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Algorithms Are the New Religion

Personalized content is shaping us, not shaped for us.

Spotify has been a significant player in reshaping the music industry over the last decade. As a musician who’s released a lot of music since 2006, I could use this opportunity to criticize Spotify’s policies or its royalty rates, but that’s not why I’m writing today.

Instead, I’m sharing my thoughts as a user and music lover who’s lost the precious sense of proactively listening to music and who’s being force-fed “predicted to be liked” songs that only validate a sophisticated algorithm.

Is the algorithm designed to bend towards my preferences, or is it designed to make my preferences turn towards it?

If some marketer on the street offers you a free bottle of Coca-Cola, chances are you’ll feel the thirst kick in even though you weren’t thirsty at all a second ago. Our needs and desires are mostly driven and shaped by our environment, which appears to us as a set of opportunities and obstacles. In other words, there’s a serious chance you want what you want just because it’s there, right in front of your eyes.

“Personalised content” follows the same principle while proclaiming to simplify our lives. The shortest way to satisfaction makes us less selective while weakening our ability to look inside and dig for our true desires. The “You Might Like” feature may be right sometimes, or even most of the time, but it makes you weak in the long run. It trains you to like what it wants you to like. It’s only a more extensive and expensive form of advertisement.

Machines don’t know how you feel just yet.

The machine-learning algorithm has no clue about how you feel. It’s merely matching your behaviour to a set of behavioural trends so it can label you better. You’re pinned with a brand new set of data points, like invisible acupuncture needles, not knowing just how deep they might trigger you.

I would argue that predictive algorithms aren’t predicting your next move or want, but evaluating the success of their influence over you. And what’s the most lucrative use of influence? Yes, advertisement. It’s not merely about getting you to buy a specific product, or subscribe to a particular service. It’s more complicated than that. If we zoom out enough, we see that it’s all about one big thing: identity.

The birth of the “ad” in the year 1 AD

It is somewhat counterintuitive to think that religions performed the earliest forms of advertisement. I’d like to ask you to put your religious beliefs aside for a minute and to think about this: “Jesus Christ is the best branded product this world has ever known.” Its campaign has lasted for over 2000 years and is still kicking.

But what does it sell, you might ask? Well, regardless of their core message, all religions sell the very same thing: “A new way to be.” That’s the ultimate power of advertisement, and this is where it all started. You can’t change people, but you can make them want to change themselves.

I don’t think advertising is inherently bad, but I think we should be honest and aware of it as a controlling force in our lives. Beyond the products, there’s a set of ideas. Beyond the ideas, there’s a belief system. And beyond the belief system, there’s identity.

Advertising is a powerful, multilayered process that participates in designing the world we know and sculpting the core of who we are. We “buy into it” every time we delegate our free will to choose. We forget to look inside for answers, and as the feelings get ignored over and over again, we feel less, we know less, we are less.

Nobody, no algorithm, no AI, no Jesus will ever know what you want more than you do. It’s a precious gift and a misunderstood responsibility.

On the Agora, in Ancient Greece, long before the “launch” of Christianity, exercising one’s judgment and sharpening it, diligently, was common sense. Power resided in the confines of the individual; in one’s ability to think and feel.

Today’s new currency, data, is the resource we consult for guidance. We let it tangle us in its web, tricked by the comfort and the numbness it provides. We are no longer individuals with something to say; we are clones regurgitating and chanting our illusion of uniqueness.

I might well be painting a Daliesque picture of reality, here. Perhaps this is a distorted and overdramatized reading of the power of customization and advertisement. But I think of it more as a dead angle. You know there could be something there, so you keep looking, consistently. Because if you stop, things might go wrong. It’s your job to turn your head 90 degrees left and right and look for what won’t easily be revealed. It’s your responsibility.

So let’s keep looking. Let’s be aware and responsible, and let’s never forget the tool we were given from the very beginning: an internal compass to navigate this freneticworld with our own thoughts, with our own feelings.

Now, what do you really want to read next?

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