Thursday, 20 March 2014

Visions of the future

As part of the Guardian’s Generation Y series, four authors wrote short-short SF stories about the media of the future. All were dystopian, and interestingly two of the four focused on the issue of personalization (as distinct from customization, see below), taken to the extreme: where you can view only the online content which has been deemed suitable for you, not by some Big Brother central state but the commercial forces of advertising and profiling.

In “News hacking is the new glue sniffing” by Laurie Penny, teenagers gather in a seedy dive to read the news: “not only the news that’s been tailored to their age, interests and background, but any news” - for example, that Tottenham has been under military occupation for two months, which is blocked if you have a London login. They hack the internet service to create open logins, which is a risky pursuit; “companies can and do sue users for loss of potential advertising revenue”.

In “Paper” by James Smythe, a man on the underground is reading his own (digital) Paper, which is feeding him news and gossip about the Oscars ceremony and trying to get him to buy a suit similar to the one worn by one of the actors. He sees a woman reading about an unfolding war on her own Paper, but he can find no trace of it in his own (although he finds “war” occurring in the names of TV shows and films, and a story about a fight between two women on a reality TV show). A message comes up: “Based on your social profile, we have predicted that these will not be interesting to you. Would you like to know more about best actor at last night’s Oscars?”

Generation Y, it seems, has no truck with the happy hippy utopian vision of the internet as a free space for (hedonistically) sexual expression or (politically) democratic protest. Some of us old ‘uns never believed it anyway, but the younger generation sees perhaps more clearly – despite, or perhaps because, being more immersed in online social media – that the digital world replicates all the power structures and social tensions of the physical, though amplified and on a larger scale. Let’s be careful out there, as they used to say in Hill Street Blues.


“Personalisation” and “customisation” are similar and the words are often used interchangeably, but there’s an important distinction. In usual usage, “customisation” is what you, the user, do to select the things you want; for example, you can “customise” the Toolbar in Microsoft Office so that it contains the icons you want to see most frequently. “Personalisation” is the system choosing what to put in front of you, based on what it knows (or thinks it knows) about your and what you want; targeted advertising or, more benignly, Amazon recommendations, are personalisation.

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