“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever wants to be born must first destroy a world. ”
– Hermann Hesse, Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth (1919)
She is one of the top idols in the country—and a top member of her online anti-fan cafe. Her name is Cindy, but Cindy is a commercial image that can be readily replicated and churned out in mass numbers at the whim of her talent agency. The icy and disenchanted young heroine of The Producers, who acts with a world-weariness incompatible with her age, incidentally finds her feelings echoed in a book penned nearly a century ago: Demian.
A chronicle of how a young man’s intellectual outlook was transformed by a series of mentors and other acquaintances, Demian decries unquestioning conformity to familiar schools of thought, advocating, instead, independent thinking unrestrained by authorities, precedents, herd mentality and even mentors. In doing so, Hesse believed we could discover our inner selves and fulfill our purposes in life. That is not some type of hedonistic exercise indulged by those intimidated by responsibilities and ordinary challenges. On the contrary, it exposes one to pain and fear, as he detaches himself, with great effort, from mechanisms and structures that have offered him predictability and social affirmation thus far, and ventures alone into the unknown.
More than 90 years and a wave of sociopolitical upheavals later, minority beliefs and lifestyles are thought to be better supported than before. Personalization, in particular, has been a buzzword around the globe in recent years, with talk about customizing teaching strategies for individual students, designing medicines tailored to the specific genomic makeups of patients, launching news aggregators which feature adjustable content feed preferences, and more. Yet details suggest that, as far as self-realization is concerned, such trends may only be lulling consumers into a false sense of security, which is, in any case, the very antithesis of the tumultuous process Hesse envisaged.
Apparently, it all starts with the limits of customization services. Although the possible permutations of human inclinations and aspirations are probably infinite, what a company or tool can provide is finite at times. A case in point is questionnaire-based personality tests, which are used in counselling and employment testing and slot test-takers into broad classes of personalities. For each class, they sometimes offer detailed characterizations of strengths, weaknesses and advice for relationships, career choices, etc. that are probably based on the average member of that class. Given the amount of variation in each class and the possibility of future personality changes, individuals may end up unknowingly locking themselves into unsuitable modes of living, never realizing their full potential. Granted, one-on-one personality assessment sessions are also available, but their accessibility obviously pales to that of computer-administered questionnaires. And if a person places absolute trust in the latter, he may feel little need to test himself multiple times over the course of his life or try the former when he has the chance.
Those limitations are, on the other hand, almost overcome by smart technologies which have constant streams of new offerings and keep learning and reconfiguring themselves according to users’ demonstrated preferences. Personalized search, online advertisements and automated news/book/music recommendations are some services employing such technologies. They, nonetheless, carry a few flaws. First, since the learning mechanisms work only after activities have been recorded, new users are served with default settings, which sometimes cater to popular consumer tastes identified for their locations. Thus, before users get to display or even form clear preferences of their own, they are perhaps unwittingly herded and coaxed, through intense exposure, into adopting the mass preferences. Second, some learning mechanisms pick up users’ demographic details, which are then used to fine-tune predictions of preferences. This involves the dubious assumption that users would have wanted to behave in possibly stereotyped manners associated with their age groups, races, genders and/or general interests. Indeed, researchers who tested a search engine with identically behaving fake users found that those listed as men were 5.8 times more likely to receive advertisements for high-paying executive positions than those listed as women. In these ways, such phenomena perpetuate self-fulfilling prophecies supporting herd behavior and fixed social patterns.
The concept of modeling service behavior on past human behavior is also problematic in itself. It potentially reinforces confirmation and in-group biases, such that people gather more information supporting their worldviews and follow individuals (e.g. singers or friends found online) sharing similar interests or affiliations, to the exclusion of other opinions and individuals. While such biases may be part of human nature, they are not necessarily what a thinking person aspires for. To put it another way, services with predictive functions probably satisfy his subconscious mind but not his rational side. Moreover, why should an individual restrict his domains of activity to what he already knows or does? His history need not be his entire self. It may instead be in his nature to be a tireless explorer, finding adventures in foreign terrains and pushing the limits of his mind and body. Perhaps, too, people may not truly understand their interests and needs, or at least be able to articulate and know where to fulfill them, until they encounter a piece of information by chance. Even when they are in tune with themselves, it can help to sharpen their thoughts by seeking novel sources of inspiration and comparing different opinions. This last point was embodied by Demian‘s protagonist, Emil Sinclair, as he explored diametrically opposite symbols of light and darkness while his vision of a religion transcending morality was becoming clearer to himself.
These downsides to personalization services are likely to be exacerbated by the advent of embedded and networked sensing technologies, on the one hand, and data analytics, on the other. Where opt-out options or other controls exist, the onus is on consumers to forgo some convenience and make use of these controls to step out of their comfort zone. The status quo bias, a psychological phenomenon whereby people prefer maintaining the current state of affairs because they fear losses more than they desire gains (i.e. loss aversion), may, however, hinder this. Service designers can help out by increasing such options and making them more visible, but they cannot quite be faulted for trying to fulfill users’ needs in the most reliable way or keeping an eye on the bottom line.
We need not go far to see this dilemma between exploration of the new and commercial considerations in play. The Producers successfully crafted a heartwarming story about how a girl in the ruthless entertainment industry brought out her multi-faceted inner self, won friends from various unexpected corners and paved an independent career path for herself. Yet the drama itself, while decent in its own right, gave up its initial vision of being a groundbreaking mockumentary after receiving negative reactions from viewers, reverting, instead, to a relatively tried-and-tested storytelling formula that sent its ratings skyrocketing to a record high for South Korean mini-series debuting in the first half of 2015. The stakes were high: a main cast with stellar reputations, a long cameo lineup consisting of the who’s who in the industry, great expectations from advertisers and rising production costs.
But what if we were to promote the importance of cross-boundary exploration more aggressively and make it an actual unit of sale in certain instances? A channel dedicated to dramatic arts experimentation would be set up, and the service contract would require viewers to rate the novelty of its productions and pay for each production a price proportional to the score they give. Individuals would utilize a revolutionary search engine or entertainment device with the understanding that they would be taken in as many surprising directions as possible, rather than propelled further in just one direction. Thus, when you enter the term “star” in the search field, a mind map would emerge, linking the word to not only celestial bodies, newspaper names and science fiction franchises, but also the shape of an apple’s seed formation when the fruit is cut sideways. These endeavors could be extremely challenging, and details like the amount of trust that can be placed in viewers need to be worked out. Neither must such services function to the exclusion of existing personalized services. Yet, to keep on breaking shells and waking up to new realities, the brainstorming must begin.