Personalization and scale: the Holy Grail

Opinion by Angad Singh
April 25, 2014, 12:53 a.m.

There is no doubt that technology is sweeping and consuming our world at a rapidly accelerating pace. First, the Industrial Revolution—only a couple of centuries ago—completely transformed how we make and consume things. And the effect of the information revolution of the last few decades has been in a league of its own.

Indeed, many of the things for which we used to need to interact with other people can now be done with a few taps on a glass surface. There’s no need to stand out on the sidewalk to hail a taxi or superficially greet the cashier at the grocery store anymore. Technology has not only brought us convenience, it has also given us scale. Anyone anywhere can have access to information about anything they like.

At the same time, it’s helpful to think about what we’ve given up. Volumes have been written about how our world has lost the human touch as a result of this progress. Only a few centuries ago, every pair of shoes was a limited edition. The person who made your shoes could identify your foot in the dark by its shape and could make the perfect pair for you. Not long ago, when you walked into your bookstore, the storekeeper knew just the book you should read next, and while Amazon does its best to automatically suggest new purchases for us, the experience is not the same. (It must be conceded that these were not services that the average person would have had access to back in the day.) And yet in both manufacturing and high technology, letting go of the human touch has allowed us to produce products at an unprecedented scale, boosting the tangible standard of living for billions.

Herein lies the central conflict of this discussion. Technology has given us so much, but it also forces us into decisions we would rather not make.

Consider news as an example. Until a few centuries ago, news was primarily distributed by word of mouth or letters. You only knew things other people chose to tell you about. Then, newspapers came along and people learned about all kinds of things they didn’t know to ask for. Today, we are not limited by our local newspapers anymore and can quickly get updates from any corner of the world as they happen.

The power of this scale and access is undisputed. However, personalization is no longer a service that others provide for us. Every day, millions of people go to popular news websites like CNN to read the news. However, every one of them sees the exact same page when they first arrive on the site and I don’t think that’s justified at all. Some people don’t care about global politics at all, while others only read sports coverage about one specific team. Technology gives us amazing access, but we have to pay for it with the burden of making our own choices for us—and not just the major choices in life but also decisions that are comparatively mundane.

Indeed, scale automatically brings with it a small amount of personalization. At the level of choosing what site to visit and what article to click on, each one of us is empowered to personalize the experience for ourselves through the choices we make. However, what we need is for these choices to be made for us. While less choice sounds like a bad thing, theories like the Paradox of Choice and Decision Paralysis show that we actually prefer less choice than more. What we need, then, is something that brings together both access and personalization. On the one hand, we don’t always want to choose what we consume, but on the other hand, we don’t want our options to be limited by arbitrary factors like where we are and what the majority thinks.

This idea of offering personalization at scale has always been the holy grail of technology. And recently, we have seen a few examples that bring both those ideas together. The algorithms of Netflix and Amazon use scale to their advantage in personalizing. Owing to the scale of their operations, they have data on the behavior of millions of users, which leads to really good guesses about your preferences based on the prior choices of people like you. They can also let the algorithm have access to a massive set of choices, which could potentially bring to the surface obscure things you didn’t even know you were interested in. And I see this as just the tip of the iceberg.

Whenever I see an interaction that is the same across a large number of people, I wonder if it always has to be that way. When thousands of people drive by a billboard, should they all see the same advertisement? Should everyone watching a movie have to watch it at the same pace and in the same order? Should all students in class have to get the same homework assignment? If not, is it possible to build a world that is truly personalized? Of course we cannot be entirely reduced to algorithms, but even though technology has traditionally been at odds with personalization, I believe technology holds the key to true personalization. I see this as next the big trend in technology.

Contact Angad Singh at [email protected].

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