Algorithms and the Decline of Research

Do you ever feel like your electronic devices are listening to you?

Okay, well we already know that they sort of are. They can also see things, which is why many people cover up their little laptop webcams. These nefarious capabilities of the devices we keep on us daily were installed to generate algorithms and predictability in our habits and usages. The data goes back to companies so they can study what would sell better, while the benefit we receive from being spied on is intuitive feedback. Our devices learn us on a level previously impossible, and become better at serving our needs.

My phone now lets me know how far I am from home, where I’ve parked, the traffic on my route home, deals on products I browsed on Amazon, and what new Netflix shows I’d be interested in. On my computer, the use of cookies have made every site I visit a sea of advertisements so laser-focused on my interests that its embarrassing to share screens with someone.

I was recently listening to Malcom Gladwell talk about this very thing as he has always found the best material from unexpected twists in citation hunting and library browsing. He would stumble upon seemingly unrelated material during these research sessions, and end up with a piece so unpredictably entertaining as a result. Search engines like Google are now ruining that ability to fall into obscure offshoots of research as they use algorithms to integrate the types of sites or material you’ve historically preferred to view.

While my non-fiction pieces often center around my own life experiences, his argument made me wonder when the last time it was that I even stepped foot in a library. Hint: a long, long time. Even to find inspiration on posts for this blog, I never have to look very far online. Yet, this topic is giving inspiration to go check out a local library. At least then I’ll know that it was my own two eyes that found some new material, rather than an algorithm just showing me what it thinks I want to see.

Don’t get me wrong, I get that we asked for this from tech companies. Remember Penny’s computer book from Inspector Gadget? I know I benefit immensely from these advancements, being an information junkie myself. Just, please remember to go offline every now and then and see what the physical world is hiding.

Keep turning the page,

Chris

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