Published on October 18, 2011
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Serendipity is our soul. Serendipity sustains us, it occasionally gives our lives directions neither planned nor anticipated, and serendipity opens up different avenues of looking at this world. As I will argue, without serendipity, life would not just be predictable, it would be excruciatingly boring.
We, the creators of the Internet, are on our best way to banishing serendipity from our lives. But how high is the price we are paying? Are we exchanging a challenging but exciting life for a predictable but dull one? Our revolution against serendipity is a silent one, as it is our mere usage of the Internet that gives the algorithms of Google, Facebook & Co. the opportunity to calculate our preferences, interests, desires and our next steps, thus gradually banishing everything unexpected from our digital lifestyle.
Consider the books Amazon recommends us to read – they are surprisingly close to our taste. Likewise, Genius offers music that matches our preferences quite well. Foursquare suggests bars where we can meet our friends, NewsMe proposes news stories that we should read or watch, and paarship recommends people that we could fall in love with. This is all very convenient and it sure makes life easier. But it is a different life than the one we knew until now.
It’s a life in the rear view mirror. The algorithms which compute all these recommendations and suggestions for us are forever stuck in the past, as they base their calculations on our actions in times foregone. Through the analysis and evaluation of this data, the algorithm creates a more or less linear projection into the future of all we ever did, desired and loved. This projection may be quite accurate, since man is a creature of habit. What we once took a liking to, we will probably like all our lives. Without serendipity’s intervention, the algorithms we created may force us into a never-ending time-warp, dwelling forever in the status quo of our own preferences and desires.
And this “future” is beginning right now. By the end of 2009, Google had its search algorithm changed from general to personalized. So, whoever enters a search term today, receives highly individualized results. Thereby, Google analyzes, weighs and applies not only previous decisions and search terms but also consults other personal data that may be retrieved from the Internet. My personal Google hits will thus be the ones that most likely match my recent preferences.
There is a beautiful term in the English language for all that is lost in this custom-tailored world: “serendipity“. It describes an unexpected discovery that is brought to light by sheer coincidence or by a chance encounter. Serendipity is involved when we enter a book store and stumble on a random book that we would have never read, had it not been in the right place at the perfect time. It is serendipity, when we browse through a newspaper report and suddenly find ourselves riveted by its content even though we were neither interested nor familiar with its topic only minutes ago. Serendipity is at play when we meet a person who we fall in love with, even though he or she may not meet our ideal conception. And finally, serendipity may lie in the chance encounter with a new topic that seems important and hence sparks a heartfelt wish to become (politically) active.
Serendipity Glow, by Owl Night City via Flickr (some rights reserved)
At first sight, the loss of serendipity seems to be a mere technical issue, a peculiarity tied to software-dependent environments only. But with time, our loss may lead to wider ranging consequences, which we should at least understand, if not counteract. An overly personalized Internet has the potential to change our world views and – as a last consequence – ourselves.
1. Over-personalization gradually eliminates commonalities among individuals as in minutely tailored information environments, common interests and topics become rare. There is, however, a strong argument to be made that we need a foundation of common topics and a collective attention span devoted to certain issues. This holds especially true for our democratic processes that are critically dependent on these common informational foundations.
2. Algorithmic personalization may reduce our plural personas to one singular digital identity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, who claims: “You have one identity […]. Having two identities for yourself is an example for a lack of integrity.” However, quite the opposite may hold true: This reduction may not be desirable and – to borrow the words of Amartya Sen – may sooner or later put us in an “Identity Trap”, denying us the plurality of identity-conceptions and the ability to opt for more than one group.
3. The Internet is just as little neutral as is software. And this not only concerns access to the net, but maybe even more so the influence that large Internet Corporations such as Google, Facebook & Co. may have on our perception of the world, on our political opinion making and on our participation in social life. “Code is law”, as the American journalist and Internet expert Lawrence Lessing observed years ago. We are gradually becoming the mere instruments of our online-tools. In consequence, we no longer have the opportunity to be neutral, but become pawns in the ambitions of Internet corporations or in the world-views of interest groups.
4. As odd as it may sound, personalization may transform citizens and customers into mere products. It’s not about offering the best, the most relevant and the most interesting to us anymore. It’s about how we can be instrumentalised to become efficient but individualized market outlets for economically or politically motivated information offerings. Today, we are being sold and brokered in the form of variable data sets between Internet corporations and their business partners.
5. Without unexpected information, insights and encounters, we unlearn how to learn. In order to evolve as human beings, we need coincidences and random encounters with the unknown to inspire us to take new perspectives. It is the characteristic of a democracy and the obligation of a citizen to deal with things that are outside his or her own world-view and that surpass the own and often narrow areas of interest.
6. Algorithms have the tendency to counteract this, as they work like funnels that progressively narrow our view on reality, constantly offering us what we already know, like and desire. In this way, existing stereotypes and prejudices are being reinforced and amplified. If I once “like” the Facebook page “Islam is dangerous”, I will receive ever more information with a similar political orientation and attitude. Do we really want this in a society where intolerance more and more prevails over tolerance?
7. Personalization leads to an uneven distribution of information and thus promotes a self-perpetuating segmentation into various social groups. If you purchase expensive products online, you will be offered expensive products in the future. If you check out a theatre program, you will be henceforth supplied with theatre related information. If you look for the website of an Ivy-league college, chances are good that you will suddenly be provided with a lot of news on elite education. On the flipside, however, you are not even given the chance anymore to find other information – you will not even know that it exists.
8. It may be argued that the debate on anonymity in the net goes in the wrong direction. Of course anonymous online communication can be abused and there are indeed various examples of this. But the anonymity is in many places necessary, rendering opportunities for the participants to talk about their issues and wishes. The former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens said: “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights […]: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation—and their ideas from suppression—at the hand of an intolerant society. ” Against this background, personalization is problematic: Not only does it lift the veil of anonymity, but it also reveals a person’s entire personality with all its interests, preferences, attitudes. Thus forever reducing us to the status quo.
It would be naïve to think that we could reverse or even stop personalization in the Internet. This is not the issue here. In many respects, personalized offerings do have advantages. Therefore, it makes little sense to curse them in a culture-pessimist, technophobe polemic. But the increasing personalization has consequences that might be worth reconsidering. There are three approaches to culture criticism that are of importance:
- We need a public discourse! It is time to have an in-depth discussion about what is happening. If even most politicians have no clue what this debate is about, and if they are not able to lead the debate, we have to rely on a grass-roots movement. The core-questions will be: (a) How can algorithm-based personalization strategies be revealed, so that every user can decide for himself, whether or not he or she wants to expose him- or herself to them; (b) Could there be a choice between personalized and non-personalized search and communication in the Internet – one that enables individuals to exclude themselves voluntarily from the total calculation of their personality? And finally (c) How could there be more elements of serendipity built into the algorithms that calculate our information environment?
- We need uncertainty and we need doubts. An algorithm knows no falsifiability of our conceptions of reality. It neither doubts nor errs. This alters our world view and our idea of man paradigmatically. Everything is precisely how it is calculated to be. Life in such a positivist world will change us. Whoever refuses to live in this digital panopticon, will have to insist on doubts and uncertainty as a prerequisite of freedom.
- We need media that are edited and produced by humans. Only they can counterbalance algorithmically calculated services like “Demand Media”, which deliver precisely what we thought of looking for by aggregating Google search terms and producing news on demand – and nothing more. What these services are neglecting is the fact that we also need what we haven’t thought of looking for yet, the surprising piece of information that sparks an “uncalculated” interest in us.
A world entirely calculated by algorithms is not only a dull and boring one. It is also the anti-social draft of a perfectly individualized commercial society. Victor Hugo wrote in “Les Miserables”: “Great coincidences are the law. The order of things cannot do without them.” Today, coincidences are not the law anymore – not even the small ones. But we cannot do without these coincidences, without serendipity – not even in the Internet. By saving serendipity, we are saving our very souls, saving what distinguishes us humans from machines. So: Let’s save our serendipity!
- John Brockman (ed.): Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? The Net’s Impact on our Minds and Future. New York 2011.
- Michael Chorost: World Wide Mind. The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet. New York 2011.
- Cyrus Farivar: The Internet of Elsewhere. The Emergent Effects of a Wired World. New Brunswick et al. 29011.
- Miriam Meckel: Next – Erinnerungen an eine Zukunft ohne uns. Reinbek bei Hamburg 2011.
- Robert Merton & Elinor Barbar: The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. Princeton 2004.
- Oliver Müller: Zwischen Mensch und Maschine. Vom Glück und Unglück des Homo faber. Berlin 2010.
- Eli Pariser: The Filter Bubble. What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York 2011.
- Amartya Sen: Identity and Violence. The Illusion of Destiny. New York 2006.
- Raymond Tallis: Aping Mankind. Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Durham 2011.
- Ethan Zuckerman: Desperately seeking serendipity. CHI-Keynote, 12/05/2011.
Tags: algorithm, google, internet, media, personalisation, search, serendipity,
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