The Evolution of Recommendations

For centuries, recommendations were a simple exchange of knowledge from one person to another. You could take it or leave it. Filtering the signal from the noise wasn’t a skill that was helpful to have yet for most humans.

Industrialization and the printing press made it possible to spread the recommendation of one person to many, though with some cost and time. Pressure occasionally mounted to take recommendations, but you could easily throw out, pass along, or entirely ignore printed materials if they weren’t your thing. We started developing crude filters for the occasional noise.

Next would come numerous institutions recommending products and services commercially around the turn of the century. Television and radio made delivering those messages to the masses easier and quicker than ever. You could mute or turn off your radio or TV when advertising would pressure you to buy. It was annoying, but you were still in control. Our noise filters were evolving.

A decade ago, people were being replaced with computers that
made recommendations from processing mounds of collected data and taking commands from a small number of powerful companies. The recommendations were sometimes good, but often completely off the mark. They weren’t front and center yet. Our filters evolved a little more to be weary of internet offerings.

Today, recommendations are now a firehose injected into our information streams by algorithms – and we’re addicted to them. The recommendations are self-perpetuated and need little input from anyone to keep going. We aren’t asked if we wanted these recommendations, but we have them and they are difficult (occasionally impossible) to avoid without opting out of the information streams that are important to us. We’ve given into much of the noise because we don’t feel like we have a choice.

Tomorrow, our grocery order for the week could be delivered to our door by self-driving, self-unloading trucks with 90% accuracy. We won’t have lifted a finger or utter a word to anyone – it will just happen automatically because the computer crunched the data and triggered a series of actions. No humans involvement. No recommendations for us to respond to. No noise to filter out.

For now, recommendations still grant us agency to consider how well they serve us before we commit. We remain independent enough to have the resources, abilities, and agency to live without them.

Perhaps we should protect this dynamic before it’s too late and technology is expected to take care of us. Our agency, abilities, and resources to stay independent are being chipped away slowly and it shows no sign of slowing down.

What we might give up for convenience today may not have been worth it when we have real decisions to make in the future and technology can’t (or won’t) help us.

Choose your information streams wisely.

Algorithmic Trust

People today entrust decisions to algorithms more than ever before.

We could ask for a recommendation or do our own research, but it’s almost always easier to pick from a list of suggestions. If those suggestions work out, we build trust in that source of those suggestions over time.

Unlike a genuine recommendations from a real person, suggestions can be easily automated.

That’s probably okay for some things where the stakes are low, but probably not for matters of consequence.

A problem arises when a pattern of accepting good suggestions from an algorithm turns into a habit of blindly accepting suggestions. Even if there are duds of suggestions coming from the feed that lead to disappointment, we still scroll on in hopes the next one will be better. They must get better. They used to be better.

You wouldn’t do that if you had a bad recommendation from a server at a restaurant or a sommelier at a wine shop. You might not go back to that person for a recommendation, or better, you might offer them feedback so the next recommendation is more suited to your tastes.

Algorithms eventually run out of home run hits to suggest, and when they do, they seldomly tell you that their suggestions are now garbage. You might not come back if they disclosed this. Instead, your muscle memory of scrolling or reliance on the algorithm keeps you engaged in it.

We could demand better from the implementation of any given algorithm, and if the rest of the community of users agrees with us, the algorithm’s operator might make a change or be more transparent. But, that’s not likely to happen – at least not yet.

All of this sets us up for a battle ahead to rationalize and command more individual agency over the way algorithms impact our lives. How that plays out is being written right now in what will undoubtedly be a very pivotal moment in computer science history.


A good friend is one that wants to spend time with you and be there for you. You’ll likely have many people in your lifetime that will fit this description.

A great friend is one that wants to spend time with you and be there for you as often as you would like to be there for them. These will be a much smaller number of people, perhaps a handful, over your lifetime.

The difference is nuanced, yet strikingly important and not easily measured quantitatively.

Choose wisely where you invest the best of your time and energy.

Where is the struggle?

Making a sandwich is something most of us can do and (at least in the US) is within reach. We gather bread, fillings, a knife and go to work. It’s a skill most of us learned at a young age. We don’t often struggle to make a PB&J.

Now imagine you’re staring at a blank canvas, and have been asked to paint a portrait of a child. You look at the child, the canvas, the paint brushes – and you’re not sure where to start because you’ve never painted a portrait before. You have paint, a subject, brushes, and a canvas. But struggle is immanent because you don’t have the ability to paint this portrait.

Take now the local tech wiz who dreams of building a mobile app to help her fellow villagers locate safe water sources in the area. She has a laptop, unreliable electricity, slow internet access, and little money. She wants to learn how to create this app and will pour her soul into it given the opportunity. Struggle is immanent because she doesn’t have the resources or abilities.

An engineer sits in his home office wanting to design bridge supports, water management solutions, and help certify building are safe for clients. He knows how – he has an engineering degree and practiced for 10 years in his home country. But where he lives now will not recognize his accomplishments and grant him an engineering license. Struggle is immanent because he has no agency over his abilities.

Struggle comes in different forms for different people in different situations. A good litmus test to determine how much struggle you have ahead of you is to weigh three factors: Agency, Resources, and Abilities.

If you lack one, there will be a challenge ahead.

Lack two, and the challenge is greater.

Lack all three, and it may be impossible.

Knowing where the struggle is helps to identify where to focus most of your energy to achieve your goals.

We bought a house in 2021. I have no regrets yet.

Each morning, I’m awaken by the sound of a lowered, grey 2001 BMW 325 starting up around 6AM. I suspect the owner is proud of their investment. It’s was once a respectable car – but this one is illegally modified. It has an exhaust system designed to draw attention via a droning hum that penetrates even a 2×6 built home with double paned windows and solid R29 insulation. The sound of that 6 cylinder BMW motor is clear as day, actually.

Here, they can be found on every block. Yet, I have no regrets moving here.

In March, we closed on our 2,500 sf, 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom home and moved in within a few weeks, leaving behind 1,400 sf of townhouse in the big city behind. We upgraded to the suburbs.

If you read that and felt yourself recoil at the suburbs characterized as an upgrade, I get it. I used to be you. I hated the suburbs on principle. They’re over developed, car dependent cesspools of food deserts, dollar stores, and people who voted from Trump.

And yet, I have no regrets moving here.

We needed more space for our family, work, and hobbies. We needed space for the kids to play. We needed reprieve from the ravages of the pandemic on social life. The big city became repulsive beyond forgiveness. We were done.

Our new home came with some unwelcome surprises: undisclosed pet damage, 15 years of deferred maintenance, trashed appliances, improperly installed new flooring, crap paint and trim inside, cheap everything, that noisy BMW next door.

It also came with some welcome surprises: more space to think, new friends for our kids, schools that work better, a town mayor that fights the governor on overreaching pandemic restrictions, other native Oregonians, municipal internet.

We didn’t get a good deal on this house. Every other house we looked at had multiple offers, many over asking price. This one did not. It had no offers. Nobody wanted it at the price it was offered at. We didn’t have a half million dollars in cash lying around to make strong cash offers with.

Yet, it’s perfect for us.

We have an opportunity to make it perfect, while living in it. I’ve spent the last 10 years learning how to remodel and upgrade everything except plumbing. As I dig into these projects, I’m happy to make the investment. We have a place now to call home – our home.

Eventually, I’ll share with the noisy BMW owner our experience and see if he’d be willing to put a regular exhaust back on his sweet ride. But until then, I’ll enjoy the 6AM alarm clock I didn’t have to set the night before.

And maybe, I’ll find that I still have no regrets in a year from now.