.

This line of reasoning completely misses the fundamental difference between narrowcasting and being digital. In being digital I am me, not a statistical subset. Me includes information and events that have no demographic or statistical meaning. Where my mother-in-law lives, whom I had dinner with last night, and what time my flight departs for Richmond this afternoon have absolutely no correlation or statistical basis from which to derive suitable narrowcast services.

But that unique information about me determines news services I might want to receive about a small obscure town, a not so famous person, and (for today) the anticipated weather conditions in Virginia. Classic demographics do not scale down to the digital individual. Thinking of the post-information age as infinitesimal demographics or ultrafocused narrowcasting is about as personalized as Burger King's "Have It Your Way."

True personalization is now upon us. It's not just a matter of selecting relish over mustard once. The post-information age is about acquaintance over time: machines' understanding individuals with the same degree of subtlety (or more than) we can expect from other human beings, including idiosyncrasies (like always wearing a blue-striped shirt) and totally random events, good and bad, in the unfolding narrative of our lives.

For example, having heard from the liquor store's agent, a machine could call to your attention a sale on a particular Chardonnay or beer that it knows the guests you have coming to dinner tomorrow night liked last time. It could remind you to drop the car off at a garage near where you are going, because the car told it that it needs new tires. It could clip a review of a new restaurant because you are going to that city in ten days, and in the past you seemed to agree with that reviewer. All of these are based on a model of you as an individual, not as part of a group who might buy a certain brand of soapsuds or toothpaste.

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