digital concierge

every car i’ve ever owned has come to be mine based upon two criteria: 1) the best safety record for lowest price and 2) the number of people and things i’ve hoped to haul. in the past 12 years this has translated into me driving a very generic vehicle capable of safely carrying my children and their friends and lots and lots of stuff. now that my kids are launched and the car i’ve transported them in is coming to the end of it’s safe and repair free life, it’s time for a different car. and so, i’ve been car shopping. since this is a task that i particularly dread and despise, i’ve been conducting most of my shopping and research online.  

tonight, when looking for information regarding an international crisis, i noticed that the very car i’ve been leaning toward was advertised on two of the international news sites i visited. at first i thought, “this must be a sign.” and then i thought, “this isn’t a sign but it IS an indication that this must be a sought after (therefore, solid) choice.” and then i realized, this was neither a sign nor an indication of quality. it was, instead, a response to my recent keyboard strikes. even i, an outspoken advocate for awareness around the power of technology, media, and advertising to unconsciously shape our preferences, fell prey to today’s sophisticated marketing tactics. these ads, which i quickly labeled reliable sources of data for my decision making, were not put on my screen by consumer advocacy groups who have my driving safety in mind. instead, they appeared based upon data collection and the algorithms that result from every keyboard strike i make.

the entire car shopping experience has led me to notice how many times specific items i’ve looked at online show up in the ad spaces of the sites i frequent. who knew that the very dress i’d considered purchasing was “popular” enough to show up on the bbc’s home page? it’s interesting that coupons for products i have sitting in my digital carts for more than a week begin showing up in my inbox and in ad spaces on my screens. it’s amazing how perfectly tailored to me my entire online experience has become. i hardly have to work anymore. music sites suggest entire stations based upon my listening history, push notifications make it possible for special deals to be texted to me as i walk by the very stores i’ve frequented in the past, and my preferred online news source feeds me the “tech” news at the top of the screen. netflix and hulu provide me a never ending list of movies and television shows that are “just like” the ones i’ve already watched. 

given the increased time i spend in screen based spaces, all of this personalization creates room in me for a problem of significant proportion.

my devices’ abilities to constantly cater to my own interests leaves me at risk of becoming a self absorbed, myopic loner. this risk increases if i become: 1) excessive in my technology use, 2) ignorant of my own internal process, and/or 3) withdrawn from opportunities to engage in meaningful relationships with people, ideas, and places that are different from those i naturally gravitate toward. sadly, who among us doesn’t fit in one of those three categories?

as humans we have propensities to migrate toward the familiar, to look for validation, and to seek comfort in the spaces we inhabit. there are few things more comforting than clicking “play” on a movie you’ll likely get predictably lost in or being validated for a purchase you’re considering. 

this constant cozy and familiar reality, however,  begs the question: what is the result of a life lived only comfortably? what is the developmental effect of validation that is built upon one’s own preferences and history rather than on standards of health, discernment, integration, and complexity in all its best forms? basically, i want to know how my emotional, intellectual, and even physical health will be impacted by living in relationship to devices that keep me comfortable and “safe” by providing a constant concierge service based entirely upon my own limited experiences and preferences?

i am spending today being aware of how skewed my tehcnological experiences have become. my favorite news source just emailed me an article similar to one i read there yesterday. my maps app accurately guesses half typed addresses based on where i’ve been recently. in advance of a trip i’ve purchased airfare for, hotels are offering me deals based on past stays. music apps suggest bands similar to those i listen to currently. all the while i experience the reality that i can have it my way, all day, without even having to ask. no wonder the embodied world i live in, with it’s real people who can’t read my mind or who chose not to cater to my preferences, feels difficult and stretching at times. 

and so, i’m ignoring the reinforcing ads on my screen and heading to a car dealership to talk to a real (flawed) person as a real (flawed, impatient, hesitant to want to encounter car sales people) person. there i will get information about a car which i will ultimately chose or dismiss based upon a complex formula of feeling to quality to safety to how easily my feet reach the pedals because, while shopping online is certainly more convenient, it provides far fewer opportunities to grow. 

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