The unexpected future: it’s parochialPosted: September 11, 2012
Howard Jacobson is a man who knows how to take care of his words. The author of ‘The Finkler Question’ has a simple system for dealing with the perennial paranoia of losing his unpublished novels: he duplicates and distributes them amongst friends.
According to a recent interview on Radio 4, Jacobson has, “had on occasion something like a dozen flash drives hidden all over the place…I have wives of close friends of mine who’ve gone around with my novels in their handbags.” A charming image is conjured up: middle-class literary mules weaving their way through town.
But the internet has changed something. Rather than use these human mules, “I’ve twigged that you can simply email them to yourself.” He hesitates. “So life is a lot simpler.”
Unknowingly, Howard Jacobson has captured the quiet, amenable way in which digitization is costing us human contact and reducing the opportunities for what Steven Johnson called “the adjacent possible”.
Whereas once Jacobson would have met many friends to share digital copies of his work – and so had all the serendipitous encounters that come from such interaction – now he just emails himself. A once social solution to an author’s problem now replaced by a conversation with himself: a more potent image of the ouroboros of the internet is hard to imagine.
Despite digital serendipity being big news recently – Eric Schmidt promised it, as has Sean Parker’s Airtime – this is nothing more than hope triumphing over reality. The internet makes our world smaller: here are the four reasons why.
(1) The efficiency machine. Calling any search engine a serendipity engine is oxymoronic. Serendipity is inherently inefficient (it always fails more than it succeeds): and inefficiency is as abhorrent to the internet as a vacuum is to nature. The internet is designed as an efficiency machine, sending data through complex networks via the most efficient route possible. That is why it is inevitable that the future of information consumption is people receiving what they think they want; or, as Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s COO) envisaged recently: “something that reflects what [you] want to see and know.”
(2) The opportunity cost of interaction. Every day, a series of small, silent decisions are reducing unexpected human interaction and shifting our perspectives inwards. We are choosing to text instead of call; to shop online instead in store; to Friend not socialise. Each of these transactions comes with an opportunity cost: a debit for serendipity, a loss to the adjacent possible, and a gain for efficiency, for Jacobson’s uncertainly stated ‘simpler life’.
(3) Personalistion that pleases, not challenges. Hidden, but perhaps even more powerful, are the algorithms and artificial intelligence being introduced to guide us through the web. These have a singular aim: “to give back exactly what you want” (according to Larry Page). Not the unexpected, not the challenging, not the serendipitous: but what you think you want.
These personalised search engines (which Google has been since 2009) and newsfeeds are fundamentally changing the nature of information we receive. At the start of the 20th Century, the iconic journalist, Walter Lipmann, wrote of the function of news journalism to be to, “reach beyond the locality.” At the start of the 21st Century it has become a different beast.
Mark Zuckerberg captures it well when, according to Eli Parisler’s ‘The Filter Bubble’, he brags that, “Facebook is the biggest source of news in the world.” That is news from people you know, who like the same things of you, perhaps extra-filtered through a personal newsfeed like Prismatic. No longer is the news about reaching “beyond the locality”, it is about confirming and cementing the locality.
(4) Distraction breeds conservatism
A recent paper, ‘Pressure and Perverse Flights to Familiarity’ (Litt, Reich, Maymin, Shiv, 2010) provides evidence that under pressure, “people often prefer what is familiar, which can seem safer”. By encouraging multi-tasking, constant consumption, and quick decision making, the internet is the perfect environment to breed conservatism.
The neuroscientist, Jordan Grafman, identified this at the turn of 20th century, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to determine changes to brain function during multi-tasking. The outcome was clear: you are more likely to “rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.”
So what does this mean?
We are all increasingly like that image of Jacobson, trapped in conversation with ourselves and people just like us. When McLuhan first wrote of the ‘global village’, his vision encompassed two futures: one of “total human interdependence” and the another of “tribalism”. It seems we are heading for the latter: a world of smaller minds and smaller perspectives. Whether it is academics citing fewer papers than ever or extremists finding confirmation of their views: the internet is the ultimate tool for narrowing perspectives.
The new world is a small world, one of interlinked but often inwardly focused ‘digital villages’. The future of business and society will be made in these villages: the smartest people are already there creating success. Karl Rove is alleged to have engineered George W. Bush’s election through micro-targeting; small brands like the Pabst, once a working class beer, have built up business in niches ranging from hipsters to new Chinese middle-class, talking discretely to each group; digital services like Taskrabbit are building their business outwards from tightly defined, virtual communities.
The businesses that define the 21st century will be those that understand the value of accessing these digital villages and understand how to reflect their views back to them. So don’t think global, don’t think local: think parochial.
[McLuhan comment edited thanks to useful thoughts from @dpieber]