Mass personalization of truth

“When we live by personalized truths, our shared trust in social institutions such as science, education, or law erodes.”

A market of one used to be the dream of marketers around the world. Digital platforms made it come true through what is now known as mass personalization: the automated process of hyper-fragmenting consumers and predicting their needs or desires based on massive data surveillance and classification technologies. Businesses report a significant increase in sales when they use personalized marketing technologies, and political campaigners seem happy to spend money on targeted advertising.

Mass personalized consumption of goods, services, and messages has now become a reality. However, policymakers around the world have had a more radical dream: a society of one.

Such a dream requires a much deeper kind of mass personalization, beyond messages, goods, and services. A society of one means the mass personalization of truth.

There is a reason I’m using the word “truth” instead of “reality.” Truth, in this sense, is a reality that is not just cognitive or private, but also sensory or material, as well as public or shared, and thereby social. Our realities deal with what we eat or read or watch, but our truths deal with our gut feelings about how we and things are or should be. If reality is about cognitive experiences, truth is about affective meanings.

The filter bubble is a now discredited theory on mass personalization of reality which claims that digital platforms enclose us in cognitive cocoons. But evidence shows that people’s beliefs have little to do with their level of exposure to difference or dissent. Quite the opposite: People don’t just expose themselves to very different ideas and messages, perhaps out of curiosity, but are much more open to some of them than we assume.

Mass personalization of truth is where both our bodies and minds are affected by automated technologies of prediction and fragmentation. It is not just about listening to your weekly Spotify-curated playlist, but about listening to it through earbuds which in effect privatize our sensory and bodily experience, even in public spaces such as public transit. It’s not only about where Google Maps suggests we get a coffee, but also the route we should take to get there; it’s not only about showing you anti-smoking ads on Facebook, it’s about raising your private health insurance premium.

The implications of the mass personalization of truth are immense. It affects notions of trust, justice, and autonomy. When we live by personalized truths, our shared trust in social institutions such as science, education, or law erodes. When there is no public space for shared truths to emerge, how do we even know whether we are treated fairly by police, courts, or our employers? Moreover, when social systems can ever more accurately anticipate our life expectancy, health costs, level of education, or economic productivity, why would states or corporations abide by any universal allocation of resources, equal rights, or ethics of care? And how can any notion of democracy be imagined without autonomous citizens?

A society of one may, in 2021, sound like an impossible dream (or nightmare, depending on who you are) — but so was a market of one before the emergence of giant digital platforms. The real threat of mass personalization is not to our minds, but to our embodied truths.

Hossein Derakhshan is a London-based media researcher and former research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.

A market of one used to be the dream of marketers around the world. Digital platforms made it come true through what is now known as mass personalization: the automated process of hyper-fragmenting consumers and predicting their needs or desires based on massive data surveillance and classification technologies. Businesses report a significant increase in sales when they use personalized marketing technologies, and political campaigners seem happy to spend money on targeted advertising.

Mass personalized consumption of goods, services, and messages has now become a reality. However, policymakers around the world have had a more radical dream: a society of one.

Such a dream requires a much deeper kind of mass personalization, beyond messages, goods, and services. A society of one means the mass personalization of truth.

There is a reason I’m using the word “truth” instead of “reality.” Truth, in this sense, is a reality that is not just cognitive or private, but also sensory or material, as well as public or shared, and thereby social. Our realities deal with what we eat or read or watch, but our truths deal with our gut feelings about how we and things are or should be. If reality is about cognitive experiences, truth is about affective meanings.

The filter bubble is a now discredited theory on mass personalization of reality which claims that digital platforms enclose us in cognitive cocoons. But evidence shows that people’s beliefs have little to do with their level of exposure to difference or dissent. Quite the opposite: People don’t just expose themselves to very different ideas and messages, perhaps out of curiosity, but are much more open to some of them than we assume.

Mass personalization of truth is where both our bodies and minds are affected by automated technologies of prediction and fragmentation. It is not just about listening to your weekly Spotify-curated playlist, but about listening to it through earbuds which in effect privatize our sensory and bodily experience, even in public spaces such as public transit. It’s not only about where Google Maps suggests we get a coffee, but also the route we should take to get there; it’s not only about showing you anti-smoking ads on Facebook, it’s about raising your private health insurance premium.

The implications of the mass personalization of truth are immense. It affects notions of trust, justice, and autonomy. When we live by personalized truths, our shared trust in social institutions such as science, education, or law erodes. When there is no public space for shared truths to emerge, how do we even know whether we are treated fairly by police, courts, or our employers? Moreover, when social systems can ever more accurately anticipate our life expectancy, health costs, level of education, or economic productivity, why would states or corporations abide by any universal allocation of resources, equal rights, or ethics of care? And how can any notion of democracy be imagined without autonomous citizens?

A society of one may, in 2021, sound like an impossible dream (or nightmare, depending on who you are) — but so was a market of one before the emergence of giant digital platforms. The real threat of mass personalization is not to our minds, but to our embodied truths.

Hossein Derakhshan is a London-based media researcher and former research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.

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