Not too long ago, I got into a really interesting debate with a friend of ours. The discussion centered around whether or not the collection and use of information about our browsing habits by websites like Amazon.com, Facebook and Google to present us with “recommended” information based our past activity was a good thing. I thought yes. He thought no. Here’s the crux of the argument.
I think that most everyone knows by now that Amazon collects data on what you search for, what you click on and what you buy (amongst other stuff). They use this information in the background with some really powerful technology to make recommendations to you about things you might be interested in buying. I, personally, have found that the recommendations are often good ones and are things that usually I am at least interested in knowing about, if not buying. This process is a remarkable one to think about because it really suggests that human behavior might be more predictable and consistent that what we sometimes think. Back to the argument.
The point of disagreement in my discussion with my friend was over whether this technology was good for us or not. My opinion is that I love it. It think it’s brilliant that Amazon can use technology to tell me what stuff I might be interested in. Saves me time shopping and exposes me to stuff without my having to find it. That suits my low patience and seems really valuable to me. It’s like having a personal browsing assistant who knows you so well that he can show you only things you’d find cool. That’s handy.
My friend, on the other hand, argued that this technology will lead to other more ambitious technology that will, over time, ensure that we have exposure to less diversity and, as a result, become less creative or able to generate new ideas. His argument is that part of how our brain grows and we find new ideas or inspiration is through exposure to the new and different. His concern is that the algorithims used by Amazon and others basically learn things about how I behave and then use that information to search their data to find others who behave most like me. Then, they show me what other people like me have bought (or found interesting). Ultimately, it’s creating a easier path towards sameness at the expense of exposure to things that may stretch or grow our perspective or experience.
This argument definitely takes on a little bit of a conspiracy theory feel, but I think he may be on to something. What if, in the future, my television only shows me shows that other people like me usually watch? Or my search engine of choice only shows results that other people like me found to be useful. What if it becomes harder and harder to find things that are unusual or different? What if my technology just leads me towards everything that is in my comfort zone? What impact is that going to have on us?
While I love the convenience of this technology today, I can see how this technology could easily evolve to help us as humans to follow our natural compulsions for comfort, safety and homogeneity. At what expense? No diversity, no risk, no discovery=no innovation, no creativity, no inspiration.
Or maybe, we are blowing the who thing way out of proportion. What do you think? Is Amazon, Google and Facebook on the path to killing our creativity and innovation?