We were told that, in time, the online world would get to know our habits, our likes, dislikes and viewpoint so accurately that they would place content in front of us that would be exactly what we wanted to read and see, at exactly the moment it would be most relevant to us. How’s that working out for you? For me, it’s a farce.
What I get are pieces of inappropriate, uninteresting or just plain insulting content that bear no resemblance or relationship to my world view, opinions, needs, likes, dislikes, ideals, values or even my personal situation. I get ads for stuff I have already bought (I’m not going to buy a second, different one, am I?). I get recommendations to follow or friend people I know I have no desire to get to know, or I would have done so already. I get advertisements for things that I have no need of. I am categorised in risibly wrong ways. Frankly, I get junk. Is this the industry’s best shot? Seriously? And does any company have the gall to ask other companies (or the government) for money for this wildly inaccurate analysis of our psyches? I bet there are entire business models founded on this. What a fraud!
Knowing a person is a far more intricate process than sampling a few keywords from searches I’ve done or by following my mouse clicks. You can tell what I read, but what does that infer? What does it tell you? Did I agree or disagree? Was I indifferent? How do you know what I thought about it? Do you have any idea how that fits into the framework of my own unique personal history of experiences, gathered throughout a lifetime, or the stories retold to me by my relatives about our ancestors? Are you even sure I read it, instead of putting it on my screen and walking away? No. As a result, the personalised content served up to me is anything but personalised. It’s a wild guess. It’s off the mark. Sometimes, it’s woefully wrong.
I wonder if the spies and agencies that gather data about us, in order to determine if we’re some of those compliant, obedient, right-thinking people, or trouble-makers with radical, unorthodox, fresh and original ideas, conclude that their insight into our personal preferences tells them anything of use or value whatsoever. I bet they think they’ve profiled us and know our habits and ideas intimately. What an arrogant and hubristic viewpoint. What those agencies know about us is a joke. It’s a wildly inaccurate, incomplete distortion of our selves. Heaven help us all, if significant decisions are made on the basis of this junk data.
A look at some de-classified FBI files provides amusing, if chilling, reading. People that had files assembled about them, for the most innocent of associations, statements or meetings, or just because of malicious slander and casual innuendo, are seen, in the current light of day, to have been terribly wronged. They were intruded upon outrageously and the information collected about them, redacted or not, is utterly hysterical, in both senses of the word.
One’s viewpoint is subject to change. You learn. You discover. You, through happenstance, can be exposed to a new idea that changes all of your old ideas. None of this is captured by the technology used for personal profiling. It just doesn’t show up. If it appears at all, what weight does it get, against all the other data collected? Who can tell? Certainly, if the information is gathered by machine, on an industrial scale, nobody is paying sufficient attention to it to get it even half right.
There is a vast, yawning chasm between gathering data, which the world seems to do at an exponentially increasing rate, and having insight or information. That takes intelligence and time. The person making the judgement needs to have that insight. They also need to have a world view similar enough to their subject’s that they can spot the subtleties. Of course, to work for an agency that tries to do this kind of analysis on other people puts them into a different category of mindset to most people, anyway. They have to believe in the theory behind what they are attempting to do. They have to have bought in to the efficacy and necessity of it. They need to have suspended their scepticism. In short, they haven’t a hope of adequately interpreting what they’re looking at. They’re going to see it through their own peculiar, twisted lens.
An algorithm can’t do it either. It isn’t that easy. An algorithm is just a frozen encapsulation of the software developer’s own prejudices and viewpoints. That’s why credit ratings are such a hoot. All they can tell you are how you rate compared to what the programmer that wrote the software thought was important and significant. Even when a so-called expert pronounces that they have seen inside your head and decided what is in there, what good are their guesses? They are guesses, after all. Expert profiling is notoriously inaccurate.
Let’s imagine that personal profiling got even half way close to understanding your aesthetic tastes and judgements and was, by some fantastical miracle, able to provide you with exactly the right art, at the exact moment you wanted to see it. What would that be like? Where would be the surprises and the discoveries? How would innovation creep in? I might like Van Gogh and Monet, but if my online experience reduces to endless repetitions of the relatively small number of paintings by these artists, masterpieces that they may be, wouldn’t it get awfully dull, disinteresting and disengaging rather quickly?
This is why recommendation engines and online radio stations that try to predict what kind of music you will like are so lame and so wrong. They dish up the obvious. They seldom dish up something of genuine interest. They can’t. They’re programmed for similarity. They leave nothing to chance and that’s their downfall.
Does any government really want to identify those that are in complete agreement with it, one hundred percent of the time? Let’s say they can and they do. Then what? What can ever change? What can progress? If there is no dissent, no questioning, no ability to disagree, what happens? Yet, this seems to be the simplistic, naive goal of those in authority. The former Communist bloc was a vivid illustration of the sclerosis that ensues. But those in power think they want consistent, uniform, obedient, compliant, conformant, unquestioning agreement, or they perceive you as a threat. A threat!? You’re doing them a favour! You’re saving them from the stasis of ossified ideas. You’re rescuing them from unending tedium, ennui and repetition of a viewpoint so narrow, there is no life, joy, vibrancy, vitality or humanity within it.
Those that require dissent to be brutally stifled are busily constructing a world unfit to live in, even for themselves, but they don’t understand that. Stalin was unable to survive, in the end, because nobody dared risk being blamed for calling a doctor that couldn’t save him. Nobody in his closest, inner circle was capable of taking the initiative. To have done so may have been to have risked being seen as being out of line. No such risks were possible.
So, next time somebody promises to provide you with a personalised on line experience, raise an eyebrow. There’s nothing personal about it and you don’t want it anyway. What you want is surprise, enlightenment, discovery, intellectual expansion, growth, learning, new ideas, innovation, blessed disagreement and the chance to make a difference by being different. If you’re not doing something different, you’re not doing anything, to quote Sam Phillips.