Just about 15 years ago I had the good fortune to collaborate with some friends on a book with the unfortunate title, Computer-Assisted Information Collection. In addition to editing the chapters on new technologies, I wrote the last chapter, a somewhat lame attempt to predict the future of survey research. I was heavily influenced by a book I had just read called being digital by Nicholas Negroponte. A central theme of the book is the gradual digitization of pretty much everything, including all the facts about each of us—our personal histories that define who we are, what we do, where we go and who we go with, what we like and don't like, and, of course, what we buy. In Negroponte's vision this is mostly a good thing because it creates the possibility for a personalized and tailored interaction with the world. Everyone now knows a great deal about us and can interact with us using that information. This could be as important as having my medical records available no matter where I need treatment to the modest convenience of an online bookseller knowing I have a weakness for historical fiction. It was not hard to see in this vision a significantly reduced role for surveys.
Convincing as I found the book and others with a similar theme being written at the same time I nonetheless wondered whether people would go along. Would the benefits associated with having this information available to merchants, service people, doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs outweigh the natural instinct to choose who knows what about me? We are beginning to see the answer playing out in the realm of online advertising and it's a resounding "No!" Just as MR was beginning to realize on a broad scale the potential value of behavioral tracking on the Internet the impulse of people and governments is to shut it down. Polling data suggests that north of two-thirds of US adults are opposed to the tracking that drives tailored online ads. Government agencies, here and the EU, are studying changes in privacy legislation that would provide consumers protections whose end result would be to significantly degrade the effectiveness of online tracking. Even Microsoft has gotten into the act with plans to provide anti-tracking tools in the next release of IE.
So where might all of this leave MR, once it's sorted out? I think back where we started and that is recognizing that personal information is just that. It belongs to the person and the only way to get it is by asking for it. Historically research has been permission-based, but with the transition to online and especially social media we've come to think that we can skip that step. We are learning that we probably can't.