In a recent article of CMSWire, I outlined what I called the Ecosystem of the One. The basic premise was that digital transformation will allow personalization to progress to the point where a completely individualized digital environment will be possible. My analysis revolved around the technical possibility not the ramifications of such a digital culture. Unfortunately, the article was written only within the context of what could be done, not what should be done. What was clearly missing was an analysis of the benefits to society. That analysis reveals two things that are quite disturbing and may well outweigh all the benefits.
An analysis of the societal effects of the ecosystem of the one can be encapsulated into these questions:
- Are there benefits to individuals and society from an ecosystem of the one?
- Can the ecosystem of the one be used to harm individuals especially through manipulation?
- Does this fuel in individuals increased narcissism?
Is the Ecosystem of the One Beneficial to Individuals and Society?
The benefits of the ecosystem of the one that I envisioned were mostly in the form of delivering an individualized user experience from digital interactions. By leveraging mobile and analytics technology, the individual could enjoy an experience that was tailored for them. But is this enough? Sadly, no. The problem with machine generated experiences is that they are based entirely on the behaviors of the past. Just like Amazon and Spotify recommendations, computers analyze past experiences and delivers a predictable and related experience. That’s very safe and likely profitable but leaves little room for new experiences. Individuals are spoon fed products and experiences that they are psychologically programmed to enjoy because they are familiar. Even when something is “new” it is only a variation on what has gone before. A recommendation engine can recommend a song that a listener has never heard before because it is similar to other songs they’ve listened to in the past. What the engine is unlikely is to deliver is a recommendation that is substantially different than any that a person has encountered before. In other word, they are unlikely to suggest something entirely new.
I’m reminded of a personal experience. When I was in high school, I listened to a brand of rock music called Progressive Rock. ELP, Yes, Jethro Tull, and Genesis were the mainstays of my listening habits. One day, someone gave me a copy of The Ramones “Rockaway Beach” as a single. Punk Rock was about as far from Progressive Rock as one could imagine. Progressive Rock favored long suites, often spanning entire album sides, with poetic lyrics that drew on myth and literature. Only incredibly talented and classically trained musicians could play this type of music. Punk Rock musicians, on the other hand, could often barely play their instruments. They produced songs that were three minutes or less and made up of three chords or less. One was intellectual, intricate, and required extreme musicianship; The other furious, raw and, at times, intelligent but always simple. Both appealed to me for different reasons, reasons that no analytical or AI engine could ever have teased out from my past interactions. Only a human could see deep enough into my psyche to know that this might be for me. Until I discovered Punk Rock it was impossible to predict that I would have liked it.
This story personifies the overall problem with the ecosystem of one – it’s safe, easy, and familiar and never asks someone to stretch. Society as a whole suffers dramatically when it’s citizens become too comfortable and aren’t exposed to new things. It’s how we end up living in a bubble that becomes intolerant of outside influences. It’s also how innovation slows to a standstill.
Will We Be Manipulated?
The second question follows from the first. If we can make the world sanitized and safe, if we can deliver an experience that will be easy to accept, can this experience be used to manipulate people? Absolutely. In fact, marketers are betting on it. By providing a potential customer something that is naturally appealing but safe, and reinforcing those traits all along the customer decision journey, they hope to encourage people to buy their products. Marketers are not interested in getting a customer to radically change their mind and dive into the complete unknown. They are interested in getting consumers to buy something by any means possible. To the merchant, manipulation of an individual’s personal ecosystem to drive a purchase is a benefit, not something to be avoided. The same is true of employers who want happy employees that won’t leave until told to do so.
Finally, there is the question of the elevation of individualism over the needs of communities and societies as a whole. To put it another way, it leads to encroaching narcissism. By pandering to the ecosystem of the one, we help cement in the minds of many people their place at the center of the universe. Software makes it possible for us to feed these tendencies and that is not good at all. If a person is always led to expect that experiences will be exactly the way they want them to be, won’t they come to demand it in other aspects of their lives? Is individualized religious experience a real expectation? Is it reasonable to believe that politicians will always tell us what we want to hear? That’s called pandering and we are living through its effects right now. Widespread narcissism tears at the fabric of society because it makes individuals lose site of the community at large. Instead of encouraging people to do what is best for society as a whole, it creates an expectation that society exists simply to fulfill their own immediate desires. It’s a neoliberal, Ayn Rand type of hell where everyone is left to their own devices without the benefits of community.
The ecosystem of the one sound great on the surface. It promises the delivery of exactly the digital experience that people want when they want it. However, it also opens us up to manipulation, closes us off to new experiences, and encourages one of our most base personality traits, narcissism. We are quickly approaching the ability to deliver the ecosystem of the one but I have deep reservations as to whether we should. It might be time to take a step back and think about this a bit more.