Secret identity

Am I crazy, or did someone add a hyphen to Spider-Man?

I instant-messaged InfoWorld Editor At Large EdScannell that question and got a quick reply: "Yes,you are crazy -- but, yes, the hyphen is new. Goodfilm, though." I knew it! After all, there's no hyphenin Superman. Or is there? Will Super-Man suddenlystart to look acceptable?

[Just in from the copy desk: Spider-Man has always beenhyphenated.]History may be being rewritten before our very eyes, asdigital technology renders the comic book dreams ofour youth in hyper-realistic stadium-seatingresolution. From the moment Stanley Kubrickart-directed the look and feel of the space program in2001: A Space Odyssey, reality has been trying tocatch up to science fiction.

It's easy to make fun of people who remain convincedthat the Apollo moon program was actually shot on asoundstage, with the funding used to finance thesecret war in Cambodia. But a new IMAX film of theconstruction of the space station is deemed boring byfilm critics because it doesn't look as "real" as thenew Star Wars trailer.

Google reminds me that it was Gil Scott-Heron who said,"The revolution will not be televised." He was right:

It will be digitized. The civil rights struggles ofthe '60s are morphing into the digital rights wars oftoday. The battle is being waged on at least twofronts-by the Recording Industry Association ofAmerica (RIAA)/Hollywood studio content owners, and byits customers, aka you and me.

The common theme is identity. The record and filmcompanies want to bake identity into digital copyingdevices -- not just TiVos but all computing formfactors. Look at a recent case in Los Angeles pittingAOL Time Warner, Walt Disney, and Viacom againstSonicblue, makers of the ReplayTV 4000 personal videorecorder. Federal Magistrate Charles F. Eick's orderto monitor all Replay usage patterns is aimed not justat what commercials are skipped but, more subtly, whatusers don't skip. In effect, the court is suggesting anew business model, the real-time slicing and dicingof digital profiles.

Wasn't it Eisenhower who warned us about this? Maybe heshould have said, "Beware of the Business IntelligenceComplex." It was just a few days ago that HomelandSecurity Chief Tom Ridge suggested frequent flyerswould gladly submit to background checks in return fora national identity card to speed their way throughairport security. In effect, Ridge is suggesting thatusers sell their identity for convenience's sake --and my bet is he'll find plenty of takers.

As users grow more accustomed to bartering theiridentity, they will grow more sophisticated as well.

Different versions of their profiles will targetdifferent product sectors. Already, those supermarketdiscount badges dangling from your key chain segmentyour provisions purchasing from your video rentaldiscounts. As do coupon vendors, aggregators willtarget affinity groups to trade profile data acrossproduct lines.

These aggregators/agents will turn around and resellthese identities to content owners, flipping theadvertising model on its head. Instead of mediacompanies expensively broadcasting to a wide audienceto reach the desired audience, they will nownarrowcast encrypted peer-to-peer content to profiledregistered "subscribers."

Of course, danger lurks everywhere in the dark shadowsof the New Media. Today I gladly trade Google parts ofmy identity -- interests, questions about products,searches for ideas, relationship networking -- inreturn for speedy, intelligent-enough responses.

Google has built a relationship of trust with itsaudience, reining in its advertising model,celebrating its hacker roots, and basking in theSilicon Valley reputation of CEO Dr. Eric Schmidt.

But as Google-like technology becomes embedded inrebranded Web sites, we're forced to transfer ourtrust to less clearly defined agendas. Suddenly ourprofiles can be traded like baseball cards, as ourknowledge of the vendor's identity is concealed bylayers of Web services. Remember, it's not whatcommercials you watch that counts in this new businessmodel -- it's what you don't watch that filters youout of desirable target groups.

In a world where identity is the coin of the realm, itwill pay to have your digital representatives capturethe right channels in order to become part of thefrequent viewers club. And we'll continue to clonepublic identities, as with the Hotmail addressescreated to siphon off spam mail. It's not identitytheft we will worry about -- it's identity bloat.

Secret identities have always attracted a hugeaudience. Everybody does it. Bill Gates invented onenew identity with the intriguing title of chiefsoftware architect. As chairman, Gates has to testifyin court, do interviews in Parade Magazine, and managehis only direct report, Steve Ballmer. But as chiefsoftware architect, he can organize, strategize, andpublicize his vision of the Road Ahead.

But my Spidey sense tells me that Gates has thoughtthis identity thing through. As a superhero, Billneeds to work harder to create a bond of trust withus. He needs to flesh out the role of chief softwarearchitect with some dialogue we can sink our teethinto. Enough of the lawyering -- he's proven he can dothat too. Now it's time for the X-ray vision --straight talk about where we're going and how we cando it ethically with protection for both the identityof creators and consumers.

Meanwhile, I hope they don't give away Spider-Man'ssecret identity in the movie. As far as I can rememberfrom the comic book, he's originally a nerd who getsbitten by a bug, and wakes up the next day with theability to spin giant Webs. Hmm. Wait a minute. Whatwas that I heard about XML Web services? Nah, couldn'tbe.

Steve Gillmor is director of the InfoWorld Test Center.

You can reach him at

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