Previously on UD …
Last week I reported on a recent trip to Washington to talk to wonks and wonkettes about Code Halos and mentioned how the most intriguing question of the day was from someone who wondered aloud if personalization – facilitated and hyper-accelerated by Code Halos – would lead to a decline of diversity.
It’s a really good question. I think the answer is yes. With a twist …
In a world of Code Halos where we can know and be known in greater detail than ever before it will be easier for us to get just what we want. Tell Amazon that you like books about Churchill, movies starring Charles Grodin, Filson gear, and you’re going to have a field day with recommendations about William Manchester, Beethoven’s I, II, III, ad infinitum (when all you really wanted was to see something as great as Midnight Run!), and hunting shirts up the kazoo, for time immemorial.
That’s fab, right? Except Amazon aren’t going to recommend to you books about Bolton Wanderers Football Club, a documentary about Eames furniture, and the new “Black” Fed racquet from Wilson. All things that on another day, in a different mood, might be just as interesting.
Personalization takes us down roads that we’re already travelling on and stops us noticing all the other roads less travelled. In creating these increasingly personalized spaces we’re refining our exposure to, and interaction with, everything around us and are able to filter more and more things out.
Which as I say, is great, right?
I guess our Washington friend was pointing out though that in refining and tightening our aperture onto the world we’re both forgetting how this view was created in the first place and messing with the role happenstance, serendipity, chaos, and cock-up plays in the way our views develop and morph as we move through time and space.
How did I fall in love with the Manchester books? I stumbled across them one day in a bookshop. I don’t remember going into that store that day thinking I’d really like to buy a thousand page tome about the Last Lion. I guess I just thought as I saw it on the shelf that I should know more about the Greatest Englishman. Who knew I’d take it home, and find myself engrossed and excited and moved by a story of which I only really knew the bare bones?
I’d never heard of Charles Grodin when I saw Midnight Run – I guess I went to see it because of DeNiro. But he blew me away. Can’t remember how I came across Filson. Now I’m a big fan.
Happenstance, serendipity, chaos … maybe even cock-up (maybe I went into the book shop to get out of the rain when I’d missed my bus) all played huge roles in the pre-Code Halo Code Halo of Ben Pring.
The diversity of my interests and choices was somewhat self-directed but also somewhat unpredictable and random. Diversity was forced on me because – by not being able to choose, by being exposed to things I hadn’t chosen – I came into contact with things I didn’t know I would like, until I liked them. My personalization was (is) extremely open to disruption, interruption, challenge, change. With an open, curious, mind I was (am) able to be interested in all sorts of things I never realized I was interested in. I read a great article about the “mystery of spider silk” today. Who knew this morning I might be interested in that? I didn’t … and if I didn’t, how could Amazon know?
To net this out then, yes, personalization – which I’d still contend is a wonderful thing – does have its downsides. If we (as individuals, as corporations) only do what we’ve always done, always like what we’ve always liked, only hire types of people that we’ve always hired (or very slight variations), then, yes, the downside of personalization will steadily refine us into a narrower and narrower aperture on the word … a sort of gated community or walled garden.
What do we need to do then to stop this happening? Confuse the algorithm! If Amazon’s recommendations are all thrillers because you bought a James Patterson novel while your flight was delayed, buy something by Oliver Sacks … or write a positive comment about Martha Stewart … or search for something on the history of Islam. Try and get some steam to come out of Siri’s ears. Try and throw HAL for a loop.
Personalization is an incredibly powerful tool which is creating incredible value for us as individuals and for the companies using these approaches to serve us. But we mustn’t forget that personalization is simply a tool; a tool that we must continue to control and not allow to control us.
Birds (Tweets?) of a feather versus Vive La Difference? I guess I’m with Groucho Marx … I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as member. So I’ll continue to appreciate the recommendations about Elvis Costello, Ian McEwan, and quirky old people climbing out windows (know what I’m talking about?) all the while I’m (me, not the algorithm) looking for things (Shovels and Rope? Very cool. The Son by Philipp Meyer? Fantastic!) that I don’t know I’m looking for.
That’s a “smart hands” and “smart robot” play. That’s a future that works.