Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out: How The TiVo Phenomenon Rots Identity

When did I stop thinking for myself? The day I gave in to the temptations of collaborative filtering systems.
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Turns out my TiVo gets me more than I get me. It knows my guilty pleasure is bad '80s fantasy cinema, and works for me around the clock, recording late-night TBS and USA movies, even when I'm not around.

Turns out Last.fm already knows the next hit single that'll get stuck in my head, and Amazon knows the next crime novel I won't be able to put down.

Turns out, my buddy, StumbleUpon, knows the perfect microsite to satisfy my procrastination needs. Thanks to him, I can waste yet another workday perfecting my avatar craftsmanship instead of my PowerPoint presentation.

So you might be wondering: when did she stop thinking for herself?

The sad truth is, the day I gave in to the temptations of collaborative filtering systems.

Wikipedia defines collaborative filtering as "the method of making automatic predictions (filtering) about the interests of a user by collecting taste information from many users (collaborating)." In some recommendation systems, taste information is collected actively by relying on users to assign values to content and products on a rating scale. In other systems, web browsers passively collect taste information by tracking the behavior of users through their actions -- surfing, downloading and purchasing. In both methods, the software analyzes your specific tastes and then aligns you with a group of users with similar tastes or track records.

Averaging effects within rating systems and issues regarding whether or not user behavior really corresponds to user opinion are just some of the many hurdles technologists are working through. Although there are steps being taken to better recommendation systems, as in the case of NetFlix, users rarely consider the philosophical and psychological implications of their use.

Collaborative filtering is based on the philosophy that those who agree in the past will also agree in the future. Perhaps if we lived in a stagnant world with no history to learn from or knowledge to build upon, this theory might have some validity. However, it seems the way to survive in the 21st Century -- where competition is fierce and innovation is a commonality -- is to be flexible, open and change our minds on occasion. Flip-flopping always did seem like a silly accusation for presidential candidates (especially when they've spent over a decade in the Senate).

Why shouldn't old mistakes and new knowledge influence our discoveries and broaden our palates? Just because I grew up listening to punk rock doesn't mean I wouldn't enjoy listening to bluegrass if I was exposed to it. But if I just rely on iTunes to make recommendations to me, I'll only ever discover the artists Apple endorses or the music other like-minded people know about.

Psychologically, collaborative filtering has basically likened my palate to a series of algorithms. Somewhere in the technological simplification of taste assessment, I've lost all emotional connection to my content, which used to happen naturally during the serendipitous stages of discovery and evaluation. Turns out, my self-identity has become indistinguishable from that of the mysterious collective's. I miss the days when discovering web content was like being a little kid in a candy store. It might have taken pains to choose the peanut brittle over the rock candy, or Neil Young's new album over Bob Dylan's, but at least the decision was thoughtful, deliberate and mine.

Yes, there are definite benefits in collaborative filtering. The software usually reads me correctly, and makes fair-to-great suggestions on books, artists, movies and websites. But are a bunch of great content and product suggestions really worth sacrificing the self in my self-identity and the discovery of my self-discovery?

Technology is a master of trickery. Artificial intelligence has grown seemingly less artificial, just as personalization has made certain web experiences a lot less personal. As machines grow more powerful, the understanding of their negative influences on man seem to grow subtler. Perhaps George Orwell's foresight in 1984 that omnipresent forces would use technology to monitor every facet of human behavior, forcing individuals to conform to a collective identity, was not so far off:

There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always -- do not forget this, Winston -- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler...

Because we live in an age propelled by technology and a culture of accelerated change, we have no choice but to go with the flow. But while we're in the flow, let's not forget the very reason why humans have been and will continue to be the agents of change. Let's not lose sight of the power in our personal choices and individual differences.

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