Smart, easy, personalized. Not a single press release, or article about a tech product goes out without any of these adjectives defining what the new product is. The Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, which started today and is going on as I post this, is chockfull of “it understands what you are doing”s, “never been easier”s, “recommends you the next step”s. But while we tend to embrace these adjectives as positive, in the absence of context or a meaningful goal, none of these words indicate a transition to a better state. This has never been more obvious than today, at the peak of our obsession with growth, speed and disruption.
Smart TV, smart toilet, smart city. The dictionary definition of “smart” means able to acquire and apply knowledge, and make rational decisions in the context of a goal. But a smart object does not necessarily imply making you, the user smarter. On the contrary, it may actually make you less intellectually rigorous, as research into the effects of smart phone usage shows. It can also prevent you from developing the knowledge acquisition skills that are independent of said smart device. In other words, with a few exceptions, smart gadgets not only do not teach you anything new, they may be detracting you from learning something new.
Take for example the smart speaker/home assistants that we read about daily. With the exception of a few really compelling scenarios, like Alexa helping the visually impaired, is having one really making your life significantly better? And, even if you love having your appointments and the weather read out loud to you, is that worth having someone listen to all your conversations so that they can target you with an ad to the San Diego Zoo? And that is one of the more innocent “services” made possible by your smart speaker.
After all, the most notorious leaders in the history of the world were undeniably smart (the current one may be the exception to the rule that proves it). But the outcome of their intelligence, when it did not wipe out civilizations, set humanity back considerably.
Intelligence without purpose and purpose beyond self-enrichment does not benefit the user in the long run.
Think about that as you customize the settings for your intelligent toilet seat.
Making friends has never been easy — it demands willingness to be vulnerable, to put someone else’s needs first and to invest time, energy and goodwill. Staying friends is even harder, especially when you add time and distance apart and the nostalgic awareness of how close your relationship once was. So why do we think that Facebook is a place for friendships to thrive? The social network provides a superficial channel to stay in touch, but it emphasizes exactly the opposite behaviors of what friendship is supposed to be. It does not support vulnerability, it encourages boastfulness. At first glance, Likes and Shares seem like a good way to lend moral support, but not when that support stops there. At the end of the day, an easy way to stay connected becomes an obvious symbol of how isolated and lonely you are. I may have 150 Facebook friends (not even an impressive number), but Facebook is at least partially to blame for me not having real conversations with the 10 that I had before the social network infested our relationships.
Similarly, meal delivery services promise that eating right will become easier as they deliver overproduced, over-packaged, ready to be discarded meal-kits to your door. The irony is that the same well-off, time starved customers who fuel the demand for meal delivery kits are the ones fueling the growth of self care and mindfulness apps. Call me old-fashioned, but it is amazing what chopping vegetables can do for your sense of mindful awareness and well being.
The problem with easy is not just that it is too self indulgent, but it comes with a lot of hidden costs that we fail to predict, or conveniently stick our head in the sand to avoid solving for the consequences. Whether it is impacting the livelihood of farmers or cab drivers, these consequences may be hard to account for until it is too late. We, as consumers, need to be a bit more judicious about getting in on the latest trend and look beyond our immediate gratification.
Only then we can buy the time to make sure one’s disruption is not someone else’s hopeless dispossession.
When was the last time you picked up a book just because you liked the cover, went to a restaurant because it was on your way, or read an article that was not part of a feed? Personalization is all around us, smoothing out our interactions with the world to fit our existing tastes, preferences and, unfortunately, biases. The outcome is “ideological cocooning,” which hampers conversations, limits exposure to divergent ideas and, ultimately, results in polarization and its individual extreme, isolation.
In less dramatic micro terms, personalization is boredom, a life diet devoid of the spice of surprise, unexpected delight, and action-inspiring disappointment. It breeds anxiety because it forces you to constantly compare the delivered personalized experience to your perception of what it should be. Why did I not like this book that Amazon recommended to me?
As with smart devices, personalized experiences are not designed to make you better. They are designed to make you consume more. By default, a personalized experience is designed to be addictive as it eliminates any friction or obstacle that may prompt you to pause and reconsider your behavior. And, as we recently have found out (or been deprived of the pretense we did not know all along), personalization is only possible at the expense of privacy.
And as digital experiences squeeze analog services, personalization is seeping through the offline world as well. A couple of weekends ago, The New York Times included in its Sunday newspaper an inaugural special section that “uses artificial intelligence to curate stories based on your interests.” The paper claimed that I will miss fewer stories and will discover new topics as the newsletter comes to reflect my preferences. I do not know if every subscriber received something like that, or if their special section was called Visionaries, like mine was. Disappointingly, my section lacked a puzzle and KenKen section, which speaks to the accuracy of the algorithm, but more importantly, by making the content personalized it made it impossible for me to discuss it with anyone. My personalized content came at the cost of shared discourse, online or offline.
Finally, the currency you pay to have personalized experiences is data. But the real cost is the loss of privacy, agency and creativity.
Progress and Innovation
In the words of another enthusiastic disruptor (Lenin), what is to be done? Above all, we as consumers, need to think about what the cost of smart, easy and personalized is — obvious or hidden, immediate or long term, to us and to others. We also have to be a bit more judicious in interpreting those benefits and evaluating if they really better us, as individuals, improve our relationships with others and make our big “E” and small “e” environment more livable. Technology has a huge potential to improve our lives, as long as we do not prioritize immediate gratification.
Technologists, entrepreneurs and innovators also need to be more honest in the value of their ideas. First, not all problems are worth solving. Second, they need to make sure that the people that they are solving problems for need the assistance, even if they have the budget. Take for example this week’s LEGO AR demo during Apple WWDC. One of the few analog toys that kids still love and get immersed in got a digital makeover that inserted yet another screen between the tangible object and our kids’ minds, another needless crutch that suffocates imagination.
Smart, easy and personalized only make sense in the context of a declared intent and a meaningful goal.
“What if,” the question that so many innovators use as their mantra needs to be followed by a “so what.” Only then can we answer the question “at what cost” and determine if smart, easy, personalized means “better,” if an an innovation will result in progress. For me, for you and for those around us.