Are we imposing same way of thinking to everyone?
Everything started from a conversation with a friend who one day during lunch told me “How stupid and limited Siri is. I ask her a question, and she gave me an answer. And it is so boring that I stopped using her for searching stuff. I use her only for weather and other shortcuts.”
“Why would you say so? Technology came a long way nowadays. You have the entire world in a metal container” I told him.
“Yes, but it’s not the same rabbit hole when you search for something yourself. For example, I was searching for what happened in Japan with the Fukushima nuclear explosion. And then Google gave me an entire page of results based on that, and somewhere on the 4th or 5th row, there was a title about how a kid built his own atomic reactor an brought it to school. Apparently, there was this kid, David Charles Hahn sometimes called the Radioactive Boy Scout or the Nuclear Boy Scout, who in 1994, at age 17, attempted to build a homemade breeder reactor. Hahn conducted his experiments in secret in a backyard shed at his mother’s house in Commerce Township, Michigan. And it was interesting to read about that, but if I asked Siri, she would have told me only about Fukushima nuclear disaster” said Jimmy.
And this lead me to the thought — if we are headed into this era or “best answer possible to your question” or “the era of efficiency and optimisation”, who is going to make us ask more questions? If technology is becoming part of our lives that can’t be easily replaced, shouldn’t it raise more questions than offer solutions?
Do we need the best answer or more questions?
The problem I see is that we are going into a direction where personalised environment is very good at answering the questions we have but not at suggesting related questions or problems that are out of our sight. Chances are that if you ask the same question as my friend did,“ What happened at Fukushima?” to all assitants (Google, Alexa, Siri) you will get the same answer, no matter of who you are or where you are from. But in the case of my friend, when he was doing his search, he found that story about the boy who built at a nuclear reactor at home.
Computers are useless. They can only give you answers — Pablo Picasso
We are heading to a period of our times were Google and Siri will try to give you the best answer to your question.Now, there are tasks and questions to which you need a pretty straightforward answer (for example, what’s the weather or my agenda). But what I am talking about is a broader thought process.
Are we imposing people to think the same way?
Do we impose a certain way of thinking to people who don’t have time to consider? We are continually trying to make lives more comfortable, but we forget that the hard parts are a crucial element of being human. That’s what keeps us growing.
For example, if you ask a random person what a real friend is, he will tell you his own opinion. And most of his answer will be made of knowledge that he experienced during life. Then if you ask your parents, they will tell you, probably something similar but also different because of their age, period they lived in an other circumstances. And again, the answer will most likely be based on their own experience — which again is different. And the same process goes from person to person. So there is no real one way of answering a question.
And if you ever read a Socratic Dialogue by Plato, you know how deep you can go only from asking a simple question such as “Who is a real friend?”. And the beauty of those dialogues is that you explore no only the good parts, in our case of a good friend, but also the bad parts which tend to form the overall opinion about a subject.
But Google and Alexa have only one way of answering. And the only thing that changes about them is the personalisation of the algorithm and speed. So who are the people who decide what should I see or get as an answer? If we ask certain types of questions, shouldn’t we be suggested more questions to think of or search for?
The filter bubble tends to dramatically amplify confirmation bias — in a way, it’s designed to. Consuming information that conforms to our ideas of the world is easy and pleasurable; consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways or question our assumptions is frustrating and difficult — Eli Pariser
We constantly pretend our perception of the present day will not seem ludicrous in retrospect, simply because there doesn’t appear to be any other option. Yet there is another option, and the option is this: We must start from the premise that — in all likelihood — we are already wrong. And not wrong in the sense that we are coming to the wrong solutions, because most of our conclusions are reasoned and coherent. The problem is with the questions themselves — Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong?
Life is not always about optimisation
What’s also interesting to me is that we tend to think that optimising things (best route, faster trains and flights, etc) is a logical answer to all of our problems. And with that in mind we should rememeber that everything we design and build, almost all the time leads people to take the same action and the same thought process, and the question is — is that a good or bad thing?
For example, years ago, when you bought a house, you did it may be because you saw it in the window of a real estate agent when coming back home from shopping. Or you bought a house because your parents lived nearby.
My relatives bought a house after going to a birthday party, and there was a house for sale near. They loved it and bought it. From the other side, it may also be due to the high level of alcohol that influenced their decision and level of excitement they had after that party, but who knows.
Nowadays, when we go and search for homes online, almost all websites offer the same search criteria for all users. You have thresholds of prices, distance, and different types of homes. But what if I want to search based on value? Great flats may be undervalued only because they are out of the city. Meanwhile, those in the city centre are overpriced, and the only benefit is that they are in the city centre.
Sometimes a house may be one or two hours away from your work, but you would feel happier in that place rather than picking something closer to your job. Why? Because that area may be polluted, overpopulated and too much noise or traffic.
The genius of markets lies not only in aggregating people’s preferences but also in aggregating choices made in a wide variety of messily different contexts, and with a variety of different decision-making paths. The danger is that if you make the informational context the same for everyone, and the decision-tree the same for everyone, the information the market receives will increasingly reflect that artificially narrow context, so will no longer reveal the wider preferences of market participants. The individual decisions may seem better, but the market will be dumber overall. This question may even have implications for financial markets where increasingly all public companies are being bullied by institutional investors to deliver the same thing — Rory Sutherland
Google Maps and the same route
One of the best parts of living in Amsterdam is that you can travel by bike to any point of the city and also take the bike with you in a tram or train when going to a different town. But when using Google Maps, I continuously get the same suggestions all the time, like Google thinks that it’s most efficient to use a car or bus/tram to get to your destination. And no, it’s not.
For example, you want to travel to a neighbouring city, Utrecht, to visit your friend for a day. And you live somewhere in the city centre of Amsterdam. What google maps will suggest you first is, of course, to travel by car, because this is the fastest and most efficient way. The second route would be by public transport, but again, it’s the most efficient concerning time but not money. In the Netherlands, you can always go by bike to the central station, hop on a train, and take your bike with you and then when you arrive, you get to your destination by bicycle. And the only public transport you used is the train.
The way Google Maps works is to make your destination as efficient as possible. But is efficiency always better? Taking a bike you not only improve your health by exercising, but you also save money and sometimes travel faster than with public transport.
By concentrating economic activity into fewer, larger hubs, globalisation has inarguably made the world more efficient. What is harder to assess is the hidden price we pay for efficiency gains through loss of variety — Rory Sutherland
This has bigger implications than we think
The question “are we imposing the same way of thinking to everybody?” may even have implications for financial markets where increasingly all public companies are being bullied by institutional investors to deliver the same results and metrics. And the end result may be a new crisis.
And I personally see this with startups who have the same mentality of scaling fast. A great deal of this tension undoubtedly comes from the fact that the nature of online business is to scale up as quickly as possible. Once you’re on the road to mass success and riches, there just isn’t much time to thoroughly think all of just wrote above through. Why would you concern yourself about ethics when more important stuff needs to be done? And let’s not forget about the pressure that comes from the board of directors or investors who continuously talk about ROI and monetisation, which doesn’t allow too much room for thought either.
With that said, the limitation we are imposing does not come only from searching on Google Maps or asking a voice assistant to answer something, but also from software, websites and other types of technology people interact with on a daily basis. And whether you are working on the next website that allows people to make choices or a voice assistant, ask yourself if you are not imposing only one type of thinking on all people, which on a grander scheme, may lead to not the best results possible.