How tools for customers have more leverage than tools for business alone

The Internet was designed to make an Archimedes of everyone. Now let’s make good on that promise.

Archimedes said “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I can move the world.”

Alas, Archimedes didn’t have that place. Now all of us do. It’s called the Internet.

Before the Internet, the best way to improve business was with better tools and services for businesses, or with new businesses to disrupt or compete with existing ones.

With the Internet, we can improve customers. In fact, that’s where we started when the Internet showed up in its current form, on 30 April 1995. (That’s when the Net could start supporting all forms of data traffic, including the commercial kind.) The three biggest tools giving customers leverage back then (and still today) were browsers, email and the ability to do anything any company could, starting with publishing.

But then we did what came most easily to business back in the Industrial Age: create new businesses and improve old ones. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Just something inadequate.

Worse, we created giant businesses that only gave customers leverage inside their walled gardens. By now we’ve lived so long inside Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (called GAFA in Europe) that we can hardly think outside their boxes.

But if we do, we can see again what the promise of the Net was in the first place: Archimedes-grade power for everybody. And there are a lot more customers than companies in that population.

This is why a bunch of us have been working, through ProjectVRM, on tools that make customers both independent and better able to engage with business. Our developers list is constantly changing, but currently we list these categories of software and services:

That’s in addition to hardware, code bases, protocols, frameworks and other forms of work.

We’ve been at this for ten years, and we now have enough momentum (especially in Europe and Australia/New Zealand) to move on from our initial work, which we now call Phase One.

In Phase Two, we will focus sharply on making levers for the Archimedes in each of us: ways we can each move the business world. For example, here are two requests that came up just in the last few days:

  1. A single way any of us can view and control all the subscriptions in our lives. Maybe it’s an app. Maybe it’s a dashboard. What matters is that it’s a single lever that scales across every subscription we pay for. Every magazine, premium cable channel, public radio station, podcast, whatever. One tool that scales across all of them — rather than as many tools as there are services we pay, each provided by them rather than by us.
  2. A single way any of us can view and control relationships and data flows between ourselves and all of the utilities and service providers that serve our homes. With one of these, we can see and compare, for example, energy and water uses over time, and easily reach and relate to any and all of our service providers. This too might be a dashboard of some kind. (We already have on in the works for health data, in HIE of One.)

This is in addition to the commercial relationship manager we’ve wanted from the start: a tool that gives us one way to change our contact information (e.g. last name or address) for every entity we deal with, in one move. Many PIMS (Personal Information Management Systems, aka personal clouds, vaults and lockers) are already in the world. Some of them even promise to do that. It should help that there is now JLINC, a protocol for it.

These kinds of levers give each of us scale:

They also give businesses much better signaling of customer intent, much better data, many fewer errors (and better error correction), and much less exposure of personal data held exclusively and without the express permission of individuals. (Think of those data piles as toxic assets).

But we’ll get that scale a lot faster if the investment world finally discovers and recognizes how much more value will come from independent and engaging customers than from captive and dependent ones.

Maybe it will help to recognize that the great edifice of guesswork “adtech” has become is about to get burned down by regulation anyway.

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

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