One of the streaming music apps I use creates custom playlists for me and it’s scary good at predicting songs I’ll like. Does it make me bored?
– To play it safe
Dear Play it safe,
I once read somewhere that if you want to slowly make someone mad, decide for a week or so to occasionally mumble, “I knew you would say that,” after they made a random remark. The logic, as far as I can see, is that by convincing a person that their thoughts are completely predictable, you are steadily eroding their sense of freedom of action until they can no longer perceive themselves as an independent being. I have no idea if it actually works – I’ve never been sadistic enough to try it. But if its premise is correct, we must all slowly lose our minds. How many times a day are we reminded that our actions can be accurately predicted? Predictive text guesses how we will respond to emails. Amazon is suggesting just the book that we are going to read. It’s rare these days to finish writing a Google query before auto-completion ends our thoughts, a reminder that our medical concerns, our creative projects, and our relationship dilemmas are completely unoriginal.
For those of us who grew up in the melting pot of late capitalist individualism, we who believe that our soul is as unique as our thumbprints and as inexplicable as a snowflake, the idea is that our interests fall into easily transparent patterns , deep, perhaps even existential, disturbing. In fact, to play it safe, I’m willing to bet that your real anxiety is not that you’re boring, but that you’re not really free. If your taste can be so easily deduced from your listening history and the data streams from “users like you” (to borrow the condescending argot from prediction engines), then do you make a choice? Is it possible that your indescribable and seemingly spontaneous joy of hearing the Radiohead song you loved in college is simply the inflexible mathematical endpoint of the vector of probabilities that has determined your personality since birth?
Although this anxiety may feel new, it stems from a much older problem of prediction and personal freedom, one that first emerged in response to the belief in divine foreknowledge. If God can see the future with perfect accuracy, then are human actions not necessarily predetermined? How could we act differently? A scientific version of the problem was posed by the 19th-century French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace, who imagined a cosmic superintelligence that knew every detail of the universe, right down to the exact position of all its atoms. If this entity (now known as Laplace’s demon) understood all about the present world and possessed an intellect “large enough to send the data for analysis”, it could perfectly predict the future and reveal that all events, including our own actions, belong to a long domino chain of cause and effect stretching back to the birth of the universe.
The algorithm that predicts your musical preferences is less sophisticated than the cosmic intellect Laplace had in mind. But it still reveals, to a lesser extent, the extent to which your actions are limited by your previous choices and certain generalized probabilities of human behavior. And it’s not hard to extrapolate what predictive technologies can reveal about our sense of agency when they become even better at predicting our actions and emotional states – perhaps even surpassing our own self-awareness. Will we accept their recommendations for who we should marry or who we should vote for, just as we are now making their suggestions for what to see and read? Will police departments arrest probable criminals before committing the crime they commit in Minority report, tipped by the oracular predictions of digital precogs? Several years ago, Amazon filed a “preemptive shipping” patent, hoping that the company would soon be able to guess our orders correctly (and start preparing them for shipping) before we made the purchase.
If the revelation of your own lethargy is merely the first impetus for this new reality, then how should you react? One possibility would be to rebel and try to prove that its assumptions are false. Act out of character. When you feel like doing something, do the exact opposite. Listen to music you hate. Make choices that redirect your data flow. This is the solution that Dostoevsky tells in Notes from the underground, who takes up irrational and self-harming actions merely to prove that he is not a slave to the inflexible calculations of rational self-interest. The novel was written during the heyday of rational egoism, in which certain utopian thinkers believed that human behavior could be reduced to a set of logical rules to maximize well-being and create the ideal society. The narrator insists that most people would find such a world intolerable because it would destroy their belief in individual freedom. We value our autonomy above all the comforts and benefits that scientific determinism offers – so much so, he argues, that we would seek out absurdity or even self-harm to prove that we are free. If science ever conclusively proves that humans act in accordance with these fatalistic rules, we would destroy ourselves “for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil and living again according to our own foolish will!”
It is an uplifting passage, but as predictions go, it is not very foresighted. Few of us today seem to be plagued by the conveniences of predictive analytics. In fact, the amenities they offer are considered so desirable that we often partner with them. On Spotify, we “like” the songs we enjoy and contribute yet another slice to the new mosaic of our digital personality. At TikTok, we quickly roll past posts that do not reflect our dominant interests so that the omniscient algorithm does not confuse our curiosity with invested interest. Maybe you paused once or twice before watching a Netflix movie that deviated from your usual taste, or hesitated before googled a religious question so it did not take you like a true believer and skew your future search results. If you want to optimize your recommendations, the best thing to do is to behave as much as “yourself” as possible, remain resolute and forever in character – that is, act in a way that is completely contrary to the real complexity of human nature.
That said, I do not advise embracing the irrational or acting against your own interests. It will not make you happy, nor will it prove a point. Coincidence is a poor substitute for true freedom. Instead, perhaps you should reconsider the unspoken premise of your query, which is that your identity is defined by your consumer choices. Your fear of getting bored may have less to do with your supposed vanilla flavor than the fact that these platforms have conditioned us to see our souls through the lens of formula categories designed to be readable by advertisers . It’s all too easy to confuse our character with the points that adorn our bios: our relationship status, our professional affiliations, the postings and memes and threads we liked, the purchases we made, and the playlists we have built.