The Case for Unpredictive Analytics
Many of us in the United States learned the term “filter bubbles” by way of their effects on our civic lives and national politics. When we search for news or current events information on media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, predictive algorithms are applied that assume that we will want to see the same kinds of topics and viewpoints we have viewed in the past. This self-reinforcing process can leave us circling solipsistically in little bubbles of our own existing predispositions and prejudices. We don’t learn new information or encounter different points of view. The democratic ideal of an informed citizenry is poorly served, to say the least.
Another way to say all this is that when our algorithms are programmed to treat us as boring, static, and unevolving, it can become a self fulfilling prophecy — we become boring, static, single-minded and don’t evolve.
As a result of collective outrage over filter bubbles in political discourse, there are now all kinds of interesting experiments and calls for different kinds of algorithms that will expose readers to a wider array of information and viewpoints on social media.
No equivalent collective anxiety exists around the use of predictive algorithms in the consumer realm.
But maybe we should get anxious, or at least interested in the fact that a substantial amount of disposable income globally is spent on content and experiences that also convey information, ideas, and viewpoints. Travel, restaurants and food, education and training, movies, books, all manner of other forms of entertainment and leisure opportunities engage consumers at an open-ended juncture of our existing desires and those we don’t know about and don’t know if we like yet. As consumers, we can easily end up in ‘filter bubbles’ of purchasing options that look just like what we have bought in the past.
This is arguably not good for us, not simply as citizens, but more broadly. New experiences and ideas can be routes to mental agility and creativity, which are critical skills in new digital economies. And human civilization advances when people widen their apertures to learn new ideas. Perhaps, then, the idea of exposure diversity should be considered not only by social media and news sites, but by a wider range of industries that sell ideas and experiences, whether these are cultural activities and products, education, or any manner of experience, such as fitness or travel or entertainment, and that use recommender sites to engage customers. Could they and should they, like social media, try to meet consumers not only where we are, but where we could be — as creatures who are capable of learning and discovery? Can information exposure diversity be a kind of corporate social responsibility in some cases? What are the trade-offs and benefits for both business and consumer?
Needless to say, no one has answered these questions yet. If the ideas are is of interest, though, you can find deeper consideration in my recent blog on how the tourism industry could incentivize diverse exposure to options, as well as customization, in its offerings to travelers.
You can read the entire post here.
Each month, the Catalyst provides a quick list of useful and provocative sources for thinking more deeply and building strong strategic narratives in our institutions, communities and nations. This month:
Book: Platform Capitalism
A decade ago, it was not difficult to find exuberant claims for the internet as the engine of a new kind of economy. Some called it the sharing economy, others described it as grassroots, but the point was that several centuries of industrial capitalism, kept in place by gatekeepers who sternly guarded hierarchies and access to resources, could be overturned by the radical power of peer-to-peer connections and open collaboration.
That exuberance has since been tempered by the astonishing growth and reach of Google, Amazon, Facebook and others and the discovery of their power—intended and unintended—to play a powerful role in national elections, policy, commerce and, in the view of one author, pretty much everything. Now it is not difficult to find concerns over whether Google and its peers are competition-killing monopolies that should be in the sights of regulators in the United States and elsewhere.
Nick Srinicek’s recent intervention in this debate, in pithy enough form to read on a long plane trip, cuts into this debate in an incisive way. In his view, we can best understand digital platforms by viewing them as continuing the economic patterns of the past. In essence, just like the manufacturing or telecommunications firms of a previous era, platform companies are driven fundamentally by the need to maximize profits to repel competition. But his book isn’t interesting only as a contribution to the debate about the nature of the digital economy, but because of his lucid explanations of how digital platforms work. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, Srinicek’s focus on the function of data as the basis for platform’s competitiveness is deeply provocative. And, as he concludes, “building a better future” at this point requires understanding how platforms function, considering their deep reach into our lives and businesses.
You can read the entire review of Platform Capitalism here.
You can buy the book here.
Sustainability Projects: Seeds of Good Anthropocenes
Seeds of Good Anthropocenes, a collaboration between McGill University, the Stockholm Reslience Center, and the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition in South Africa, showcases initiatives from all over the world that could at scale make “a substantial contribution toward creating a future that is just, prosperous and sustainable. These initiatives, which are called “seeds” include new technologies, ways of thinking, organizations, and social-ecological projects.
The Anthropocene, as the site explains, “is the name for a new geological epoch in which humanity has become a force reshaping the geological, biological and atmospheric dynamics of Earth.” It’s worth noting that this is the first new epoch in 12,000 years, and the first in which humans are identified as a factor in the planet’s progression. So far, the collaboration has collected over 400 seeds, many of which are featured on the site. You can find everything from Bogota’s new bicycle path network, to a Canadian initiative retraining oil and gas workers for work in the renewable energy economy, to self-cooling architecture in Zimbabwe using biomimicry and the self-cooling mounds of African termites as its inspiration.
The Seeds of Good Anthropocene website is here.