Analyze This!

Data analytics, artificial intelligence, and robotics are all the rage right now. You find them in each part of the business cycle, from design to manufacturing, marketing, and consumption. The idea is to speed up that cycle–like putting clothes on “spin” or Henry Ford cranking up the Model T production line at night–so that consumers spend more. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, consumers gotta consume. It’s that simple.

Companies like Siemens and General Electric are racing to create cloud-based software that will enable smaller companies not only to automate production but to customize the process. And it doesn’t matter whether those smaller companies make steering wheels or billiard balls. Quicker production means more billiard balls. More billiard balls yield more data about individuals and groups. The problem for you and me is that customization leads to less freedom and fewer choices, not more. How so?

Consider Netflix, which thrives on data. I like to watch what used to be called “foreign films.” They are now “international,” since no one is the center of anything anymore, but that’s another post. Netflix used to make all of their international films available for viewing. They also listed the language of the movie, since it can get tricky. An Iranian film need not necessarily be made in Farsi. In fact, many international films are produced in English. These two features–full selection and language listing–made picking and watching movies easy.

But then they improved things. First, they identified the kinds of movies I was watching and showed me only those movies they decided were related (e.g., French movies with red balloons). Then they removed the information about language, making it harder to figure out a movie’s actual language. Had they bothered to ask, I would have objected, since I want to see the entire selection of movies before choosing. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a Danish detective series even though the only Danish I know comes with coffee.

I’ve experienced the same loss of control with libraries. Believe it or not, on many university campuses, you can’t find books in the library. Everything has been converted into “learning spaces” where students peck at their laptops, slurp lattes, eat pizza, and find romance.

Oh, you want a book? You have to go online, fill out a form, and wait for the robotic arm to bring it to you with a beep and a swish. If you don’t know what you want or just want to run your fingers over book spines, you’re out of luck. No dawdling allowed. But I can’t tell you how many times I have accidentally come across a book or other information in my research that turned out to be meaningful. Besides, I like to smell books.

Students especially–but all of us–need freedom to explore, make mistakes, and sniff pages. This is serendipity and it is a major part of creativity. It is also a waste of time, which is precisely the point. Serendipity is an enemy of data analytics and can serve little purpose in the society of the future, where our choices will be predetermined or manipulated by “experts.” This is taking place already. One recent study determined that to alleviate consumers’ boredom with yogurt, for instance, it is necessary to alternate flavors. Switch up vanilla with pineapple. The consumer must never be bored, never allowed to question his or her purpose so that the business cycle continues to run smoothly.

That anyone could be bored with yogurt is beyond me, but then so are most things. I am also suspicious of the phrase, “What the research shows…” One can’t help but wonder whether the people conducting this study ever considered anything beyond two feet in front of them. Boredom, apparently, is now a pathology.

Do not despair, though, because free will has not disappeared entirely. You can still choose between paper and plastic.

Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: For Independence Day, whither freedom?


  1. Nice one Rob!

    On Sun, Jul 2, 2017 at 11:50 AM, The Brancatelli Blog wrote:

    > Robert Brancatelli posted: “Data analytics, artificial intelligence, and > robotics are all the rage right now. You find them in each part of the > business cycle, from design to manufacturing, marketing, and consumption. > The idea is to speed up that cycle–like putting clothes on “spin” >

  2. your thoughts are very interesting, I can see that technologies will change the way we look at things and some people will miss the old times. However, it will bring a lot of efficiency and convenience. I think there are still options to find just paper books in a lot of libraries without searching online (at least where I live) and I guess for Danish films on Netflix – it is still possible to search them up anyway, right? I don’t think we can delay progress just because we have some sentimentality towards the past, sometimes we just need to move on to something faster and smarter like a machine…(really liked your post, I came across it as I was browsing through different feeds, just my own thoughts on it)

    1. Thank you for your comments. I checked out your blog and was impressed by your emphasis on responsibility and care (e.g. 3-D printing, sexuality). I also agree with you concerning sentimentality and progress. We need to move forward. I just don’t want to do it by diminishing man and granting personhood to machines or priority to number crunching over freedom of thought. Glad you wrote.

  3. most damning of all is that this will all be the result of marketing a stupid idea, not actually requiring people to get on board with it (at first.)

    people are going to be sold this concept of “this thing knows what you want better than you do,” and they will believe it, and choose to go with whatever crap it gives them. not only will young people grow up thinking its normal, but people will convert to this believe that an algorithm has a better idea of what they want than they do– simply because its occasionally true “and nothings perfect.” in fact this version of reality (slowly finding its way into everything) just entered its 10th year last month:

    1. And the result of all this “help” and “efficiency” will be laziness, weakness, and atrophied minds that won’t be able to reason. Then, of course, people will be upset if any little thing doesn’t go their way. They will miss out on the two most important things for a truly human life: responsibility and suffering. In fact, we’re running from them now. The thing that “knows what you want better than you do” is the State. BTW, the talking toaster bit in Red Dwarf is exactly about this. I find it interesting that both the toaster and Kryten have American accents…

      PS–the YouTube iPhone parodies are terrific.

      1. “The thing that “knows what you want better than you do” is the State”

        oh i know. get ready to celebrate freedom from tyranny while posting on facebook and twitter and google, three giant companies that regularly talk with the white house (though probably just about what they ate for breakfast and who the kardashians are dating, im sure.)

  4. as a sometimes-technologist, im afraid youre on the right track again. i have yet to go to a library where i cant browse shelves in person, but i find the idea very saddening. the link between your two examples is the damage done to exploration, by “catering” to electronic representations “patterns” of people.

    a clothing metaphor i believe youll approve of: bespoke tailoring used to be a thing (on rarest occasions it still is, but thats hurting in almost every place you can go.) for we proles who cant afford having that done by the masters, we can still go into a shop and browse, try things on and keep what fits.

    but more and more things are becoming less like that, and more like walking into a clothing store, being told what colours we like, and having something made instantly by a robot that “guesses” very accurately what fits your profile. if you dont agree, well… move along, youre slowing the lines down. an exaggeration and “slippery slope,” but no longer an unreasonable or implausible one

    at best, we can stave it off and wait quite a few years for it to swing back. its going to clash beautifully with the pc brigade, who get angry that the cafeteria tells too many people they want watermelon and fried chicken. i hope to never program a food machine, i dont want to be part of that scandal when it happens. people are already losing job opportunities over quite-possibly-racist algorithms.

    choice used to be a commodity, but soon it will be a luxury again. the commodity will be really terrible customisation– like a less cartoonish version of every “blooper” robot scene on the jetsons or similar– here we come! lots of that to look forward to. if youre a red dwarf fan, just imagine being served by kryten everywhere you go, except without the banter.

    its happening to software, too– this version of firefox is the most useless thing theyve ever put out, and lots of other things weve relied on through the good and bad have taken an awful turn– ive taken to making my own operating system just to get away from it! i feel bad for people that have to subscribe to one. theyre paying more and more to get less and less.

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