As I’ve written previously, personalization is the megawave of this decade and probably the next, just as self-service was the business megawave of the previous decades. However, the downsides of personalization are becoming more apparent as it spreads across social media and jumps out of the screen to managing our interactions with with the real world.
One of the most valued characteristics of new hires for the top tech companies like Google and Apple is curiosity, the strong desire to know or learn something. Why is that? Because tech moves so fast that what you learned in college becomes obsolete in your first year or two at work – new programming languages sprout like mushrooms for one thing. So the ability to learn, and learn quickly, becomes the most valued trait in new hires. And curiosity is the intrinsic driver of learning – despite public schools best efforts you can’t use extrinsic stimuli, rewards or punishments, to stimulate learning.
But personalization is the enemy of curiosity because it eliminates anything you don’t already know and like. Curiosity eliminates discovery. The reason I prefer going to a local bookstore to buying all my books on Amazon is the fun of discovery that browsing a physical bookstore enables. Finding new things that may be at the far periphery of my interest sphere is fun! I value serendipity: the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Serendipity is the opposite of personalization. The best way to satisfy curiosity, to discover new things, to let chance present beneficial events, is to get out of the personalization bubble!
While Netflix attempts to determine what films I’d like from what I’ve already watched it has no idea what books or articles I’ve read that have been adapted into movies. Nor does it incentivize me to take a chance on something new. My wife and I have always liked European movies. Australia is not in Europe, but our curiosity about films from other cultures lead us to discover Australian films, which we find uniformly excellent, perhaps due to the support of the Film Australia, a company established by the government of Australia to produce films about Australian culture. Discovering films from Australia lead us to try films from Scandinavia, Norway in particular, much to our delight. The big advantage of subscription services like Netflix and Spotify is that the cost of such experimentation is nil – you lose nothing by trying a Norwegian film like Insomnia, because it’s already paid for by your monthly subscription. And by watching the Norwegian version of Insomnia we discovered the brilliant actor Stellan Skarsgård. Yet Netflix does nothing to stimulate curiosity, in fact it’s a curiosity killer with its recommendation engine.
Worse yet, personalization has now invaded one of my favorite places: museums. The Wall Street Journal article The Museum of What You Already Know describes how the $50 million National Comedy Center in Jamestown uses an RFID identification wristband programmed according to your preferences among comedians, TV shows and movies. Signals from the band trigger displays specifically tailored to those interests. Museums used to be a place of discovery but now with pre-programmed personalization they can limit your ability to discover something outside your “likes.” As author Peter Funt writes,
That seems both cynical and misguided. In his 2016 book, The Return of Curiosity, Nicholas Thomas writes that museums are rewarding for their “unexpected discoveries of pieces that may be minor in art-historical terms or otherwise supposedly of secondary interest but that appeal to you nevertheless, that enable you to know something new or that take you somewhere you have not previously been.”
Visits to museums, libraries, bookstores or foreign countries should expose you to something new, to expand your horizons. To help to satisfy your seeking system, not to stunt it.
Personalization is being damned these days for keeping people in a political filter bubble. But it’s actually worse than that: personalization is a curiosity killer, it disables learning, and thus personal growth.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore all recommendations from Netflix or Amazon. I find it useful to see “Customers who bought this item also bought ….” as I often discover books that I am in fact interested in. But it’s by reading, especially books and movie reviews, that I can jump out of Amazon’s or Netflix’s personalization box to discover something that might interest me but that neither service would recommend based on my previous media consumption behavior.
So if you are curious, if you love to discover, if you love to learn new things – be ware of personalization. Make an effort to meet new people, go to new places, to let serendipity expose you to new things. Otherwise you might face a major downside of personalization: boredom! And you won’t grow, you’ll be stunted. There is more choice than ever before and personalization can be an effective guide to this plethora of books, movies, TV, events, and products but to rely on it exclusively is to risk missing out on many things that you might enjoy, if only you found them on your own.