Government of Prince Edward Island

In September of 1994, we began working with the Prince Edward Island Department Development to construct a website to showcase the information and activities of the Province. We have continued to work closely with the Province of PEI ever since, and the site has expanded from its initial focus on visitor-related information to an award-winning, comprehensive resource for visitors and citizens alike. We are responsible for the design of the site, and coordinate all of the programming and content development activities.

Yankee Publishing’s

We’ve been working with the design and editorial staff and Yankee Publishing in Dublin, New Hampshire for the past several years on this comprehensive guide to all things New England. Our first project involved the development of a search engine for lodging, restaurants and other activites. Since that beginning, we helped Yankee add features like Yankee Magazine’s Community Partners and the online swops search.

Of bombs and porn and the ‘net

In the summer of 1996 I presented a series on CBC Radio’s Island Morning program, produced by Ann Thurlow, called Consumed by Technology. I’ve managed to recover the audio of the episodes, along with the “show notes” and transcripts, from The Internet Archive and I’m posting each episode here for posterity.

This final, seventh, episode of Consumed by Technology focused on access to the Internet by students in public schools; it aired on August 20, 1996. Wayne Collins was the host.

With the growth of the Internet as an educational tool, the question of how to control what information students have access to has become a controversial issue. There have been several stories in the news recently about students gaining access to pornography, bomb making instructions and other “questionable” materials. The reaction from educators has ranged from the introduction of electronic monitoring to the insistence that students and their parents sign waivers before students are let loose on the ‘net.

Show Notes


INTRO: With the growth of the Internet as an educational tool, the question of how to control what information students have access to has become a controversial issue. There have been several stories in the news recently about students gaining access to pornography, bomb making instructions and other “questionable” materials. The reaction from educators has ranged from the introduction of electronic monitoring to the insistence that students and their parents sign waivers before students are let loose on the ‘net.

To talk about this issue, Peter Rukavina joins me now for another in the series “Consumed by Technology.”

QUESTION: What is it about the Internet that makes controlling access to certain types of information so difficult?

ANSWER: We’ve talked a lot in this series about digital information — information that’s not that different in substance from any other sort of information, but for the fact that it is very easy to move from place to place using computers.

It’s very easy and very cheap to take any sort of information — pictures, maps, magazines, TV programs, whatever — convert it into digital information and then use computers to make as many copies as you like and to send these copies wherever in the world you like.

Compared with the old ways of moving information around — using printing presses and trucks or radio studios and transmitter towers — spreading digital information from place to place is almost effortless.

It’s precisely because moving digital information is so easy and so cheap that we’ve seen the explosive growth of the Internet over the past several years: the Internet provides, quite literally, an “information highway” which can provide people around the world with access to vast amounts of digital information.

One of the other interesting things about digital information is that it’s invisible when it’s moving around. In its most primitive state, digital information is just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s — electrical impulses really — moving up and down wires at the speed of light.

If you were able to somehow magically zoom in on a little piece of the Internet, what you would see would simply be a stream of digital information bits zipping along. These information bits, once assembled at the receiving end by a computer, could just as well be the complete works of William Shakespeare as they could be an episode of Compass or information about crop rotation. While they’re out there on the Internet, though, they’re just bits of a vast digital information soup.

When you hook up to the Internet, you immediately gain access to all of the public information that’s available on Internet computers around the world: it’s like you’re connecting a big pipe to the entire information soup.

And when you do this, you’re not only gaining access to things like the complete works of William Shakespeare, and information on when to plant begonias, you’re also gaining access to the latest issue of Playboy magazine, to discussion groups about bomb making, to a myriad of radical political views… whatever information is out there on the Internet — and that probably includes any sort of information you can imagine and much you cannot — whatever information is out there is accessible to anyone who’s connected to the Internet.

QUESTION: And this is true whether we’re talking about my computer at home or the computers at my child’s school?

ANSWER: When you’re plugged into the Internet, you’re plugged into the Internet. It’s the same information soup no matter where and who you are.

And that’s precisely why we’ve seen some controversy in the past year as schools have become connected to the Internet and students have started to be able to browse around and see what’s available.

As you might imagine, they’re not always browsing around the lofty educational stuff.

QUESTION: Here on the Island and elsewhere, there’s been talk of installing special computer programs which will filter out objectionable material… does this sort of thing actually work?

ANSWER: It works… sort of.

There are three problems which arise when you try and filter digital information: first, the problem of deciding what to filter, second, the problem of how to filter it, and finally the problem of the students simply finding ways to work around the filters.

On the surface, the problem of deciding what to filter out appears pretty simple. If you were to put 5 or 10 average parents in a room and ask them to come up with a list of what they consider “objectionable” information, information that they don’t want their kids coming across, you’d probably have a pretty easy time of it… at least to begin.

I don’t thing there are many parents around who would want their kids having access to violent pictures, pornography, or information about how to make bombs, and you’d probably get pretty quick agreement on those.

But then what about pictures of the aftermath of Hiroshima: that’s a pretty gruesome — a pretty violent — sight, but it’s also a very powerful tool in teaching about war and peace… so maybe no violent pictures, except pictures of Hiroshima.

And then there’s information about sex. Pornography is out, but what’s pornography? Two people kissing? “How to” information about sex? What about information about birth control? Some people think that information about birth control is pornography.

What about this “bomb making information?” If you screen out everything with the word “bomb” in it, you’re going to leave out most of the history of World War II and a lot of the items in the news recently.

The issue of figuring out what’s “good information” and what’s “bad information” isn’t cut and dried; information isn’t black and white and while it might be possible to get people to agree in a very general way about what’s “good” and what’s “bad,” doing anything more is like trying to get agreement on anything controversial… next to impossible.

This sort of problem is no different than the classic problem of trying to figure out whether “Catcher in the Rye” should be in school libraries or not, except that the challenge is not about one book which you can pick up and read and argue about, it’s about trying to sort through an entire world of information, sometimes before it even exists, and coming up with very specific rules for what’s “in” and what’s “out”… for what’s “good” and what’s “bad” Information.

QUESTION: Assuming we could all, somehow, come to agreement over what information should be filtered out, how does the actual filtering process work?

ANSWER: Well remember that digital information is, essentially, invisible: when it’s moving around it’s just a generic soup of bits and bytes. The filtering programs that schools are looking at work by intercepting information in this raw state as it enters the computer.

A sort of “information robot” sits and watches for patterns in the incoming information. If it detects one of the patterns, it can take actions that range from shutting the computer down immediately, to denying access to that particular page or Internet site.

The patterns this robot is looking for are a pre-defined set of keywords that are associated with the kind of information that students are denied access to. In most cases, this set of keywords is something that can be added to or changed to suit the particular needs of the school or the age group in question.

So a student walks up to a computer, clicks on “Open” and types in an Internet address like “” and, because the word “playboy” is one of the keywords in the “watch list,” a warning pops up on the screen telling them that they’ve tried to access a banned Internet site.

The problem here is that it’s next to impossible to come up with a set of keywords that will both screen out anything objectionable and let good, useful information through. There are simply too many possible combinations of words and phrases and content to cover off everything, and inevitably in the process of trying to screen out “bad” information you end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater and screening some out “good” information too.

Perhaps the best example of this sort of thing happened last year when America Online, a large U.S. computer network added the word “breast” to a list of banned words for their electronic discussion groups. They view themselves as a “family” network and, in their well intentioned way, were just trying to “clean things up.” Unfortunately in the process, they ended up censoring an electronic discussion group for breast cancer survivors.

Just like trying to define what information is “good” and what information is “bad,” trying to come up with a comprehensive set of watch-words that will cover off all situations without making the Internet all but useless just isn’t possible.

Another problem that crops up when you try to filter digital information is that it’s next to impossible to filter out pictures based on their contents. You can filter out pictures based on what computer filename they’ve got — “porn.gif” or “dirtypicture.bmp” — but that’s about it. It’s almost impossible for a computer, at least with the technology we have today, to figure out what a picture is actually of. And so, again, even if you could figure out what sort of pictures you wanted to screen out, there’s no effective way of actually doing it.

QUESTION: You mentioned the problem of students finding ways to work around the filters… is that really a problem?

ANSWER: The natural inclination of any teenager when prevented from doing something — and I speak from considerable personal experience here — is to immediately find a way around whatever roadblocks have been placed in their way. Consider the fact that it is illegal for teens to buy beer and cigarettes and yet, somehow, many teens are able to get beer and cigarettes whenever they like.

The situation with Internet filters is no different: there’s always a way to work around the system and the very fact that the system is there at all is extra incentive to work harder at getting around it.

To test this out, I downloaded a program from the Internet called “Net Nanny” and installed it on my computer. It’s a pretty standard Internet content filtering program.

I set the program up on my computer, gave it a list of watch words and then took it out for a spin. Sure enough, whenever I did something “bad” by trying to go to an Internet site that contained any of the words I’d set up as watch words, I was prevented from doing so.

When I set out to work around Net Nanny, it took me about 45 seconds to erase all traces of the program from my computer and to again get unlimited access to the Internet. If I wanted to cover my tracks, I could have just set the Net Nanny program aside for a while and then, when I was done browsing, I could have put it back and no one would have been the wiser.

It didn’t take any great knowledge of computers for me to do this, and it would be well within the capabilities of any high school student with a bit of computer savvy to do exactly the same thing.

The reason this is so easy to do isn’t really because the filtering programs themselves aren’t bullet-proof enough, it’s just that computers are, by their very nature, malleable, flexible things that are designed to be easily modified. These filter programs are like deadbolt locks installed in a door with a balsa wood frame: they do what they’re supposed to do until you decide to just bust through the door and ignore them.

So again, to answer your original question — “do these filter programs actually work?” — my answer is that even if we can somehow agree on what we’re going to censor and figure out list of words that will do the task — and both of those tasks are next to impossible — we’re still left with an imperfect solution that can be easily worked around.

QUESTION: If we can’t use computers to filter out information, what other options do we have if we want to continue to give students access to the Internet, but only to certain parts?

ANSWER: To be honest, there really aren’t any technology solutions to this problem and I doubt that there ever will be.

The problem we’re really facing here is that we’ve relied for generations on our ability to simply physically prevent our children from coming across information we don’t want them seeing. Dirty magazines are on the top shelf in the local cigar store, public libraries simply don’t buy really controversial books, we don’t let our kids watch TV programs we don’t like, and so on. It’s been relatively easy to hold back the tide of “bad” information by placing that information out of reach.

And now we can’t do that anymore.

Short of unplugging the Internet and calling it a day, there isn’t going to be a technology solution that’s going to keep our kids from coming across all sorts of information we don’t want them seeing. Kids are going to see violence. They are going to see graphic sex. They are going to see things that, probably, you and I have never seen.

The solution to this problem isn’t going to be a technical one, it’s going to be an educational one. And it’s not going to be a universal, complete, blanket solution, it’s going to be a fuzzy, inexact, incomplete, evolving solution.

Because we’ve dealt with objectionable material for so long simply by physically preventing access to it, we’ve gotten lazy… we’ve not had to think that hard about why some material is objectionable to us and other material isn’t. And we haven’t, by and large, had to talk to our kids about this, at least not in a pressing, practical way.

We’re going to have to start.

If we admit to ourselves that our kids are inevitably going to come across materials which will shock them, make them afraid, turn them on, confuse them, and confound them, then rather than trying to pretend that some technological magic bullet is going to come along and screen our the bad bits for us, we can get on with the job of giving our kids the skills they need to deal with all of this information.

I don’t think we even know what those skills are. But we’re going to have to figure them out.

There are, unfortunately, no easy answers to this problem and I imagine we’ve only begun to see the beginning of the controversy.

We’re facing yet another one of those situations where technology, in solving problems for us — in giving us more access to more information — also introduces a host of new challenges we never imagined and never prepared for.

EXTRO: Peter Rukavina operates Digital Island in Kingston, PEI… he’ll be back next week with another in the series “Consumed by Technology.”

Bugs, glitches and other disasters

In the summer of 1996 I presented a series on CBC Radio’s Island Morning program, produced by Ann Thurlow, called Consumed by Technology. I’ve managed to recover the audio of the episodes, along with the “show notes” and transcripts, from The Internet Archive and I’m posting each episode here for posterity.

This sixth episode of Consumed by Technology focused on computer bugs; it aired on August 13, 1996. Karen Mair was the host.

Late one August night in 1945, U.S. Navy Captain Grace Hopper and her co-workers were hard at work in their computer lab at Harvard University. They were frustrated. Their project, a pioneering computer called the “Mark One” wasn’t working. And after trying everything they could think of, they still couldn’t figure out why. Finally, someone located the trouble spot: using ordinary tweezers, they extracted a two-inch moth from the computer’s insides, a moth that was causing the computer to short-circuit. And so was born the world’s first “computer bug”.


INTRO: Late one August night in 1945, U.S. Navy Captain Grace Hopper and her co-workers were hard at work in their computer lab at Harvard University. They were frustrated. Their project, a pioneering computer called the “Mark One” wasn’t working. And after trying everything they could think of, they still couldn’t figure out why.

Finally, someone located the trouble spot: using ordinary tweezers, they extracted a two-inch moth from the computer’s insides, a moth that was causing the computer to short-circuit.

And so was born the world’s first “computer bug”.

In another in the series “Consumed by Technology,” Peter Rukavina joins me now to talk about bugs, glitches and why you don’t always get what you pay for when you buy computer software.

QUESTION: That first “computer bug” wasn’t the last one, was it?

ANSWER: Not at all. Computer bugs or glitches or foul-ups or whatever you want to call them — Microsoft calls them “known issues” — they’ve been with us since we started using computers, and they’ll be with us for as long as we continue to use them.

QUESTION: Now it’s not actually two-inch moths that are causing these “bugs” anymore…

ANSWER: Well, you’d be surprised at what happens… there are probably still moths causing havoc out there somewhere. But “bug” has become a general term used to refer to anything that causes a computer program to break down and not do what it’s supposed to be doing.

On Sunday night, for example, I got a frantic call from my brother in Toronto. He had turned on his computer to look up a name in his electronic address book, only to find that all but the first four entries in it had somehow disappeared. He had no idea how this had happened, no idea how to get them back, and was afraid that he’d never be able to track down all of the 100 or so people he had on file.

He was but the most recent victim of the same thing that happened to Grace Hopper in 1945: a bug — in this case probably an error in the computer programming itself, not a moth or any other insect — had caused 96 of his addresses to be deleted, to just vanish into thin air.

This kind of thing probably sounds very familiar to a lot people listening.

It’s very rare that people who use computers at home or in their office haven’t had an essay disappear at the last minute, or their database get garbled beyond recognition, or had a strange message pop up while they’re working complaining of “General Protection Faults” or “Seek errors writing to Drive C”.

We almost take it for granted that, at some point, our computer is going to screw something up and we’re going to suffer for it. And we’re probably right.

QUESTION: Why do these bugs exist at all? Isn’t it possible for software companies to “stamp them all out?”

ANSWER: Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for that to happen.

Think of something simple: a shovel, for example. If you run a shovel making plant, you can make shovels and send them out to stores with a relatively high degree of certainty that you’ve produced a high quality product that’s going to dig dirt well for many years to come. The “quality control” checklist for shovels is pretty short: steel tempered correctly, handle on right, wood sanded well. Shovels are a pretty simple product to get right.

Software on the other hand is some of the most complex stuff around.

At its most basic, software is a long, long list of very, very simple instructions to a computer. Draw a line on the screen from here to there; put a letter “A” at the top of the red box; if the user presses the spacebar, print a space on screen. Absolutely everything that a computer program does has to be spelled out in intimate detail. And everything that we users could possibly do when using the program has to be taken into account — every key we could possibly press has to be recognised and acted on, things like saving files and erasing files and creating new files and changing old files, all has to be spelled out, simple instruction by simple instruction.

To have computer programs which do anything but the most simple of tasks requires literally thousands, and sometimes millions of lines of computer programming. And it’s very easy for a programmer to make a mistake in one of those lines… to put a comma in where a period was supposed to go, or to misspell “goto” as “growto”.

It’s also very difficult for a programmer to imagine every possibility that might crop up out there in the real world when people are using the program to do real things. It’s one thing to have a program work fine in the lab for computer programmers, quite another thing for it to work outside the lab with real everyday people.

QUESTION: It sounds like you’re speaking from personal experience here…?

ANSWER: You’re right. I’ve written a lot computer programs, and I’ve certainly been responsible for my share of bugs. It’s been my fault that books have been shipped to Timbuktu rather that Toronto, and that 20 kids showed up for canoe lessons when they were supposed to be learning macramé. Not nuclear meltdown stuff, but bugs nonetheless.

But I don’t want to make it sound as though having computer programs which break down is an inevitable fact of life, as though there’s nothing that can be done to make the situation better.

Imagine if you bought a new car and were driving along the highway and the engine fell out. You phone the dealer and they say, very off the cuff, “oh, that’s a known issue in the ‘96 models… if you return your car to the factory, we’ll install an upgrade for $2000.”

Most people I know wouldn’t stand for this sort of thing. And the car maker in question probably wouldn’t be around for very long.

But this is kind of thing that happens every day in the computer software industry. And anybody who’s ever tried to get their computer problems solves knows this very well.

Short of phoning me — which didn’t end up helping anyway — my brother’s only recourse in trying to figure out where all his addresses went would be to phone the place where he bought his computer; they would probably tell him to phone the software company; if he could find the software company, he’d probably end up waiting on hold for an hour before talking to someone who wouldn’t have the answer to his problem anyway. And so in the end, he’d be out half a day’s work and 96 addresses.

QUESTION: Have you got any advice for people who fall victim to computer bugs?

ANSWER: My best answer to that question is “don’t use computers.” And I’m only half joking.

But my first suggestion is not to blame yourself. It’s surprising how many people, when something goes wrong with their computer, think that it’s they who have done something wrong — pressed the wrong key or typed the wrong command or just did something wrong that caused the problems they’re having.

Nine times out of ten, this just isn’t true.

Quality control in the software industry is generally horrible. In many cases, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that consumers are the quality control people: version 1.0 of a product gets released, the bug reports roll in, version 2.0 gets released with those bugs fixed, more bug reports roll in, version 3.0 gets released. And so on.

It’s no coincidence that Microsoft Windows didn’t become widely used until version 3.1; versions 1 through 3 were simply unusable. Part of Microsoft’s rationale for changing the name of Windows 4.0 to Windows 95 was to avoid creating a situation where people would hold off for Windows 4.1 to get a reliable product.

In the same way that we don’t stand for cars with engines that fall out or lawnmowers with blades that going flinging off, we’re going to have to, as consumers, start demanding that quality control in the software industry simply gets better.

Now, unfortunately, this may be impossible. Software is getting so complex that adequate quality control — stamping out all of the bugs before the packages hit the shelves — is such a huge task, a task that would cost so much and take so long, that it wouldn’t be feasible; any company that tried it would fall behind in the marketplace.

Part of the solution to this problem is for consumers to demand simpler software. Look at program like WordPerfect, for example, a commonly used word processor. You can use WordPerfect to type essays and letters and reports, save them on a disk, print them out, make some changes, and so on. When you’re doing this, you’re using a very small proportion of WordPerfect’s capabilities. WordPerfect will also create an automatic table of contents, an automatic index, it will check your spelling and your grammar, let you merge addresses and form letters together. You can use it to mix pictures and graphics and tables and charts. The problem is that all of these “extras” require thousands of extra lines of computer programming, which increase the possibility that something is going to go wrong. This isn’t something unique to WordPerfect; it’s a problem that afflicts most computer software on the market today. The fact of the matter is, the more complex that software is, the more it’s going to break down.

If all you need is a simple computer program to type simple letters, then that’s all you need. And that’s all you should need to buy and use. It might not work perfectly, but the closer your program is to being a “shovel” of a computer program and the further it is from being, say, a “nuclear reactor,” of a computer program the better off you’ll be.

QUESTION: So consumers need to demand simpler software as well as more bug-free software.

ANSWER: Exactly.

Now that all said, the other thing you can do is to come to terms with the fact that things are probably never going to get any better. You will always lose important information to bugs. Your computer will always crash, eventually. You will always be frustrated by computer programs that don’t do what they’re supposed to do. Computer people will never learn to speak without the techno-babble.

You can do things to lessen the damage: save your work every 5 minutes, make backups of your disks every night and again every week, hire someone to translate what the computer people are saying. But that’s only making a bad situation slightly better. You’ll still be frustrated and bad things will still happen.

Once you’ve admitted this, though, you can look at the real costs of using computers to solve information problems and simply figure out whether it’s worth it or not.

There are a lot of everyday information tasks that have been “technologised” that worked quite well — much better, perhaps — in their “pre-technologised” state. In a mad rush to stay “modern” and to “keep up”, a lot of us have forgotten what a simple HB pencil and stack of index cards can do for an information problem. Index cards and other “low tech” solutions are not sexy, not wired, but they are often the cheapest, most effective, and most elegant solutions to many information problems.

It’s very rare that addresses disappear off the pages of a regular old address book.

Now I’m not suggesting that computers don’t have their place, that we should just throw them all out the window, no matter how much we might want to. Even with all of their foibles, computer actually do make a lot of tasks easier. In fact they make a lot of tasks possible for the first time.

But bugs and glitches and “known issues” will always be with us.

Perhaps the best that we can do is to steadily press software companies for programs with fewer bugs and at least a friendlier voice at the end of a phone to explain them to us. We can stop blaming ourselves for problems we didn’t cause. We can try and make computer people speak our language.

And, in the end, we can take steps to at least rescue ourselves when disaster does strike.

QUESTION: And watch our for those moths…

EXTRO: Peter Rukavina operates Digital Island in Kingston, PEI… he’ll be back next week with another in the series “Consumed by Technology.”

Thirty year olds who buy diapers and tractors twice-weekly

In the summer of 1996 I presented a series on CBC Radio’s Island Morning program, produced by Ann Thurlow, called Consumed by Technology. I’ve managed to recover the audio of the episodes, along with the “show notes” and transcripts, from The Internet Archive and I’m posting each episode here for posterity.

This first fifth of Consumed by Technology focused on information privacy and the use of unique ID numbers by companies to track consumers; it aired on August 6, 1996. Karen Mair was the host.

Have you ever had a day where you’ve felt more like a number than a real person? Telephone numbers, calling card numbers, bank account numbers, bank machine numbers, credit card numbers… sometimes it seems impossible to do anything these days without one number or another.


INTRO: Have you ever had a day where you’ve felt more like a number than a real person? Telephone numbers, calling card numbers, bank account numbers, bank machine numbers, credit card numbers… sometimes it seems impossible to do anything these days without one number or another.

In another in the series “Consumed by Technology,” Peter Rukavina joins me now to talk about all of these numbers, what they’re used for, and why you might just want to think twice the next time you’re asked for one of them.

QUESTION: So what about all these numbers…?

ANSWER: Last week we talked about the kind of information that governments record about us and what they do with it. This week I’d like to concentrate on how businesses keep track of us… and that’s where all these numbers come into play.

As you suggested, these days it seems like you need a number to do most anything: to get money from a bank machine you need your bank card, to rent a video you need a video rental card, to go to the hospital you need your hospital card.

All of these cards have numbers on them, and often its these numbers that seem most important to businesses.

In a very real sense, to whatever business or organization is looking for whatever number they need, you are your number.

Try calling up the bank and saying “Hi, it’s Peter here… can you tell me my balance please?” What’s the first question they’ll ask…?

QUESTION: “What’s your account number?”

ANSWER: Exactly. Now of course the real reason for all of these numbers has nothing to do with people at all and an awful lot to do with computers.

If you’re writing a computer program to keep track of customers, you want to make sure that all the information that gets entered into the program gets “lined up” with the right person’s record. If I make a payment on my credit card, for example, it’s important that that payment gets subtracted from my balance, not from the balance of some other Peter Rukavina.

Using numbers as the “key” for a customer database — as the way to call up any person’s record — is an easy way for computers to make this happen.

Now if this doesn’t seem like a particularly new concept, you’re right… businesses and organizations have been using numbers to keep track of us since before there were computers to make the job easier.

But what is new and different in the 1990s is what businesses are doing with these numbers — and more importantly what they’re doing with the personal information about us that these numbers are tied to.

QUESTION: What are they doing with our information?

ANSWER: Businesses call what they’re doing by odd-sounding names like “establishing client intimacy,” “relationship marketing,” or “demographic profiling,” but what it all comes down to is that businesses are using the same ability of computers to record personal information about us that they’ve been using for years, but they’re starting to gather more and more information and to look at the patterns contained in that information to try and “figure us out” and, in the end, to sell us more stuff.

QUESTION: What do you mean by “figure us out?”

ANSWER: Let’s take an example: over the past couple of years, a lot of retail stores have launched some variation of the “customer loyalty card” — the Club Z Card, the Petro Points Card, whatever. Usually you sign up for a card and then every time you purchase something you get points which, after a while, you can redeem for “free stuff.”

Now on the surface, these cards are simply a way for these businesses to keep you coming back again and again to their store. And that’s a large part of what they’re good for: they do, indeed, help to build “customer loyalty.”

But remember that every time you use one of these cards, a record of it goes into the store’s computer. Buy ten rolls of toilet paper on July 13… it’s in there. Go back on July 17 and buy 20 feet of garden hose… it’s in there too. It’s no longer just a “what” that get recorded in the store’s computer, but a “who” as well.

Purchase by purchase, this information isn’t remarkable. But taken as a whole, over time, it can be very valuable to businesses.

QUESTION: What use do businesses make of this sort of information?

ANSWER: They can use it two ways.

Firstly, they can look at broad patterns of who’s buying what. Remember that before this sort of card came along, stores could tell what was selling well, but not who was buying it.

It used to be that if I came in on Monday and bought a some toilet paper and then came in Tuesday and bought some cat food, the store would never know that it was actually me making both of those purchases.

Now that they can tell that it’s me, they can answer all sorts of new questions.

It’s one thing to know that you’ve sold 20,000 rolls of toilet paper in July, another thing altogether to know that three quarters of the people who buy toilet paper at your store also buy their shampoo from you every week. And that half of those people prefer a certain brand of shampoo.

This kind of information, used properly, can be like gold to a retailer because it helps them know more about who their customers are and what they’re buying… it helps them “figure their customers out” as a broad group. And, in the end, to market more effectively… and to sell more stuff.

The second way that businesses can use the personal information they have about us is a little more ominous, and it surrounds using information about our buying habits to try and “figure us out” as individuals.

If you’ve ever subscribed to a magazine and then, a couple of months later, started to get flooded with junk mail, then you’ve seen a primitive version of this in action. Magazines sell their mailing lists to companies who think that there’s a good chance that people who subscribe to that magazine will buy their products. Subscribe to Harrowsmith, you might start to get L.L. Bean catalogues in the mail. Subscribe to the Financial Post and you start to get mutual find mail.

QUESTION: So we’re not as much a number to them as a “the type of person that reads Harrowsmith?”

ANSWER: Right. Now what’s starting to happen now is that this practise is becoming something of a science.

Businesses are realizing that it’s a lot more efficient to send out, say, 100 catalogues to people who they know are going to buy something from them, than to send out 100,000 catalogues to people who they have a hunch might buy something from them.

And it’s in this process of moving from a list of “hunch”-people to a list of “sure thing”-people that businesses can make use all of this information they have about us.

Let’s say you go grocery shopping every week at the same store and that store has some method for keeping track of who you are and what you’re buying.

Over the course of a year — in fact probably over the course of a couple of months — that store is going to have a pretty good idea of what sort of products you buy from them. They’ll know that you buy 3 pounds of apples ever second trip, that you don’t ever buy canned juice, that you only buy flour when you buy sugar, that you just started to buy diapers in July. And so on. In that small space of life that has to do with grocery buying, they’ll probably end up knowing more about you than you know yourself.

Now think about all of the other things you buy and imagine a similar situation is in place. Your video rental store keeps track of the movies you’re renting, your clothing store knows when you buy clothes, the gas station knows what grade of gas you buy and when, your car dealer keeps track of how often you get your car serviced… almost everything we do in the marketplace has the potential to leave an electronic trail behind.

Now again, any of this information taken alone — the fact that I bought a bag of apples on Monday, for example — isn’t very useful to anyone. But, just like the “One Big Government Database” that we talked about last week, the real potential power of this information for business lies in combining this information about us with other information about us from other businesses and then using powerful computer programs to help to slot us all into a very narrow “demographic profile” — a sort of map of our lives based on what we buy.

Businesses can then turn around and use this demographic profile to hit us with very, very targeted and specific marketing messages.

QUESTION: So it’s no longer just getting L.L. Bean catalogues in the mail because I subscribe to Harrowsmith…

ANSWER: …it’s getting personalised coupons for cloth diapers in the mail because of three visits to a maternity clothing store in the past month combined with the fact that we just purchased a new washing machine.

It’s having my cable company give me a free month of TSN because I rent sports videos a couple of times a month and subscribe to the Hockey News.

It’s getting email from a drywall contractor because I bought five home renovation books at the local bookstore over the last two weeks.

There are not a lot of businesses taking things to this extent yet, but to get some idea of what a seasoned professional in the direct marketing game looks like, you only need to look as far as Readers Digest. Most people probably think that Readers Digest is just a magazine. And it is. But more than that its a huge database of marketing opportunities. With 15 million subscribers, Readers Digest has one of the largest and finely developed databases in the world. As they use the list, they learn more and more about the people on it and they use that information to market to those people even more. What Readers Digest — and the Columbia Record and Tape Club and the Book-of-the-Month Club and other veterans in this game — having been doing for years now is something which will become more and more common in many, many other, smaller businesses in years to come.

Standards for recording and sharing personal commercial information are being developed. Computers are getting smaller, faster, cheaper, and networked together. More and more of commerce is moving to mail order and the Internet and other electronic systems where gathering information is so much easier and more invisible. After using bank machines for a decade, we’re all starting to use debit cards more and more; “smart cards” that actually carry money around are on the way soon.

Taken together, the signs all suggest that whatever you want to call this “customer intimacy building” is only going to become more and popular and common.

QUESTION: Should we as consumers be wary of this?

ANSWER: It all depends on how you feel about your personal information. If you like receiving things in the mail, if you don’t care who knows what about you, if you don’t mind being slotted into a very narrow demographic group for marketing purposes, then the world is going your way.

If, however, you value your privacy, if you’re the kind of person who blanches at junk mail and values the kind of personal service that comes from being known as an actual real live human being and not a number with a demographic, then you’ve got something to be worried about.

And I say that in all seriousness; although I’d tend to put myself in the later group, there are a lot of people who see this trend as being a positive thing, as a giant leap forward for the science of marketing. And many of these people are consumers themselves.

QUESTION: What about the issue of privacy? Do we actually have any control for how all this personal information about is used?

ANSWER: The short answer is no.

A lot of privacy issues we take for granted: I can’t call up a department store, for example, and ask them how much you charged to your account last year because in most if not all cases, they consider that information confidential.

But by and large our privacy is not protected by legislation, but by tradition.

Industries that have been around for a while often have a “privacy code of conduct.” Most credit agencies, for example, will only reveal information about you to people who have your consent and will always let you look at your own file and will let you request that changes be made if they are warranted.

But other businesses, which haven’t really seen themselves as being in the information business until recently may very well think that whatever information they have on you is their property to do with as they see fit. And a business that would never consider giving out your name and address to a third party might not think twice about selling information about what you buy from them and when.

The best advice I can given anyone who is concerned about the privacy of their commercial personal information is to simply be extremely vigilant. Whenever a business asks you for information which would identify you, ask them what they want it for, how they’re going to store it, whether they consider it confidential and whether or not they’ll sell information about you to anyone else.

If their answer doesn’t satisfy you, don’t give them any information.

Of course it’s hard to be vigilant when everyone is looking for one number or another, especially when you live in a small place like PEI where you might not have any choice as to where to shop.

But short of legislation which places limits on the use of commercial personal information it’s really the only option we have.

What bothers me about this trend is really not as much a privacy issue as the notion that we’re quickly moving from a world where personal relationships are the core of the marketplace to a world where demographics and buying patterns and databases are the core. I’m no longer a thinking breathing person with a set of shopkeepers who know me and my needs, I’m a number attached to a file attached to a profile which sits in a computer in some far off place owned by people who think that this tells them who I am.

And that… makes me sad.

EXTRO: Peter Rukavina operates Digital Island in Kingston, PEI… he’ll be back next week with another in the series “Consumed by Technology.”