Finding an Identity in a World That Already Knows You
There is a really good chance that somewhere, right now, your information is being processed through some sort of system or another. The text you just sent carries with it not only your message but your phone number, time you sent the message, and your location in the world. When you hop on the WiFi at Target it determines not only your location in the store but how many times you’ve visited in the past. Hell, if you leave this page and decide to check out some of my photos here and there WordPress will take note of what you view and how often.
At this point, it’s almost a given any interaction we have is being watched and recorded (even our TVs are listening to us). All that information becomes what is one of the most prevalent buzzphrases in any sort of customer based business: Big Data. See, Big Data is all the stuff you ever do that can be recorded and stored. Phone calls, texts, purchasing history, YouTube uploads, Vines, SnapChats, emails and so on and so on and so on.
It’s what those businesses are doing with all that data that is interesting. Through the use of predicative analytics, companies are getting to the point of understanding your previous choices so well that they can begin to predict what you’ll do in the future. Remember when you ordered that Blu-Ray version of Die Hard and the next time you went to Amazon it suggested Live Free or Die Hard? That’s a basic example of predicative analytics. Amazon identified a trend and offered a related product. Recently Mofibo, a Danish based ebook company, has been using customer data of not only purchase history but engagement rates (how much of the book you read, whether you finished it or not, etc) to push suggestions of new titles to subscribers.
While these practices certainly bring up questions of privacy and consent in the digital age, I’m curious as to what impact they will have on choice and our ability to freely determine what we consume. Will we consume the products we want, or the products that companies have determined we want through our past behavior? Is there a difference? Perhaps this is a bit of a chicken/egg rabbit hole; have I purchased what I want in the past or has what I purchased in the past determine what I want?
It is somewhat worrying that we will eventually get to a point where our world view is so constrained by our past behaviors that we’re, in essence, not able to branch out into the new and uncertain. A case could be made for our ability to exercise our free will (a concept that is somewhat dubious) and break from the cycle, but where will we break to if we have no other context?
In the wider, more the-sky-is-falling view, I worry how our pre-destined consumption will impact our creation. As more and more companies present us with the future that our past has determined, will we become less innovative and willing to create things that break from that pattern?
At the heart of it all, I truly believe that technology provides a bridge to all sorts of worlds that we’ve never considered before and there will always be the outliers that use the tech in meaningful ways. My worry is that the system will become so large and cognizant of its own singular mission that it scrubs those outliers from public consciousness. The problem is that for so many people, different is dangerous and predictable behavior provides a certain level of comfort.
And I get it, it’s nice to know what to expect. But I don’t want nice. I want the thrill of learning something new. I want to be excited for something I’ve yet to experience. I want to be try new beers that I don’t like so that one day I try a new on that I love.
Tennyson wrote “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / life to lees,” and Whitman spoke of “hoping to cease not till death.” But this is more than seizing the day; it’s about finding the willingness to never stop learning about what it is that makes you, you. It’s about facing the world with eyes open and deciding, for yourself, what sort of person you’re going to be. So, before Big Data tells you; what sort of person are you going to be?