column for October 1994 issue of Internet World.

Human Touch

By Christopher Locke

...that feeling of safety you prize
well it comes with a hard hard price
You can't shut off the risk and the pain
without losing the love that remains.
We're all riders on this train...

- Bruce Springsteen
Let's make this a multimedia column. If you have the Springsteen cut corresponding to the title above, while you read this, crank it loud enough to bring the cops. Go to jail. Do not collect $200. Get a life.

I don't know about you, but I got into networking because it was fascinating and often dangerous fun to connect with other heads out there. Nothing was predigested, sanitized, filtered, packaged, cut and dried. Instead, the net reflected the raw curiosity and passion (a less embarrassing word for love?) of real people exploring new ways to connect and turn crazy ideas into powerful agendas for long overdue revolutions. Now that the Internet is becoming a growth industry, will all that be lost? Will genuine exuberance and unreasonable joy be replaced by the hackneyed and near-hysterical corporate call for increased productivity? If so, I'm going back to smoke signals.

No, I haven't lost my mind (entirely), and yes, this column is still devoted to doing business on the Internet. In fact, it seems to me that the rush to turn the Internet into something more closely resembling the familiar corporate landscape represents a massive misreading of the present opportunity -- a prime business issue in itself.

I recently travelled to San Antonio to speak about the Internet at a Gartner Group conference. On the way in from the airport I saw a state highway sign that read simply: "Don't Mess With Texas." Floored, I asked my cabbie what in tarnation that was supposed to mean -- old memories of embittered states' rights battles flashing immediately to mind. "Oh," she replied, "that's our anti-littering campaign." Absolute brilliance! Some ad agency ought to get an award. An overtly tree-hugger pitch would be used for target practice down here, I thought. But the complex connotations of this slogan probably have Billy Joe Bob et al tossing those empties into the back of the 4X4 and not along the Interstate. The shared environment ends up benefiting from an unreconstructed attitude of don't-tread-on-me individualism. I came away with a new respect for the Lone Star State.

But what does this have to do with the conference, you may ask. Unfortunately, quite a lot. From what I heard from the Gartner Group, I'd say we need some similarly powerful way to leverage business self interest to prevent it from improving the net to death. (How's Springsteen doing? If none of your windows have broken yet, you probably need more bass.)

Don't Mess With Internet

The Gartner Group take on the net is, basically, that it will be unlikely to play a major role in electronic commerce. The reason? Lack of dependable encryption and buyer/seller authentication. Now this is a curious view for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that it's a straw-man objection. I've never heard anyone on the Internet seriously suggest that monetary transactions be conducted in the absence of these capabilities. Everyone knows they are critical. Almost everyone seems to know they're on the way -- from groups such as Enterprise Integration Technologies and CommerceNet, for instance.

But far more interesting is the view of "commerce" this view implies. It says, in effect, that relationships with people outside your company aren't interesting until money is changing hands. This is a demeaning view of prospective clients -- consume or don't bother us -- and a near suicidal market strategy for companies to adopt. In fact, it's no strategy at all. If commerce begins with taking orders, what happened to marketing? The notion that the Big Win online is merely to process monetary transactions -- the more the merrier -- is a dangerously DP/MIS perspective. And a seriously intelligence-challenged one to boot.

We ain't talking Cubic Zirconiums here. We ain't talking Home Shopping where you hire a couple witty models to dangle the merchandise on screen and watch the bucks roll in. Get real. The Internet community is probably the most intelligent, educated, articulate -- and skeptical -- ever "assembled." It is going to give you a piece of its collective mind before it coughs up any Visa cards. Count on it. If you're doing business solely on a so-called Value Added Network (VAN), you're not likely to get any orders from this crowd. How would we even know you're there? And why should we care about what you're hawking this week?

If that seems overly harsh, so is a view of commerce that reduces the role of the customer to submissively forking over the cash. Companies dumb enough to entertain such arrogant dreams are in for a fall. Why, do they suppose, are so many people signing up on the Internet in the first place? It sure isn't so we can be better targeted and packaged by slick marketeers. (Hey, package this!) It's more likely because we're sick to death of the stultifying effects of mass production, mass media, mass marketing, mass everything. If your company doesn't get this -- and understand it deeply -- then Don't Mess With Internet. Because it'll mess with you worse!

Automate Those Needlessly Complex Chapter 11 Filings!

Not to let Gartner Group off the hot seat too quickly, let's look at their view of e-mail. Too be fair, this perspective is widely held in many circles, not just by GG. It goes something like this: e-mail is fine for informal, interpersonal use, but to be really effective, it needs to be "intelligent." After the revolution -- nobody is saying quite how this'll happen -- we won't need people in the loop at all. Smart e-mail will process itself! If you believe that one, I've got a supercool bridge in Brooklyn I'd be willing to cut you in on...

The only real problem with technology is that it tends to be developed by technologists. And this kind of thinking is one of the primary proofs of the downside. Automation is Good, therefore More Automation is Better. Go ask General Motors about this. The company spent something like $65 billion on advanced automation in the '80s -- and watched both product quality and market share steadily erode. The simple answer is, as the Boss says, get a little of that human touch. In fact, get a lot of it. And while you're at it, get a serious grip on the fact that your bottom line depends far more on the good will of real human beings than on how fast you can process faceless EDI transactions.

Businesses need more intelligent people working Internet interfaces to fully appreciate and act on the nuances of what their prospective markets are attempting to communicate. Stashing such communications into some automated database, never to be seen by human eyes, is certainly the height of folly. This reflects a mentality that thinks the Internet would be just great as long as you didn't have to talk to all those people! My gut reaction: stand by your VAN -- and stay off the net.

The Internet not an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it is a harbinger of a fundamental seismic shift in market realities. If you really want to understand what's up with the Internet, try reading The Tom Peters Seminar, subtitled "Crazy Times Call For Crazy Organizations." It doesn't talk much about the net per se, but it sure captures much of the spirit that's moving there. Here's a sample:

Pushing the needle all the way over, unabashedly championing revolution, and getting the company anarchists to the barricades means doing something. Taking action.
It's pretty clear Peters is talking about people here, not some technoid fantasy of "intelligent agents." Remember the old human/computer interface? First it got truncated to computer interface. Now we just talk about interfaces as if the human element had been entirely forgotten. And in many cases it has been. Big Mistake. While the corporate penchant for forgetfulness is understandable, having an excuse won't do much good. It's sometimes called denial. A Usenet post giving six cogent reasons why your product sucks is not much fun to read. But dig it, that post is going to be there whether you're reading it or not. And it's going to be read by a fast growing chunk of the market you hope to win. Think twice and thrice before you automate the e-mail this sort of thing will generate.

Automation is seductive to companies long addicted to control. But the net is beyond your control, and so, fundamentally, are global markets. You want to protect your data? Fine. You want to conduct secure transactions? But of course! These are objectives companies should obviously pursue. But security with a Big S? Show me where that exists anywhere in business today. As our title cut puts it:

In the end what you don't surrender
well the world just strips away...
If you're less than comfortable taking advice from a rocker, try the first chapter of The Tom Peters Seminar, "Toward the Abandonment of Everything" -- an interesting echo of the Springsteen line. So, hey, take a deep breath and let go. Fast-buck artists and corporate control freaks will be terrified by such a notion. They should definitely go throw their beer cans elsewhere. On the other hand, if nothing I've written here has terminally spooked you, you'll probably do very well on the Internet. See you on those barricades!