Predictive mechanisms are like karma: you get what you broadcast

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“Streaming services often allow account holders to create multiple separate profiles, which I appreciate. I want the recommendations I receive to reflect my taste, not my partner’s. Is it selfish? Does it make sense to share your profile with others?

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— Island in a stream

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dear island,

Sharing, at least as it is often understood, is only useful in cases of limited resources. It is for a child to generously share his lunch with a classmate who does not have one, or for a rich man to give money to the less fortunate. But I find it hard to believe that giving up an individual profile would be commendable when there are enough of them. What worries you is not the fear of selfishness, but the realization that you see in other people’s inclinations and preferences a form of infection, a threat to the purity of your personal algorithm. Insisting on your own digital domain means that you believe that your taste is so unique and precise that any disruption to its pattern would compromise its fundamental integrity.

At a basic level, predictive mechanisms are like karma, invisible mechanisms that register your every action and return something of equal value to you. If you look at a lot of crime documents, you will end up in a directory dominated by terrible headlines. If you tend to watch early 2000s sitcoms, your recommendations will turn into a buffet of millennium nostalgia. The notion that everyone reaps what they sow, that every action generates an equal reaction, is not just spiritual nonsense, but a law encoded in the basic architecture of our digital universe. Few users really know how these predictive technologies work. (On TikTok, speculation about how the algorithm works has become as dense as the scholastic debate about the metaphysical constitution of angels.) Nevertheless, we like to believe that certain cosmic principles are at work, that each of our actions is faithfully recorded, that we are in every moment we shape our future entertainment by where we stop, what we do and what we buy.

It might be worth experimenting a bit with this sense of control. You noted that you want your recommendations to suit your taste, but what is taste, exactly, and where does it come from? It is commonly believed that someone’s preferences are sui generis, but our tendencies have been shaped by all sorts of external factors, including where we live, how we grew up, our age, and other important data. These variables fall into clear trends that hold true for different populations. Demographic profiling has proven how easy it is to spot patterns in large samples. Given a large enough dataset, political opinions can be predicted based on fashion preferences (LL Bean buyers tend to be conservative, Kenzo appeals to liberals), and personality traits can be determined from what kind of music the user likes (Niki Minaj fans tend to be extroverted). ). No one knows what causes these correlations, but their persistence suggests that none of us is exactly the master of our own destiny or the creator of our own personality. Our behavior is subject to predictable patterns that are subject to social forces operating outside of our consciousness.

And, well, the prediction mechanisms couldn’t work if it wasn’t. It’s nice to think that the recommendations on your personal profile are as unique as your thumbprint. But these suggestions are based on behavioral data from millions of other users, and the more successful the platform is at guessing what you’ll be watching, the more likely it is that your behavior will match that of other people. The term user affinity describes how automated recommendations compare customer behavior to related habits, which essentially means you have thousands of shadow selves streaming, browsing, and buying many of the same products as you. like quantum entangled particles that reflect each other from opposite sides of the universe. Their choice affects the options that are shown to you, just as your choice will affect the content you promote to future users.

Karma, at least in popular culture, is often seen as a simplified form of cosmic retribution, but is more properly understood as a principle of interdependence. Everything in the world is connected to everything else, creating a vast network of interconnections in which the consequences of each action are reflected throughout the system. For those of us who have been immersed in the duality of Western philosophy and American individualism, it can be difficult to understand just how intertwined our lives are with the lives of others. In fact, it is only recently that information technology—and the big data sets it creates—revealed to us what some of the oldest spiritual traditions have taught for millennia: that we live in a chaotic and radically interdependent world, one in which the distance between any two people (or the space between any two vectors) is often smaller than we might think.

With that in mind, Island, sharing a profile may not be so much an act of generosity as it is an acknowledgment of that interdependence. The person you live with has already changed you in countless ways, subtly changing what you believe, what you buy, how you talk. Just because your tastes in movies are currently at odds with theirs doesn’t mean it will always be that way. In fact, it’s almost certain that your preferences will get closer to each other the longer you live in the same house. This is probably good. Most of us have experienced the self-perpetuating hell of karmic cycles at some point, like one cigarette leads to addiction, or one lie breeds a series of new deceptions. Automated recommendations can also encourage the formation of narrowly recursive habits, producing more and more of the same habits until we get stuck in a one-dimensional reflection of our past choices. Deliberately exposing your profile to others can be a way to let some air into that dank cavern of individual preference, where the past reverberates, isolating you from the vast world of possibilities that lies outside.

If nothing I’ve said so far has led to spiritual enlightenment—if instead you’re still deeply nervous about the extent to which your life is being watched, predicted, and observed—then that’s another reason. let others influence you. your algorithm. The more we share in unexpected ways, by giving friends access to our logins, by viewing content outside of what the system thinks we will enjoy, the more we confuse the mechanisms that try to understand and manipulate our online behavior. Perhaps the Internet of the future will recognize not only our radical interdependence, but also our fundamental unpredictability, reflecting the fact that humans do not always behave predictably like lab rats. It is true that no man is an island, but we are not even solid land. In this age of streaming, it’s appropriate to recall the old adage that you can’t step into the same river twice. Our personalities are not fixed structures, but, like the data we leave behind, patterns of energy that are affected by everything we touch, fluid clusters of waves and whirlpools that can change into new forms at any moment.


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This article appeared in the July/August 2022 issue. Subscribe Now.

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