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?