Come through the Looking Glass with me, into the near-future. Meet Yasmin.
The mobile in her hand has become a wand of remarkable range and power. Picture her browsing in a supermarket in the near future, perhaps helping out Mum by doing the family shop on a Friday evening before going out with friends.
Her phone (which is now connected to an always-on, high-bandwidth network) has a relatively simple set of features that enable it to read RFID tags and barcodes: in other words, to collect, organise and display information about any item for sale.
As she trawls the aisles, before selecting any item for her basket, she checks the colour display of the phone.
If she gets a red light, for "stop", the product goes back on the shelf and an alternative brand may be considered; if amber, for "wait", she can either take the product, replace it, or request another level of information to be instantly sent to the display.
If a green light appears, she selects the product without further hesitation. This process, far from increasing the time required for the shopping, often shortens it.
How is that? And what do the lights mean?
Yasmin's family are shareholders in the biggest brand in the world, The Touchstone ("Where Responsible Business Meets the World").
The service, a global organisation which has a still-growing global user-base of say 20,000,000 families and individuals, paying between €100 (or $100) and €300 (or $300 per year) as equal shareholders for access, has one simple proposition: it enables shoppers for any product or service to ensure that the corporation that owns the brand meets their own articulated individual trust standards.
It is an electronic trust service, or rather, THE electronic trust service. And its annual turnover is currently $4,000,000,000.
The biggest brand in the world, in the hands of 20,000,000 individuals.
The impact of The Touchstone?
Simple. Shoppers are empowered, with every purchase they make, to vote with their wallets for or against the commercial success of every corporation in the world.
Supported by the auditing and benchmarking capabilities of NGO's, each one handling a different element of corporate trust, environment, food quality, accounting, welfare and so on, consumers simply select the values and standards they wish to reflect and support in all their purchases, configuring The Touchstone to automatically exclude or query those brands that fall below the appropriate benchmarks.
A number of services cluster around the core proposition, and more are added each year.
Yasmin's family, for example, have configured the service to refer in real time to the various databases that carry their individual medical records – including all mild or severe food allergies and current medications, their health targets, the monthly budgets for groceries, entertainment and so on, the household diary, their travel and social plans.
Critically, the service also extends its trust services to offer a secure "infomediary" feature, thus acting as a smart representative for its shareholders that protects their anonymity against the hostile CRM softwares of the corporations.
The Touchstone is, unsurprisingly, uniquely equipped and positioned to enable its shareholders to connect with each other to form active, focused communities, networks of concern and conscience.
These groups form a further ring of influence and feedback for The Touchstone system, as well as of course fundamentally impacting the way the participants experience and use the process of consumption. They often issue bulletins that alert contributors to the ethical or corrupt behaviour of the corporations they watch.
Recommendations to buy are hardly less frequent than rallying cries to boycott.
Science fiction or fork in the road?
How far are we now – technically, attitudinally – from a reality featuring The Touchstone? Not that far. And note how the immense power of the network, combined with the decline in shared meaning, has sown all the seeds that were needed.