This week’s Bowbrick at Large in The Guardian is about the broken dreams of the Internet advertising business. For about ten minutes back in what we’ll one day remember as the dawn of Internet time, the big advertisers – the pre-eminent engines of the ‘old’ economy – dreamt of perfect data. Their consultants and gurus had convinced them that the net’s potential was to build huge, detailed, cross-matched databases of the likes, dislikes, clicks and IDs of every customer and potential customer they’d ever encounter on the Internet.
Of course, in one way, they were dead right. That is precisely the potential of any suitably interconnected network of computers. In another – the important one – they were wholly wrong. They, like millions before them (and presumably millions after them), argued solely from the potential of the technology, totally ignoring its context. Actually doing business on the net – trying to build and deploy these databases in the real world – turned out to be a minefield littered with bear traps surrounded by quicksand. Impossible.
Every one of the projects to build big, integrated databases of personal information has either failed or been radically scaled back (Doubleclick, Engage…). Consumers, web site owners and investors rejected the collection and cross-matching of web site data outright. Billions of pounds of shareholder value have been destroyed, thousands of jobs lost. The Total Information Internet was a washout.