Figuring out how to charm the Internet snake

A 25-year-old woman retires with millions after two years at a Web-based start-up. That’s the potential waiting for those who can predict where that wiggly snake called the Internet will slither or strike next.

Hindsight is great. In a book called Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors, Mark Stefik, principal scientist at Xerox PARC, outlines stages of the Internet, each with its own killer app. We’ve had “the Internet as communication medium,” with e-mail being the big thing. Then there was “the Internet as digital library” with on-line databases. We had a stage of “Internet as carrier of experience” with cute virtual worlds and highly interactive Web pages. Of course, now interest is focused on “the Internet as marketplace,” with the whole e-commerce bandwagon.

But what’s next? One of the most nimble thinkers on this subject is Dave Marvit, consultant on Internet strategy to Fujitsu Labs America. Working in California and Japan, he sees the latest digital opportunities, and their problems. He feels the next stage will be “the Internet as host for identity.” Some piece of each of us will be digitized and live on the Internet, and this will open up exciting new applications.

“For example,” Marvit said, “right now speech recognition technology is not great, but it’s pretty good. The biggest drawback is you have to spend a lot of time training the software to recognize your voice. Imagine having your speech model up on the ‘Net as part of your on-line identity. Then you could go to any device, identify yourself and just talk to it. This means that you can speech-enable applications that you would never bother to speech-enable before. Who’s going to bother to train a toaster? But if your identity can be shared and passed around on-line, you’re golden.”

In the e-commerce arena, “identity objects,” as these things are coming to be called, could take the drudgery out of shopping for plane tickets, computers, hotels, etc. You might inform the objects of your preferences and they would go out in the on-line world of cybersales and auctions and get you the best deals. This could update Nicholas Negroponte’s view of intelligent agents, which were kind of robotic butlers that did specific tasks for you.

As Marvit put it, “I think a more modern view of agents is that they’re mini-yous – little pieces of your identity that go out and act on your behalf. So, for example, your identity object might book your air tickets, knowing things like your frequent flier number, airline preferences, maybe even the fact that you don’t like to get up early in the morning, so it doesn’t book you on an early flight. Then it might also watch your schedule and, if you made some changes, make sure that they were consistent with your travel arrangements. It could also coordinate schedules with your boss to make sure that your plans are in sync.”

When you think about it, we’re already moving down the road to having the Internet host parts of our identity. On-line messaging programs tell people when we’re logged in and available to chat. Buddy lists define our pals in cyberspace and certainly say something about us. And of course, every time you sign up for some sort of “free” Internet service, you’re asked to give out some personal and/or demographic information. Want a free e-mail account? Tell us a little about yourself. Want to enter a contest? We’ll need your e-mail address.

Little by little, we have all been constructing on-line personas. But wait a minute — where does the concept of privacy fit in here? If others can access things from our speech patterns to our buying habits, will there be any personal privacy at all?

Marvit and others who have thought about this believe that privacy is possible in an on-line world. For one thing, there’s no law that says you have to have just one on-line identity. Lots of folks have multiple e-mail accounts with different nicknames, so you might well have more than one on-line image.

“People will definitely have multiple identities,” Marvit said, “or at least multiple faces to their real or central identity. Once the system is on-line it could present as many faces with as much anonymity as the user wants. And frankly that doesn’t really oppose the vision of the marketers. They might say, ‘I don’t really care who you are, all I want to know is that you buy this kind of product and are of this demographic.'”

So for example, your air ticketing agent doesn’t really need (or want to) know about your book buying habits, no matter how esoteric they are.

Although Canada is sometimes criticized for lagging behind in Internet ideas, there’s good evidence that we are grasping this idea of melding your identity with the Internet. Michael Furdyk, the Toronto teenager who gained fame for selling his Internet start-up ( to U.S.-based has now launched a new Web-based service ( to help surfers get the best deal on hardware and software. Among other features, it allows you to enter things you’d like to buy and what you’re willing to pay for them. When the price hits your level, you get an e-mail.

That’s certainly on the way to the dream of having a “work while you sleep” on-line agent that embodies your buying behaviour — be it stingy or spendthrift. certainly isn’t the only fish in this pond, but they have as good a chance as anybody right now to change our buying habits. And, to borrow the slogan the Canadian cable industry used when it rolled out high speed Internet service, “Tomorrow is going to be amazing!”

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Computer Science in Calgary and at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok.