Friday, March 22, 2013

Don't Geo-Fence Me In

"Meme," I just learned, is only a fashionable synonym for "idea" and the various ways by which an idea is shared. For the longest time I thought it a bit of intellectual jargon meant to remind me of how out of touch I am. Was it descended from Greek mythology or a Stanley Kubrick script? Now I realize that today's technocrats dreamed up "meme" to give the impression that they've created something new and special, like the mystifying knock on the door to let you into a cult secretive and controlling.

You've got to watch those technocrats. I'm sure they are onto something when it comes to "social media" and other ways of exploiting the Internet to reach this or that goal, but I sure wish they'd come up with a lexicon that was more transparent than complicating. Nevertheless, I rather like the latest high-tech term to come my way: "geo-fence." Who couldn't love "geo-fence"? It's at once cutting-edge yet old-fashioned. It's much friendlier than would have been "geo-wall," with its suggestion of hard-time. A fence is easier to knock down, and often you can see through one. Barbs can snag you, but at least they don't much interfere with the view.

Like a lot of other people over the past couple of days - to judge by online chatter - I first came across "geo-fence" in a gushing post at the website of the business magazine Forbes, whose reports usually are balanced and reliable. In this instance, however, the post comes off more as a press release, telling without challenge how the wine-trade think tank VinTank is building a virtual "geo-fence" around Napa County to help wineries persuade consumers to buy their wines.

VinTank, says the piece, has been accumulating data on individual wine preferences by tracking photos on Instagram, check-ins on Foursquare, comments on various social-media sites and so forth. This lode of material is impressive: "By February 2013, they had records on 13.5 million people who had expressed their wine tastes in social networks," says the Forbes post. "They...know what wine clubs you've joined, what restaurants you have visited in Napa and where you bought a case the last time you visited. They know what tasting rooms you visited and what you posted about each of them," it adds. You get the impression that not only hot-air balloons and gliders are floating above Napa Valley but also the spying drones of VinTank.

The gist, as I understand it, is that all this material will be mined to help client wineries identity their most promising customers, then target those customers with come-ons tailored to appeal to their tastes as measured by past behavior, in particular when that behavior involved spending money. Thus the term "geo-fence," which any cowboy can recognize as the oldtime custom of tracking, corraling, roping and branding.

This approach to marketing is progressive and exciting, but the post doesn't explore its downside. Is the phrase "invasion of privacy" at all in the lexicon of the technocrats? What happens to this model when people start shutting down access to personal data? What of a winery who has built its business model on direct-to-consumer sales via its wine club? What happens when club members who'd rather their membership be kept private suddenly learn that their information is being used to help other wineries exploit their tastes? And why would wineries want to share their rolls of club members with the competition? Is the wine enthusiast driving up Highway 29, grateful for being out of the office, enjoying the scenery and the quiet, going to be pleased or irritated by an email alert informing him that just up the next bend is a winery with a cabernet sauvignon stylistically comparable with the one he bought by the case the last time he was in Napa Valley?

"Marc Andreessen, one of Silicon Valley's most respected thinkers and investors," says the post, "predicts merchants will understand who you are and what you want by the time you arrive. 'Today, this may feel a little bizarre, but 20 years from now it will be bizarre if you walk into a store and the store doesn't know who you are.'" That could happen, all right, especially if a backlash develops that reduces a store's clientele to so few people it has no problem remembering customers. In that case, well, there's an opportunity for another meme.

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