Commentary

How Personalization Can Make You Soulless

Steve Smith, MediaPost's very own Mobile Insider columnist and resident college professor, recently wrote about a Nashville digital agency that put up a large LED building sign, then issued a mobile app that allows anyone to change the color of the sign logo. The name of the company stays white, but users can apparently change the agency logo color at will.

At first it brought back vivid memories (flashbacks?) of certain hallucinogenic nights in college when we jumped up and down on the rollover stoplight controller embedded in the street in order to change the entire night from red to yellow to green. Abject, barely contained delight. Repeat. It made me wonder if Nashville now has a logo sign that changes colors every 20 seconds, as competing stoners reward their newly expansive awareness of the cosmos with app commands. Have the neighbors complained yet?

It also reminded me of the gym where a bank of TVs above the treadmills, cross-trainers and Stairmasters are subject to "personalization" as users change channels to accompany their workouts. Never mind that one of the 10 commandments states explicitly that "Though shalt not change from ESPN." Gone is the NIT, replaced by someone cooking what looks somewhat like chicken schnitzel with a side of arugula and chia seeds. That the sound is off makes such programming that much more pointless, but I guess we have to yield to the concept of "personalization" (at least until someone gets tired of speedwalking nowhere.) Or as the remarkable Bud Rukeyser once said of running," I don't do sports where you can't keep score."

And isn't that the downside of "personalization," that it doesn't always stay personal? Kind of like those kids who think that playing their personal MP3 playlists at 200 decibels is a form of "sharing" their magnificent taste in music with the rest of the subway/bus/train/waiting room. Or for those in the rest of America -- their car radios.  Makes wanting to add an aftermarket bazooka to your car a rational thought.

Entertainment programmers and Web sites are falling all over themselves to "personalize" their offerings in an effort to be more appealing/more "relevant" to your tastes.  That much of their idea of who you are and what you like is based on flawed and inaccurate data is beside the point, I guess. Even the mighty Netflix does a terrible job of recommending movies based on what I have watched in the past. (You wouldn't think that violent death and full-frontal nudity would be that hard to algorithm.) But there is even a downside to personalization that stays personal.

Take, for example, Google -- which learns over time "who" you are and returns searches personalized to you. The guy next door gets a different return when he searched the exact same term. That is supposed to be a good thing, but it is not. Just like only watching news and commentary channels that reinforce your personal view of the world, being fed more of the same only limits your thinking and convinces you that you are indeed the Lord of the Universe.

That is why you ultimately don't want your news "personalized" or your book suggestions or your movie selections. This is where you want to go over the line and explore. Open yourself to new ideas, new perspectives. Challenge your beliefs. Try to see the other guy's POV. Otherwise you will indeed become one of those soulless techno-driven automatons.

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1 comment about "How Personalization Can Make You Soulless".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , March 21, 2014 at 10:14 a.m.
    And who is in charge of these horse blinders of what they think you want to see/hear or what they want you to see/hear making you think you want that ?