In a February 2003 Harris poll, 69 percent of those surveyed agreed that “consumers have lost all control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.” That view was summed up with cynical certitude by Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy. “You have zero privacy anyway,” he said a few years ago. “Get over it.”
What McNealy didn’t mention, and polls and politicians don’t recognize, is the unsung benefits that have accompanied the databasification of American society. More precisely, they’re unacknowledged or invisible benefits. 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 quickly.
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. The ability to identify customers who are not likely to pay their bills lets stores offer better deals to those people who will. In films like The Net and Changing Lanes, Hollywood tells us that databases can be very dangerous. The truth is more complex. Being a citizen of a database nation, it turns out, can be very good for you.