Last week I watched Falling Inn Love, which was possibly one of the worst movies I have ever seen. The lines were unbelievably cheesy, the chemistry between the leads was non-existent, and it was full of every single bad romantic cliché in the book. I now know that it has a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. No bueno.
And yet, Netflix pushed it on me for days. Every time I opened the site, the trailer for this movie would automatically begin playing. It suggested it for me everywhere. And despite my initial eye roll about the name, eventually I watched the trailer. Then, one boring night when I had nothing else going on, I thought “what the heck”, and watched it. Mistake!
If we don’t consciously make our own choices, we get chosen for, in the form of the default option, or the algorithm’s top pick, or what a computer thinks is the closest approximation to what we might want. The tricky thing is that increasingly often, the computer is getting it right: Spotify is doing a pretty great job of recommending music for us, Instagram knows what kinds of stuff we want to see on our Explore page.
The problem is, those algorithms are not always pure. They’re not always dutifully supplying us with what we like best. Very often, they’ve got an agenda: push this C-list movie on as many people as possible so that we make money. Recommend this YouTube channel more often because they include more ads in their videos. Show this Instagram account more widely all the time because they pay for boosted posts sometimes.
We’re living in what many are calling “the attention economy”, meaning that our attention is the most precious commodity on the market right now. Whoever can capture our attention can sell us something, and by golly, they want to sell us something! Which is why it’s not just fun and fancy free that our computers are getting to know us so well. It’s convenient at times, but it also means we’re more easily manipulated into doing things against our best interests, the most trivial example of which is watching Falling Inn Love despite hating it.
The point here is not to stop using computers forever, it’s to continue to be conscious about the choices you’re making. Ask your friends for recommendations. Ask the internet. Make some of your hobbies non-internet-related entirely. Read a book. Before you plop down in front of the TV, decide what you’re going to watch and why. Read reviews.
Yes, it’s more work, but not only will you have better experiences, you’ll also take back your power and stop being just another cog in the machine. As they say: If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product. Choose or be chosen for.