Planned stupidity or organized chaos?

Every Internet user survey I have seen says that the thing users worry about most on the Net is not losing their credit card number, but losing their privacy. This concern among users is not a secret. So why do we keep seeing announcements of yet another company going out of its way to make sure Internet users continue to worry about this?

I used to think that traffic engineers, at least the ones who dealt with traffic patterns around highway construction, were an extraordinarily stupid and callous lot. How else could one explain behaviour patterns that seemed to defy all logic? Just how much deep thought should it take to realize that painting a median strip guard rail during morning rush hour is likely to make about a bizillion drivers late for work?

But I’ve recently changed my mind and am starting to develop a grudging admiration for these people. I have had an epiphany. These people are too good at bad planning for it to be accidental. They must have had training.

There must be classes in traffic disruption in traffic engineering schools. I can think of no other explanation that fits the empirical evidence. I will admit that I’ve run across a few cases where the planning engineer must have barely squeaked through traffic disruption class. Traffic flowed too well through the construction site. But more often I’ve experienced situations in which the engineer must have taken an advanced degree in the topic – like two years ago in California where there was a two-mile, two-lane blockage for a 50-foot-long, 4-foot-wide construction site.

There is still a lot of highway construction going on, but I think that some of these highly trained engineers have started to branch out and take consulting jobs at companies such as DoubleClick Inc.

How else can one explain that company’s recent activities? First DoubleClick promises that it will protect your privacy and never link surfing activity to individual identification such as e-mail addresses. Then the company turns around and does exactly what it said it wouldn’t do. This gets DoubleClick written up in newspapers around the world as the epitome of a privacy invader. One would think that DoubleClick’s privacy statement, which is easy to get to from the firm’s Web page (, would mitigate users’ fears. But the statement is 1,657 words long – 3.5 times as long as this column. It takes a lot of words to be as unclear and condescending as that statement.

According to a press release, DoubleClick has now “launched a major advertising campaign to further educate consumers on their privacy choices” and has created a “new executive-level position of chief privacy officer.”

A career opportunity for a traffic engineer with an advanced degree?

Disclaimer: I’ve not been able to find the above courses in the Harvard catalogue, but I’m sure the university would do a good job if it offered such courses. Until then, the above deduction is my own.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at [email protected].

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at [email protected].

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