[Review] The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge

The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge by Doc Searls
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was really excited to read The Intention Economy because it is one of the first efforts I’ve seen to extend popular privacy concerns into the realm of the economics of personal data and user empowerment. I’ve been pursuing these ideas in talking about the nature of our transactional relationships with internet services and companies by “paying with our data,” and we’ve seen early signs of this in the World Economic Forum’s discussion of personal data as a new asset class.

Searls’s strongest explanation comes in describing the underlying problem in the existing internet economy that gives data use power to companies: it’s all based on those boilerplate, impossible-to-parse terms of service that operate as “contracts of adhesion.” Contracts of adhesion is an old idea, introduced by Friedrich Kessler to describe the heavily biased positioning of bargaining power with the company. These contracts exist to allow for mass production and consumption at scale, but they get in the way of principles of “freedom of contract”. So how do we put users on a more level [contractual] playing field with companies?

Searls proposes that control over the terms of data use need to lie with the user, and that fourth party data brokers (also called data lockers) could negotiate and manage our terms and our data on our behalf to share with the services that need access to our data. Terms might include things like “If we cease our relationship, you can keep my data but not associate any PII with that data.” While customer relationship management (CRM) platforms have been around for more than ten years to help companies manage interactions with and data about customers, Searls suggests that we’ve been missing the mirrored pair on the customer side of the relationship, which he’s deemed vendor relationship management (VRM).

While I’m excited about shifting the dynamic of predominant economic models as they relate to data, Searls’ book falls short in a couple of key ways:

  • It’s too optimistic. Searls doesn’t address or even acknowledge the of the limitations and challenges (most obviously, inertia) that would prevent The Intention Economy from realization. It’s too easy to punch holes.
  • Searls puts too much focus on and faith in the tools. He says, “We didn’t need a car, a copier, a radio, or a smartphone until we saw one and said to ourselves, ‘I need that.’…SO, THEN Customer liberation requires necessity-mothering inventions.” I tend to disagree. While developing tools to enable these markets is important, making customers aware of the problem, and making them aware of an alternative model, is a bigger challenge, first. One audience member in Searls’s book talk asked: “Customers are lazy. What’s going to make them want to do anything about this?” Sure, having tools that make this as easy and seemless as possible is going to make adoption go a lot more smoothly, but there won’t be a market if enough consumers don’t see this as a clear problem. The popular media’s coverage of privacy concerns over the last year has certainly raised the level of discourse, but it’s mostly been focused on fear mongering. We haven’t seen much in terms of alternative models for moving forward, and that’s what conscientious consumers should pick up from this book.
  • Searls doesn’t address the elephant in the room, which is: why should we trust fourth parties with our data anymore than we trust Facebook or Target? Might it just be the case that the fourth party managing our data for us will just end up being one of the companies that already has a lot of our data already? Will Facebook become our data broker, like it’s already our identity manager (given all the startups using Facebook for signup and login)? That possibility seems more likely to me, given the concentration of users already captured on these platforms. It’s harder to imagine one of the current data locker startups rising to the top to come between us and Facebook (unless of course they got bought by Facebook). But even for Facebook to become our data broker, the dominant economy of the internet will have to shift way from advertising to create something that looks a little like Searls’s Intention Economy. He doesn’t make this argument, though, since he’s so invested in those VRM startups.


Aside from this more glaring problems, Searls’s writing is full of awkward, imperfect metaphors like calf-cows relationships (“The World Wide Web has become a World Wide Ranch, where we serve as calves to Web sites’ cows, which feed us milk and cookies.”) and Chinese walls between advertisers and consumers (“If advertisers would peek over on our side of the Chinese wall, they would see two icebergs toward which TV’s Titanic is headed, and both promise less tolerance for advertising.”).

All that being said, The Intention Economy is bold, and it’s hard to cover all the bases when your arguments are so radical. But it’s also hard to convince others to rally around the cause if there are too many questions left unanswered.

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