Thoughts

Where are the originals amongst the algorithms?

When everything we view, read, and wear is globally averaged and delivered through algorithms, what remains of our originality?

Thanks to social media and global platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, and Airbnb, style seems to have grown uniform across the world. AirSpace, as some have taken to calling it.

From Berlin, Brooklyn, Buenos Aires, or Bangkok, Third Wave coffee shops are remarkably similar. The hotel lobbies of a certain kind could all come from the same designers. Apartments on Airbnb develop a common aesthetic. Restaurants follow a number of molds and cultivate their quirks to draw social media attention.

People, by and large, don’t pick and choose their own style from local influences, the bands they follow, or the tv show they like. They simply conform to varying degrees to the global averaged out look. There are still niches and subcultures but if there is any interest to them, they rarely stay “sub” for very long, copied by fast fashion firms, transmitted at internet speed around the globe, absorbed in the generic.

With online platforms we collectively, globally, unknowingly, agreed on a common look, but at least they were a series of individual decisions. Kind of. Now, with the likes of Amazon Echo, we are not just following that global average but even outsourcing it to algorithms built to optimize our compliance to the global average, to the Generic Style. With the Echo we are testing our fit and towing the line based on some obscure aggregation of individual decisions made by millions. We don’t follow 150 or 500 friends and tastemakers we’ve chosen, Echo would have us listen to an algorithmic compilation of millions of people we haven’t even picked for ourselves.

“Now YouTube tells me which videos to watch, Netflix serves me TV shows, Amazon suggests clothes to wear, and Spotify delivers music to listen to.”

Quite. And the ads we are shown are optimized to sell us something. The news the algorithm shows us is optimized for clicks and “engagement.” The style the algorithm recommends is optimized for conformity to a stylistic ideal. The cafes, shops, and restaurants are optimized for Instagramming. We optimize our jobs for a high level of productivity. We optimize our kids for a high level of success (and security).

In the midst of all this uniformity, there must still be curiosity, a need to carve out a space of originality, of individuality. How do we foster this drive for meaning in each of us? Considering all the vested interests behind those services, this will prove a very complex problem to solve.

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