Technology
5 Min Read

Big Tech Put Us All in Boxes. Now We Must Break Free.

New forms of personalisation have the potential to see us for who we really are.

Personalisation and consumerism have a long history together. Think the made-to-measure suit. The coffee brewed just how you like it. The customised pair of trainers.

It should be no surprise that personalisation has always been part of the promise of mass consumer societies. The desire to reshape the world around us in our own image, to find objects and experiences that are ‘just right for me’, is an age-old and powerful part of human nature.

And it’s also no surprise, then, that personalisation has been deeply entwined in the history of the internet. As the first millions, and then billions, of people came online, a new way to serve the age-old desire for personalisation technology emerged. And it revolved around data.

For many people, first direct contact with online, data-fuelled personalisation was via the Amazon recommendation engine. ‘People who bought this book also bought…’ Back then it felt something close to a miracle — something like visiting a busy bookshop and being led around by a knowledgeable staff member with an uncanny ability to suggest books that you’d never heard of but, on closer inspection, seemed right up your street.

Fast forward to 2019, and this kind of algorithmic recommendation is everywhere. It’s at the heart of some of the most celebrated personalisation services of all time, such as the iconic Spotify Discover Weekly, which some users (half-jokingly) say seems to know them better than their own family.

There’s no doubt that this kind of data-driven personalisation has fuelled vast commercial success, and embedded itself in the lives of billions of people. But there’s more to this story than only that. As traffic and attention has coalesced around a few platforms online, we have become the prisoners of their algorithms.

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If your behaviour online is typical, then it’s likely that Spotify or Apple Music plays a huge role in deciding what music you listen too. Meanwhile, Amazon shapes what you read, and the all-powerful YouTube algorithm decides what you see. Attention, as we’re constantly reminded these days, is the online world’s most precious resource. And a few super-powerful algorithms play a huge role in deciding how billions of people direct their attention.

In this way, Big Tech has put billions of people in boxes. Sure, they are highly sophisticated boxes, and living inside them can feel pretty comfortable. But they are boxes all the same; categories that essentially say, ‘oh, you’re one of those people who reads Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk’ or, ‘you’re one of those people who listens to Beyoncé and Lady Ga Ga’.

Few people are entirely comfortable with the idea that their entire existence be reduced to a category. But now we’re at the start of a new evolution in the long-running story of personalisation.

New technologies are emerging that give access to new, deeper forms of personal data. And that data will allow the development of services that are truly shaped around the tastes, preferences and personalities of individual people, rather than categories of people.

Think, for example, about the maturing of DNA technologies. In 2001 it cost around $100 million to sequence a human genome. Now it costs around $1,000. Millions of people around the world now have affordable access to deep insight on their individual DNA. That, and the emergence of consumer-facing services such as DNA-testing startup 23andMe will do much to reshape medicine, wellness, food and much else around the needs of individuals.

Meanwhile, the maturing of facial and voice recognition technologies will mean digital services that can ascertain and respond to the emotional state of users in real-time. Not services that put you in a box and respond accordingly, but services that say, ‘you’re feeling this way right now, and here is an appropriate response to that’.

As technologies such as this proliferate, the expectations of consumers all over the world will change. They’ll start to expect digital services that go beyond standard data-driven personalisation and offer true individualisation around their unique, context-dependent and ever-changing needs, tastes, circumstances and personalities. Digital services based on standard data-driven personalisation — on ‘people who like this also like…’ — will start to seem a little archaic.

What lies at the end of this journey?

The most powerful incarnation of this new kind of individualised digital service will be a virtual companion that understands and responds to its user on a deep and individualised level. An AI-fuelled assistant that truly knows who you are: your true interests, grandest ambitions, deepest fears, and yes, the perfect song for you right now.

It’s a tantalising prospect. And while it’s not here yet, it might just be closer than you think.