Among the many announcements emanating from CES this year -- in addition to technology for plants to tell you they need a sip of water and tablets that are so huge you have to hire an assistant just to carry them -- came one from textbook publisher McGraw-Hill called SmartBook, an adaptive ebook that adjusts the reading experience to each student’s pace and mastery level. Content is still structured somewhat like a textbook -- but instead of asking students to read it thoroughly from start to finish, the SmartBook coaches the student on how to read the material and quizzes them on various concepts as they move through each section. Depending on their responses, they are guided along to different highlighted passages. “It changes what is normally a static product to something that’s individualized to the learner,” one exec told The New York Times.
While on the face of it this seems like a splendid way to encourage slower learners, there is something ominous about "different highlighted passages." It reminds us that the results of Google searches for the same term are different for each person, under the guise of a "better personalized experience." Or that retailers will raise the prices on their site if they think you are coming from an affluent neighborhood or are otherwise data- tagged as a big spender (or MacBook user.) It you follow this out to its logical conclusion, then, as our world becomes more and more electronically driven, we could end up with almost no shared experiences.
Just as the online ad world is obsessed with the notion that a more relevant ad produces better results for the publisher and the market, so, too, all industries are looking to mine data to pander to your individual tastes and proclivities under the assumption that the more personalized the product, the more useful you will find it. Up to a point, that is all perhaps true. But isn't there another point -- the one of diminishing returns -- where everything becomes SO personalized that we will no longer be able to share our experiences?
There was something to be said socially for the days of just three TV networks and the conversations generated around -- yes -- the water cooler, about an episode of a hit TV show broadcast the night before. It was the days of appointment TV, and you were distraught if you missed the show and thus the subsequent conversation. Those shared moments brought us together, not always in agreement, but in community nonetheless in a way that now seems quaint.
The emergence of social media has connected the world and enabled us to share experiences in real-time in a way never before in history, but at a price. Just as in the ad business -- where three-martini lunches gave way to phone calls, which yielded to emails and texts -- we are losing face-to-face contact with one another at an appalling rate.
There is nothing but the advance of technology from stopping entertainment companies from "individualizing" everything from movies to TV shows, from video games to books, to try and meet the expectations of each reader or viewer. While that might seem appealing, I can just hear one kid-to-kid SmartBook conversation about “Moby Dick” ending with the question "What whale?"