Serendipity by Design: Mutating the Narcissistic Net

NI's Dave Barrowcliff asks if personalisation algorithms open up a world of choice or do they simply reinforce our biases and prejudices? How can marketers introduce us to something new when the internet gives us more of the same? Sometimes we need disruption in our lives to make new discoveries.

The problem with looking in the bathroom mirror is that you always see a reflection of yourself. That’s fine if you’re fixing your hair. But what if you look under the skin and all you see is a reflection of your own beliefs, attitudes and prejudices?

The internet is a hungry monster. It feeds off your every move. You like what you see and you see what you like. You heart a picture. You angry-face a news article. You ha-ha at a goat in pyjamas. All the time feeding the monster. Behind the scenes your actions are being chewed up and digested. A profile of ‘you’ is being created and honed to perfection, ready for the monster to regurgitate it all back to you.

Hurrah! I’m seeing more recipes for things I like to eat. Except I don’t want to eat the same kind of food all the time. But in order to bake a different cake, I need to use different ingredients. I need to get the monster in a neck-hold and force-feed it something else.

Easier said than done. The monster will resist. You’ve trained it well.

What’s my point? It’s about serendipity.

Think about your route into work. First left, second right, straight ahead for five minutes, catch the metro, over the bridge, into the office. It’s routine, predictable and reduces the cognitive load in our overworked brains. Automatic. Vanilla. But wait. One morning my route is disrupted: signal failure on the metro. My brain starts to heat up and the neurons start firing in my quest for alternatives. Deep breath. I take another route.

My unplanned journey takes me down a narrow side-street. Past some ancient ruins I never knew existed. Past a cute little wine-bar. An independent coffee shop. New sights, new sounds, new smells. Different. All because of a change in my daily routine.

That’s my point. Because I was disrupted I found something new. Serendipity. I was challenged, and I accepted.

Can the same be said of our journey across the internet? The monster I refer to above is really just a bunch of algorithms trained to carry out a specific set of instructions based on how it’s fed. And that’s the issue. The more we like the same things, the more we get what we like. Our field of vision becomes narrower. Our biases polarized. Our prejudices strengthened.

Don’t get me wrong. Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms are groundbreaking. They excel at carrying out specific, well-defined tasks that would otherwise take a great deal of human effort to complete. Landing a plane. Detecting fraud. Playing chess. Curing disease.

But what’s concerning is how they are being used to create an internet filter-bubble that denies us the opportunity to challenge our own thinking. Of course, it feels good to have our beliefs affirmed. But if we constantly consume the same news, like the same posts or share the same causes we may not even know what we are missing. This narcissistic cocoon is undeniably comfortable, but over time it will only serve to diminish our exposure to alternative viewpoints. We become more and more like the image of ourselves because that is all we see.

Is personalization becoming too personal? I don’t always want consensus, I want a curveball. I’d like to believe that serendipity is being purposefully built into AI algorithms in order to shock and delight us. But if such random mutations are not part of the AI design, then we need to take some personal responsibility to feed the monster a different diet.

I want to stumble upon those ancient ruins and that cute little wine bar that I didn’t know existed. But who is responsible for leading me there?

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