Attempts to escape personalization

About a month ago, I was doing some hesitant online looking at an item from a rather expensive store called Anthropologie. Around that time, I also clicked through a promotional email informing me about Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King & I” on Broadway. Both situations were unusual for me: online shopping is foreign territory for me, which also explains why all my online ads suddenly turned into pictures of Anthropologie pants and “The King & I” logo. It was like that scene where Dumbledore claps his hands and all of the Great Hall banners go from celebrating Slytherin to Gryffindor. Obviously, my situation involved less magic and more browser cookies, search histories and a debate about the merits of consumer privacy. Plus, most people my age are familiar with this minor annoyance. I’m playing catchup on trendy issues, as usual.

Still, I’ve now spent a good month imagining what it must have been like when the Internet was shiny and new and online advertising wasn’t as pervasive. I’ve heard the Internet was hailed as a portal for exploration. I’ve heard it was going to help solve the problem of closed-mindedness. It was a Pandora’s box of surprises!

The Internet I know today is an echo chamber where my interests are repeated back to me. This is partly because I can’t escape myself. I gravitate toward the headlines that tell me what I’m already inclined to believe or support—”When it comes to clean water, some say Silicon Valley is all talk” and “‘No Kardashian Parking’ Signs Crop Up In Hollywood” and “South Korea is both exasperated by its wealthy — and obsessed with them—such that even if I’m learning something, it’s in the bucket of topics I’m already pursuing. But it’s also because the websites I see and the companies they advertise help feed those topics back to me, too. There’s a strong relationship between “customer engagement,” or keeping someone on your website for as long as possible, and “personalization,” or giving you more of what you’ve already picked. It results in the concierge service of the “Recommended for you” sidebar, a beguiling vicious cycle.

A more fitting analogy for the Internet might be a house of mirrors. In these freaky sideshows, one steps through the doors for a chance to look into a seeming infinity at every corner, an endless vision of distance and light and perspective. In reality, the visitor is in a tiny room, surrounded by mirrors, looking at himself, over and over again.

Freedom for me comes in the four walls of the public library, where zillions and zillions of words and ideas I’ve never confronted before stare at me in the face and I’m the only living person in control of which one I pick. I felt this way at the LSE, too, every time I planned to spend approximately 10 minutes checking out books I’d chosen on the catalogue online, but instead ended up slowly side-shuffling between stacks for two hours. Oh, the browsing!!! There is nothing like the slow-burning frustration and anticipation of thumbing through books and authors’ names I’ve never heard of in my life. In other words, it’s at the library that I’ve checked out books I doubt anyone would have recommended to me based on the last 10 books I checked out.

Much like I crave time at the physical library, I crave time wandering on my feet with no guide. Sometimes this is enforced upon me, when my iPhone loses battery or Wi-fi isn’t working, and it’s a blessing in disguise because it’s almost the only way cities have ever become truly intimate and familiar to me. It’s what I looked forward to in Florence studying abroad: getting lost repeatedly before realizing in epiphany how this random street was connected to that other one, and that other one. This was the case in LA, too, when only after years of getting lost on the 405 and being annoyingly late to meetings did that freeway become my geographic soft spot. “Even a trip to the most touristy spot can feel personal and spontaneous,” a The New York Times columnist said a few weeks ago about ditching navigation. My favorite little spots are often the ones I stumble upon, by which I mean actually stumble upon. Then I can remember that reality consists of far more than my projected identity and choices.

The strategy of the advertising culture I see is to keep telling me that the world is all about me and that I deserve to have exactly what I want whenever, from television shows to food delivery. This on-demand personalization of life could be crucial in some situations (for example, treating someone’s medical condition using a treatment tailored to their unique genes), but I wonder if our expectations of life and other people only becomes more demanding the more this logic infiltrates all news, services and entertainment. It’s convenient now, but does it make us more open-minded in the long run, flexible to inconveniences or welcoming of opposition that goes against the grain? I am skeptical. I’m already so good at telling myself I’m right. With the help of savvy online marketing, I feel like I’m just getting duped into a feedback loop. It’s too easy.

When I was in high school, I remember reading this phrase in so many books: “Suddenly, she found herself saying/doing/wondering/going…” It wasn’t a self-discovery kind of “found herself.” It was a surprised at oneself “found herself.” I was intrigued by this notion that the protagonist didn’t know every aspect of herself and might not ever. Maybe she’d find her hands picking up a book she never expected to touch; maybe she’d find her feet walking down roads and past scenery no one would have suggested. Such are the physical, tangible surprises that are not pushed to us by our pasts or outside parties. They are surprises. I think it’s still possible today, but with more effort, and probably not online. Chances to remember what serendipity looks like.


For further reading:

Update: July 13, 2016: From “How Technology Disrupted the Truth” by Katherine Viner in The Guardian:

“The increasing prevalence of this approach suggests that we are in the midst of a fundamental change in the values of journalism – a consumerist shift. Instead of strengthening social bonds, or creating an informed public, or the idea of news as a civic good, a democratic necessity, it creates gangs, which spread instant falsehoods that fit their views, reinforcing each other’s beliefs, driving each other deeper into shared opinions, rather than established facts.”

Update: May 21, 2016: From “How Facebook Warps Our Worlds” by Frank Bruni in The New York Times:

“That’s the trap and curse of our lives online. The Internet isn’t rigged to give us right or left, conservative or liberal — at least not until we rig it that way. It’s designed to give us more of the same, whatever that same is: one sustained note from the vast and varied music that it holds, one redundant fragrance from a garden of infinite possibility…

We’ve surrendered universal points of reference. We’ve lost common ground.”

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