The Personal Internet needs to keep its professional distance

otellini-paul-intel-120.jpgNo offence to Paul Otellini, but I’m not sure I want what he calls the Personal Internet.

The president and CEO of Intel this week used his keynote speech at CES to predict a massive change in the entertainment industry now that online technologies are starting to be mature. “The personal Internet of tomorrow will serve you, delivering the information you want, when you want it, how you want, wherever you are,” he told the crowd. “We’re seeing an evolution to a more natural interface . . . We need to move from searching for information to a world where information finds you proactively.”

Do we, Paul? Didn’t TiVo teach you anything?

I’ll admit I used to dream a similar dream. A couple of years, ago, for example, I wrote a column in which I imagined information management systems that transcended pre-defined user preferences. “The next big thing, in my mind, is artificially intelligent software that develops a TiVo-like ability to understand our needs,” I wrote then. “I’m not just talking about the kind of content we require, but applications which would proactively scout the patches, the upgrades or the middleware to keep us as secure and connected as possible.”

That’s a good deal more business-specific than what Otellini was talking about, but let’s just stick with the notion of a TiVoNet for that searched for information to please us. One of the big problems with TiVo, at least in its early days, was a tendency to jump to the wrong conclusion about the type of content users preferred. In 2002, the Wall Street Journal examined this phenomenon in a piece called “If your TiVo thinks you’re gay,” which showed the system’s obsession with homosexuality, violence and other themes that didn’t always apply.

Otellini’s Personal Internet could (and likely will) cause similar problems for users, but with potentially worse results. To talk about a Personal Internet of the Future is to suggest we are dealing with an impersonal Internet today. The amount of cookies, monitoring and other tools to track user habits reminds us that this isn’t the case. We also know that even in companies with strict policies, personal surfing happens. How do we separate the personal surfing habits from the business-related information searching that happens on the same client? This is the gotcha that futurists like Otellini aren’t prepared to address.

The real long term trend might be more of a Roles-based Internet, something that doesn’t sound very sexy but tackles the difficult challenges around personal and professional identities we assume depending on whether we’re working or playing. To an artificially intelligent Internet, it might seem like we all have split personalities, and that’s because we do. It’s possible that browsers might one day operate in modes – a leisure mode where we find the latest entertainment content, and a business mode where strategic information gets fed our way.

The Personal Internet is a great idea as long as you allow a comfortable pace for its evolution. Human beings take a lifetime to really get to know each other, and sometimes even that’s not enough. Forgive the next-generation Internet in advance if it turns out to be a slow learner.

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