07/23/2013 02:24 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

Consumer Empowerment Is an Illusion

"Consumers are in control and in this new world we need to allow people to co-create with us" -- Luis Di Como, Unilever.*

Seriously? Are we really in control?

I think, in reality, we have less control than in the past, and that control is rapidly diminishing. The control we have today is illusory, at best. It is a "feeling" of control while the corporations call the shots. What is more important, reality or illusion?

The reality is that technology has put society at a new crossroads. Over the next decade we will be asking more societal, philosophical, and economic questions of ourselves than ever before. Why so?

Very recently, Edward Joseph Snowden disclosed classified material on top-secret NSA programs pertaining to the federal government's data-capture efforts. He believes that he was just in exposing the excessive and intrusive government surveillance of the American people.

Was it just phone numbers that were tapped? OR Was it both phone numbers and the content of the conversations itself?

What is more important security OR liberty? How much liberty are we willing to sacrifice in order to be more secure?

Can we ever be fully secure? When do we decide that 'risk' has crossed a threshold, and we can now start giving up some liberty to reduce risk?

How much liberty are we willing to give up? Does that reduced liberty increase the risk of governmental tyranny? How much of that risk are we, as a society, willing to take?

It is likely that some of these questions will be answered over time. However some we may never find answers to, not because the answers don't exist, but because they will get lost in the cacophony of conversations generated over time, and perhaps will eventually lose relevance.

Society and life are both an evolution. I am hopeful that we, as a society, will be willing to ask these hard questions of ourselves, debate each other, and eventually do whatever will provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

But, I am more concerned about a different type of tyranny -- business tyranny. As more and more of our lives go online; as our behavior, our decisions and our actions go electronic; and as we cede this information to just a handful of companies, these few companies soon will be able to predict our actions better than we can ourselves. They will be able to market to us, influence us, and make us act in specific ways. And, most unfortunately, they will do so without most of us even recognizing that this is happening.

I worry more about the possibility of this subtle business tyranny than I do about government tyranny...

My concern is with this business tyranny, specifically with the handful of companies that grow in power with every piece of information we create or consume online, and with every electronic gadget we use to stay connected in this uber-connected world.

The Internet began in a random fashion. However, as the web evolved, the power has shifted dramatically to a few online centers. Google is by far the biggest as it stores more data of our online activity than almost everybody else. Then there is Amazon which stores data of what we buy, when we buy, and for whom we buy. And then, Facebook which has control of information about us, our friends, our life, our communications.

Among these behemoths, they have sufficient data to "define" you, and your possible behavior and actions, without ever having met OR spoken to you. They can connect the dots with the data so that they can predict your actions with a very high degree of accuracy. With this data, and with effective online targeting, they can influence your communications, your decisions and your actions.

Is it tyranny only when you physically force me to do something? Isn't it also tyranny when you can effectively influence me to do whatever you want me to do 90% of the time, while simultaneously giving me the illusion that I am doing things out of my own volition? Where exactly does free will end and influence begin?

I remember reading a quote along the lines of -- "When the people watch a government, it is democracy. When the government watches its people, it is tyranny," or something to that effect. Giving up so much power to three or four companies that, in turn, can effectively influence what you do, what you buy etc., 30 or 40 or 50 percent of the time, can't be good for society. So, what can we do to change the current trajectory?

Here are my top-line thoughts on how the people can seize control and feel more empowered again:

• People need to get more educated on how this system works -- how does their data get collected; how much gets collected; how it is used or monetized; what rights do businesses have over the data they collect etc. Businesses should take the lead and help with that education. After all, we don't want society to lose confidence in businesses, just like we have lost confidence in politicians.

• There has to be a greater number of "online power centers" -- a greater number of portals, a greater number of online business and social communities, a greater number of places where people go online to interact, to consume content, and to buy goods and services. The best way to avoid tyranny, business or political, is to ensure that power is naturally distributed -- to ensure that no single business OR a few businesses have absolute power.

• The above also means more businesses (including smaller and mid-market businesses) need to create their own compelling online content and community centers, thereby spreading OR sharing power amongst multiple portals & companies.

Perhaps, if the people are educated about the risk of giving up all their data to 1, 2 or 4 companies; and, if other companies build their own online portals for business transaction, the power will get distributed equally across numerous online power centers.

In my mind, allowing only a few centers of gravity to exist in the web world will not make us better off as a society in the long term.

I am interested in hearing what you have to say.

*As quoted in "Live in the Moment," by Lucy Tesseras, May 30, 2013, Marketing Week