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2022-05-15

Am I Zombie? Autonomy vs. Recommendations on the Internet


Nowadays, our day-to-day decisions rely too much on how others think. The others are not from a close relationship like family, friends, and colleagues. In fact, the people who are making an influence on our behavior are complete strangers on the internet.

  • Someone gave a 5-star review for this product.
  • Why don't you go to this place where many people like you enjoyed it?
  • By the way, how about this item you might overlook?

As the technology advances, online review and algorithmic recommendation become more accurate and make our life more "efficient". Consequently, it is very difficult for us today to enter a really bad restaurant, read a horrible book, or listen to a song that is completely out of your taste.

But, wait—Do we really need that degree of certainty every day at every single moment?

Of course, the information is good for specific situations when you must not make a bad choice (e.g., business dinner, gift for a loved one) and/or you intentionally want to accomplish the task with minimum effort on a regular basis (e.g., grocery shopping, where you don't need any big surprise). However, at the same time, I believe relying too much on online recommendations sacrifices our humanity and decreases the quality of life at the end of the day.

That's why I'm occasionally trying not to read reviews on the internet, by reducing the time spent on Google Maps, prioritizing real friend/colleague's opinions (e.g., about books, podcasts, media contents) over algorithmic recommendations, and simply incorporating randomness into my life more often.

As we see Ethical Challenges in Recommender Systems, modern intelligent systems are constantly suppressing our autonomy by attempting to "addict" us. Most importantly, the developers are intentionally designing the systems in such a way so it keeps gaining user's attention to optimize business metrics; if you ever worked on these software systems or algorithms, it's obvious how "easy" manipulating users' behavior is.

Therefore, it is important for individuals to take a proactive action to block digital distractions. Otherwise, we can easily become a "zombie" which behaves sluggishly without any consciousness. The notion of zombie comes from Nir Eyal's book, Indistractable:

she received a late-night notification from the app challenging her to walk a few flights of stairs. She accepted the challenge [...]. As soon as she completed the first challenge, she received another offer — walk four more flights and the app promised to triple her points. “Yes, of course! It’s a good deal!” [...] For the next two hours she walked the stairs to and from her basement like a fitness-crazed zombie.

"Is Some Tech Too Addictive?"

For me, our modern life is already crazed to some degree due to the loss of autonomy. How to avoid being a zombie—It's an ultimate mission for all of us to seize the humanity in our life, and it's a crucial challenge for developers to exercise ethical product development.

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  See also

2022-04-21
"Why Do We Build This?" Humane Technologist's View of Bad Product/Project
2022-01-01
Ethical Product Developer
2021-07-15
Reviewing Ethical Challenges in Recommender Systems

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  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a product developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. Throughout my career, I have practically worked as a full-stack software engineer, OSS developer, technical evangelist, sales engineer, data scientist, machine learning engineer, and product manager. See my "now" page for more about what I am doing lately.

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Opinions are my own and do not represent the views of organizations I am/was belonging to.

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