ROOT (which just got $1m in funding from a futures exchange in Chicago) is “a commodities exchange for Internet-generated consumer leads”. Which means? root.net is a service that lets users store their clickstream activity (or “Attention Data“) so they can then choose who to sell it to.
The entire thing is couched in this language of user empowerment! and ownership!; but it still makes the assumption that everything is going to be tracked anyway, so you may as well be able to sell it yourself. Which, again, makes the assumption that selling data is a good thing.
Clearly, I agree with the general premise that users should have control over their own data; however, the entire idea of the “clickstream” gives me the wig. AttentionTrust has a Firefox plugin which sets up a clickstream and saves all that data to an XML file that you can save on your own machine or on a server (such as ROOT’s), and the idea of an attention data futures market is just bizarre.
Offering our attention data in a futures market would look like this. Companies would pay now for access later to attention data from people who intend to buy a compact car in California, or who are outdoor recreation enthusiasts with a certain income level. What have those people been doing online as they prepare to make a purchase? The idea is that users will selectively expose that data about themselves in exchange for some benefit to themselves: advertising targeting our intentions instead of sent scattershot at us, compensation for our data or discounts.
I generally try to be realistic about social critique: it’s not useful, for example, to provide a Marxist critique of something with the solution being “socialist revolution now!” and I don’t think that critiquing this idea with the solution “don’t track any data!” is particularly realistic.
However, the alternative, assume that data tracking of everything is inevitable and there’s nothing we can do about it, is very depressing, and I don’t believe it. I do believe that ethical or limited data collection is possible, I think it’s actually likely, and I think there are enough people working on it that a clickstream-for-all sold to the highest bidder future is not at all inevitable. Let’s not rush to usher it in before we’ve really considerered the ramifications.