“What’s it like?“ you ask (about anything). After a pause comes the answer: “It’s different.” Then you’ll want to know “Good different or bad different?” As you get older, even if the answer is “Good” you may not want to go there. Simply because Different isn’t The Same. The Same is safe. It’s what you know and like.
Such comforting familiarity is virtually guaranteed when you’re online. Unless you take pains to leave no digital footsteps, e.g. by navigating the internet incognito, much of what you find will be to your liking.
This is because of the robots endlessly trawling the net for data. The bots know what you Like and Share on Facebook. They know every interest you have ever expressed through your browser since you became a Netizen.
Welcome to The Personalized Web, where your searching won’t launch a Voyage of Discovery. Your results will be predictable. You will be directed to the same kinds of sites where you have researched, chatted or shopped before. You will never have to leave your comfort zone.
The up side of course is the time and effort you save when those internet search engines get to work. Google – or Firefox, Internet Explorer, Bing, Yahoo etc – all have the algorithms to give you relevant information in a flash. You type Cute Dog Videos and get 1,290,000,000 results in 0.53 seconds.
So what’s not to like? Lots, actually. You may not like the fact that your internet history is being used to tailor advertising to your personal taste and worldview. That under the guise of offering free, frequently unsolicited advice and recommendations, your Likes are market research data for targeted advertising.
You may also not like all those recommendations based on correlations drawn from the “harvesting” of your data. Like “People who like this (music, movie, restaurant, product) like that”. Who are those people? Are they really like me?
Online companies tell us that Personalization is intended to help the consumer. They say it’s about improving the customer experience. The online music site Spotify recently purchased a company that analyzes listening data. This music technology deal was said to be driven by efforts to offer better suggestions of songs we may like. But that’s not the real aim.
It will give us the ability to push products a lot faster and learn a lot faster than we could before.
– Jim Lucchese, Echo Nest chief executive, in a joint interview with Daniel Ek, Spotify chief executive, New York Times 7 March 2014
Therein lies the difference between Crowdsourced recommendations in cyberspace and checking out the views of your friends and acquaintances IRL (In Real Life). There is inevitably bias when people rave about a song or a movie. But it’s not because they’re trying to push a product.
The same goes for journalists and critics. If we follow their advice on what to see or buy, it’s because we respect the experience and expertise that has formed their opinions. And if it ever emerged that they were profiting from our purchases in any way, there would be an outcry.
Other search engines allow you to similarly search anonymously, e.g. in Private Browsing mode on Firefox and Internet Explorer. Or you could try the DuckDuckGo search engine that boasts “bullet-proof privacy” as it doesn’t track, collect or share its users’ data at all. It’s no surprise that its numbers skyrocketed after Edward Snowdon’s revelations about US National Security Agency surveillance.
Maybe you’re thinking that the Personalized Web could be a good thing as we age. Since the older we get the more we want – or at least feel we need – to anchor ourselves in the familiar.
Remember the retirement house that Nelson Mandela built in his home village? It was an exact replica of the place where he was last imprisoned when he was preparing for his release. What Madiba did was to Customize – not Personalize – his surroundings. He wasn’t aiming to shut out the world. He just wanted a familiar floor plan so he wouldn’t “have to wander at night looking for the kitchen”.
The thing about the Personalized Web is that once those bots have got you pegged, whatever you find online tends to further confirm what you are already known to like. Scientific researchers call it Confirmation Bias and aim to avoid it. Internet commerce is built on it.
The promise of personalization is that it gives us our own personal view of the world. But the challenge is that a lot of the time it’s actually pushing us toward a stereotyped, simplified version of ourselves: ‘This person is male, so we’ll show him more gadget and car news’.
As we age we may finally have the time, and the perspective, to explore a less stereotyped, simplified version of ourselves. Instead of spending the rest of our lives smugly reconfirming what we have always done and liked, all the while accepting that we are but cogs in the wheel of the digital Personalization project.
I certainly intend to keep exploring My New Old Self on the net and IRL. After all these years I know what I like – or maybe I only think I do. If I keep a critical eye, I may find out more about what I really like. And what I’m really like.