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.