In the quest to solve a hundred problems, we have created a billion more.
Digital is a part of our lives no more. It now shapes humanity.
In the early ages, life after dark was constrained. Candles and lamps were fraught with dangers. The world could be brighter and days could be longer. A series of light sources, down to the latest LED lights was built upon the invention of Alessandro Volta’s “Voltaic pile”. No one ever needed to ask the question — What would it do to our society?
It is only wishful thinking and beyond the wildest imagination that the world could ever be that simple. The world used to be fragmented by geography. The Internet made a bridge across oceans. The internet led to an unmanageable quantity of information floating around in limbo. Google helped catalog it.
A single user can consume only so much digital content. How to increase the value of per minute of user consumption? Personalization was bred, born, and groomed.
The offer of personalization comes at cost of trespassing in your personal space, walking over your inherent preferences, and more dangerously shaping your thoughts and inclinations. It is primarily the way data is obtained, how and to what conclusions are drawn that bothers me. And the extreme lack of transparency.
If Google were to advertise to me every day — “You should be a farmer” in different flavors, I might end up abandoning my Product Manager job to travel to a small island and take up farming. There are worse things to convince people of. Convincing an impressionable teenager, hailing from a low-income background, to purchase an iPhone 11 Pro almost sounds like a crime. So does influencing how you vote. Technology has accelerated, taken sharp and sharper turns, and is now intertwined and entangled in its own web.
It is imperative, for the well-being of our society, that we solve the following problems impacting us in big, small, and often unknown ways.
Personalization, but without stalking
Cell Phones are rapidly becoming importance-adjacent to food. Digital sustenance will be soon considered under the primary needs of humans.
Hoards of products, companies vie every second for a moment of your attention. As consumers, the value derived is in terms of the customized offering, personalized discounts, and many more.
But a huge part of the population does not stop to think of the cost involved.
Every step we take, every click we make becomes a part of our profile.
Most of the Products and services we consume lie in boxes 2 and 4.
Quadrant 1 would be ideal. If not, users should be provided an option to choose the amount of personalization they want.
Do personalization and bias feel the same?
Recommending me a soap opera because I have watched 10 similar ones is personalization.
Recommending me a soap opera because I am a woman is a bias.
Things are rarely this simple, and non-offensive. The bias starts from the human-created data, continues to what the machines learned, and is then reflected in the personality of a product.
There is a need to identify boundaries and ensure that our machines do not embed the harmful prejudices that humans have.
Freedom of speech vs hate speech
Hate speech and hate slogans have often been the precursor of violence and riots. Especially in the times of the internet where the speech is carried and distributed with the speed of light, its impact becomes more critical to gauge.
But terminating the existence of hate speech from the media could be stepping over the personal freedom of speech.
The demarcation should be clear, transparent, and consistent across the globe.
Reduce the impact of the filter bubble
Another undesirable impact of all the personalization is being stuck in that filter bubble and never being able to step out.
Imagine a scenario. You have been purchasing cornflakes for 5 years. The entire internet thinks that you like cornflakes and shows you relevant ads, offers, etc. on cornflakes. But no one ever told you about this thing called Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms. And you spend your entire life not knowing the existence of both.
Would that not be a less colorful life with many roads untaken?
The internet, as it is designed today, conspires to convince you further of something you already believe in. While this might be ideal for personalization, the impact on society and the world is adverse.
Integrated user experience
It is not easy for a typical consumer to consume 5–10 digital products every day and then keep abreast of the new ones.
Starting our day from 2–3 news Apps to consume our daily quota of news, through the day whiling away time on Facebook, to intermittently using shopping, networking apps, the product diet varies.
The constantly fragmenting attention has been leading to low user attention, reduced focus. While there might be not much to complain about from a daily experience perspective, the direction of evolution we are being led towards is worth thinking about.
With the business landscape as it currently is, what I am talking about might not even be possible. Or, if it is, it could be accompanied by giants gaining size and power leading to obvious problems of concentration of power.
But setting the practical problems aside, this is still a problem worth solving.
Humanity has been evolving at an unprecedented pace. The question is if that progress is in the right direction. Walking through the current landscape in place, where would we land. Would this path lead us to Utopia or leave us stranded in a dark tunnel?