Contents, Agents and electronic Packages

by Richard Gatarski

This document is a tentative description of my research project. For a richer, but older, description, please see the beta version of my Thesis Proposal.

My research project centers around my interest in looking into how marketing might evolve when the effects of e-media hits the business world. This, still very dim view, emanates mainly from how marketing has been affected by the concept of packaging. Hopefully my work with the thesis will make the e-media outlook somewhat clearer.

My strategy is to write three separate scientific articles. Hopefully they will be woven into each other, following a thread starting with contents, continuing with agents and ending with e-packs.

The first article is to be completed during 1996, the next in the beginning of 1997, and the last some time around mid 1998.


So, what is supposed to be inside any electronic package? This is of high importance to my research. I call it contents. I believe contents does neither belong to the goods nor to the services paradigm. This needs to be investigated in order to develop the agents and electronic package parts of my research.

Contents, the innards of packages

In other writings I have started a more general discussion concerning phenomena that can be electronically contained (e.g. Hedberg & Gatarski 1995). In this section I am highlighting a few notions regarding the needs for such a concept. A concept by me called contents.

Our digital future, supported and caused by IT, will call for management strategies which cannot easily be accommodated in the goods or the services paradigms. I believe that there will be a strong need for a third, and supplementary, paradigm, one for contents. Let us look at the current situation.

National production statistics demonstrate that the service sector now accounts for the largest percentage of GNP in most developed countries. This is partly the effect of the externalization of services from enterprises. If Imaginary Organizations, as a management perspective gains ground, the statistically recorded service sector will most likely increase even more.

Knowledge about resources, such as organizational skills or potential partners (know-who), represents contents as the term is defined below. A recent example can be found at the Swedish consulting company Erda AB. They have been working with object oriented and rule based computer systems for over 10 years. Erda is actually using such a system internally. The system contains information, i.e. contents, about client cases and specific consultant skills. An advanced case-based query system assists Erda with assignments matched to the client needs (Lotsson 1995).

If contents are valuable, the contents sector will grow rapidly. Let me give a few more examples that might support the growth of a contents sector: Instead of hiring a professional (human) translator, an enterprise might, in the future hire contents in the form of a software based translator; And instead of buying the services offered by a Direct Marketing company, the Imaginary Organisation can purchase contents from another organisations customer data base.

Information, i.e. data, facts, figures etc., can be traded in numerous markets. Large media industries often cover the whole spectrum from books, magazines, and newspapers to radio and television programs, etc. What was listed here can today, more or less, be transformed into digital bits and then be made available, copied, and manipulated. No matter what the different industries call their outputs, these products represent an increasingly important part of our economies.

Information about services is for example of great value. Recently the US company Official Airline Guides (OAG) was sold with a price tag of GBP 275m. Compare that with the values of airline companies. Information about media can actually be more valuable than the media itself. For example, the contents in one medium, "TV Guide", generate larger profits than all the US TV networks together (Negroponte, 1994). Although the latter employ more people and engage more infrastructure and money.

When contents are the core of the value creating process, neither place (goods paradigm) nor interaction (services paradigm) is sufficient to describe this encounter between the product and the consumer. Instead, copying emerges as one initial process of a chain of processes through which contents are carried over to consumers. Further processes might include editing, transformations, and higher forms of consumption manipulation. To cope with the management of contents, neither the goods paradigm nor the service paradigm is sufficient. Hedberg and Gatarski (1995) illustrates some cases: CompUStore (information about household appliances), American Express (customer information), Tenders Electronic Daily (European government information), a number of Swedish and international music bands (entertainment in electronic form), Dialog, Reuters and similar information producers.

The notion of contents as product needs to be developed and defined. Here is a first, tentative definition Gatarski (1994a):

"Contents are any intangible products, externalized from the human mind, which have the potential to generate knowledge and/or emotive-like effects for the consumer".

I am trying to isolate some of the characteristics of contents. The term intangible marks the separation from material and the term externalized is used to emphasize that contents are not the same as a brand or a company position or an image. The latter is a result of contents, e.g. customer interaction or advertising, and cannot be traded since it is locked into the human mind. Consumers can be humans as well as agents or other actors with cognitive and affective capacity. Contents can be considered as both raw material, as well as a finished products. Contents can carry value, so it is typically traded in markets.


Agents, a solution to contents overflow?

Many years ago Simon (1971) warned that we live in an information-rich world. A world in which human cognitive capacity easily, if not regularly, is overloaded. The situation has not improved since then. It will certainly not improve in the perspective we outlined above. So, if consumers are to benefit from increased outputs in the form of contents, they need assistance.

The principles of assistance would be about the same as those which are embedded in already available Information Technology. Take for instance pocket calculators, spread sheet software and Automatic Teller Machines as some examples. These tools can help us in handling our money. Word processors, fax machines, television, telephones, e-mail, CD-ROMs and OnLine services, are increasingly used as tools for human communication, and these tools are all mediated by computers which are specially designed to manipulate, transform, and transfer digitized information.

But counting and communicating is no longer enough. For long scientists envisaged machines to handle more complex tasks which required more thinking than simply the solving of algebraic problems. This desire lead to early research into Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Expert Systems (ES). Today businesses, other organizations, and people in general can readily use AI-systems to aid their thinking. In applications exemplified by programs that analyze customer behavior, stock portfolios, crude-oil distribution patterns, or medical symptoms.

The concept of intelligent agents

A newly reborn fenomenon is the concept of intelligent agents. Let us regard these agents as simulators of human processes. Simulators with the capacity to use and manipulate all kinds of representations. In fact they are supposed to manipulate ideas, thoughts and behavior. Agents as a concept where initiated around 1970. Now they are slowly being implemented. Although in simpler ways than envisioned so far.

Agents can be a part of man's interface to electronically stored information. Maes (1994) describes agents in the following way: "The metaphor used is that of a personal assistant who is collaborating with the user in the same work environment. The assistant becomes gradually more effective as it learns the user´s interests, habits and preferences (as well as those of his or her community)." Another description comes from Negroponte (1994): "Imagine a future where your interface agent can read every newspaper and catch every broadcast on the planet, and then, from this, construct a personalized summary." We believe that their visions can be expanded to include every bit of digitally stored content.

Researchers typically make a distinction between two types of agents; (1) Filter agents and (2) Searcher agents. The first ones act as intelligent filters. Filter agents scan the flow of information on behalf of their owners. Sometimes these agents are also capable of deciding what to do with the incoming material. Such an advanced filtering system is being developed by the Swedish Institute for Computer Sciences (SICS). There the agent is programmed by its user to adopt a number of rules. In action the agent scans Internet Usenet News and performs "auxiliary actions such as save, copy, print, forward etc." More complex agents are in use at the MIT Media Lab. There agents scan and manipulate incoming mail, recommend entertainment, and plan meetings in calendars. The meeting planner agents actually communicate with other users agents to be able to find suitable times for joint meetings.

Searcher agents are, for example, agents that users send out into the digital information world with a mission to search for something needed. General Magic together with AT&T and others have developed such intelligent agents. They are capable of finding specific information in situations with considerable human information overload. Also IBM have announced similar products which they call "proxies".

There are, however, both technical and social reasons why the use of agents will take on rather slowly. Expert systems are still rather cumbersome to use and relatively expensive. It will also take some time before even the enthusiasts will really trust agents to act for them. Norman (1994) addressed the issues of privacy and confidentiality. "If agents know about their creators/owners, who else will?" Financial systems, commuter trains and airplanes can technically run without humans in the driver seats. But we do not really allow that. Historically, we tend to be constructively slow in adopting new technologies. This tendency will probably be even more salient when technology comes as close to us as the concept of agents suggests.

Agents and marketing

If agents gradually will assume the role which many forecasters predict, they will clearly be consumers of contents. In fact, that is probably the only thing they are able to consume. Services might be, but goods are definitely not accessible to them.

Computer scientists are already considering how agents will help consumers to find goods and services in the marketplace. Norman (1994) exemplified: "Thus, agents might set up schedules, reserve hotels and meeting rooms, arrange transportation and even outline meeting topics, all without human intervention." And Mitchel et al (1994) envisaged agents performing tasks such as: "providing services for work and home, such as paying bills, making travel arrangements, submitting purchase orders and locating information in electronic libraries."

Also the providers of for example Video-On-Demand services are likely to rely on agents. Ramanathan & Rangan (1994) are engaged in the construction of such systems. They noted: "Personal service agents, as their name implies, play a central role in tailoring the fabric of multimedia services to fit the needs and preferences of clients."

Today's marketers go to great length to investigate human behavior in order to market their products more efficiently. If our assumptions about the future role of agents are correct, marketers of the future will have to investigate also agent behavior. Such thoughts are actually emerging among marketers. Gatarski (1994b) is discussing marketing strategies when dealing with agents. Davenport (1994) remarked in a recent HBR article that there will be strong need for solutions that can sort out information: "Technologists are working on personalized filters or "agents" that can separate real information from junk. But it's likely that good marketers of electronic information will find ways to circumvent filters--just as direct mail now looks like a tax refund or personal check. In fact, some communication technologies just exacerbate this problem."

The knowledge one agent has built up, could be of value to other agents, organizations or humans. Genesereth and Ketchpel (1994) exemplified: "As the Internet becomes increasingly commercialized we envision a world where agents act on behalf of their creators to make a profit. Agents will seek payment for services provided and may negotiate with one another to maximize their expected utility, which might be measured in a form of electronic currency."

Electronic Packages

Sublime chocolate - the importance of packaging

When we deliver gifts, for birthdays, weddings or business, we wrap them up. Because the wrapping adds value. This cultural phenomena shows us that packaging is important. Normally my fiancée do the wrapping of our gifts. She is very creative and as a rule the result is beautiful. Quite often the receivers value the parcel more than its contents, e.g. a box of chocolate. But the most important thing is normally the thought of consideration from the sender. An immaterial phenomena transformed to matter. Does that thought have to be materialized? No, the animated greeting cards which together with a little cheerful tune can be mailed on Prodigy, is not materialized. The senders cost is less than 5 USD, depending on how stylish the card is.

We live(d) in a material world. This proposal concerns future business, not sociology. Later I will explore how packaging have been a major force in the marketing evolution. From the agricultural to the industrial era. My hypothesis is that the same force will be equally important when we build the information society. And packaging might form parallel structures in our new immaterial world. When information, or contents is free of charge, its packaging differentiates and supports its value.

Electronic packaging

The word pair electronic package constitutes my first delimitation. I borrow the meaning of package from how we use that word in marketing. I.e. something that is wrapped around a commodity. The way I look at it, electronic packages can be studied as media as well as market commodities.

Created by Richard Gatarski, BAT - Business Art Technology
Last updated 1996-02-07