When I was about 13 years old my father took me on a holiday to Singapore. I had a blast; it was a new country with new sights, sounds and experiences. I also learned an important lesson.
If you haven’t been to Singapore, one of the (many) cool things about the place is the food. And so, when in Singapore, you eat. A lot. And at one restaurant we were presented with a rather interesting dish. It was brown, goopy and spongey, and my thirteen year old brain was like: “that’s gross!” I then verbalised this sentiment.
My dad’s response: “I don’t care if you don’t like it as long as you try it first.”
Me: “I don’t like it.”
Dad: “You haven’t tried it yet. Try it, then tell me you don’t like it.”
I ate it. I didn’t like it. But the lesson stuck.
Fast forward about 15 years. Personalised content and custom recommendations are commonplace. Whether it’s Netflix making recommendations or Pandora allowing you to tailor your listening preferences, you’re watching, reading and listening to the things that you know you’re likely to enjoy before you try them. Sounds great. But what about trying different things?
I’m worried about a future where everything is tailored to your taste. Tastes and preferences can and should change. For example, the music I listened to at age 16 is different to the music I listen to now. And no – it’s not just that my taste is maturing due to age. It has a lot to do with a desire for exploration, receiving recommendations by friends, and by generally taking joy in exploring things outside my comfort zone.
Not all of us venture out of our comfort zone, and the motivations for doing so are pretty interesting in themselves. But for me – I love discovering new things. There is a thrill in tasting something new, seeing something different. Many of my friends and family feel the same joy in discovery.
So what happens when we’re systematically pushed towards a new choice based on past choices? Ah, yes… you liked Blah so you’ll like Bleh, right? Rather than growing and changing as people, we become static. Your tastes solidify and you become just like everyone else in a particular category. We become our own little echo chambers, with every choice informing the next choice, waltzing down a path of algorithmic satisfaction and zero adventure.
I’m not trying to make a scientific argument about recommendation engines, or say that personalisation is bad, or that we shouldn’t enjoy the recommendations we receive from algorithms. I just want to make two points.
First, I want an anti-recommendation engine. Something that shows me something I probably WOULDN’T have tried. An algorithm that says, “Based on your past choices, here’s something you haven’t tried and might not like but goddammit you should try it anyway.”
Second: Don’t knock it till you try it.