“Streaming services often allow account holders to create multiple separate profiles, which I appreciate. I want the recommendations I get to reflect my tastes and not my partners. Is this selfish? Is there any virtue in sharing a profile with others? ”
Ø in Strømmen
Sharing, at least as it is often understood, is only virtuous in the case of limited resources. It is generous for a child to share his lunch with a classmate who has none, or for the wealthy to give money to the less fortunate. But I have a hard time believing that it would be commendable to forfeit an individual profile when there is enough to go around with. What bothers you is not the fear of selfishness, but the realization that you see other people’s inclinations and preferences as a form of pollution, a threat to the purity of your personal algorithm. Insisting on your own digital len suggests that your taste is so unique and precise that any disruption of its pattern will compromise its underlying integrity.
At a basic level, prediction engines like karma are invisible mechanisms that record each of your actions and return to you something of equal value. If you look at a lot of true-crime documents, you will eventually find yourself in a catalog dominated by gruesome titles. If you tend to stream sitcoms from the early 2000s, your recommendations will turn into an all-you-can-eat buffet with millennial nostalgia. The notion that one reaps what one sows, that every action elicits an equal response, is not just spiritual pablum, but a law encoded in the underlying architecture of our digital universe. Few users really know how these predictive technologies work. (On TikTok, speculation about how the algorithm’s functions have become as close as scholastic debates about angels’ metaphysical constitution.) Yet we like to think that certain cosmic principles are at stake, that each of our actions is faithfully logged, that at every moment we shape our future entertainment based on what we choose to dwell on, engage in and buy.
Maybe it would be worthwhile to examine that sense of control a bit. You noticed that you would like your recommendations to match your taste, but what is taste, exactly, and where does it come from? It is common to think of one’s preferences as sui generis, but our inclinations have been shaped by all sorts of external factors, including where we live, how we were brought up, our age, and other relevant data. These variables fall into noticeable trends that apply across populations. Demographic profiling has proven how easy it is to spot patterns in large samples. Given a large enough dataset, political views can be predicted based on fashion preferences (LL Bean buyers lean conservatively; Kenzo appeals to liberals), and personality traits can be deduced from what kind of music a user likes (fans of Nicki Minaj tend to be extroverted). No one knows what causes these connections, but their consistency suggests that none of us are exactly masters of our own destiny, or the creator of a bespoke persona. Our behavior falls into predictable patterns that are subject to social forces that act beyond our level of consciousness.
And well, prediction engines could not work if this was not the case. It’s nice to think that the recommendations on your private profile are as unique as your thumbprint. However, these suggestions have been informed about behavioral data from millions of other users, and the more successful the platform is at guessing what you want to see, the more likely it is that your behavior will align with other people’s. The term “usability” describes how automated recommendations analogize customer behavior with related habits, which basically means you have thousands of shadow-yourself out there who stream, watch and buy many of the same products that you are as quantum entangled particles that mirror each other from opposite sides of the universe. Their choices inform about the options you are shown, just as your choices will deflect the content promoted for future users.
Karma, at least in popular culture, is often considered a simplified form of cosmic emergence, but it is more correctly understood as a principle of interdependence. Everything in the world is connected to everything else, creating a great network of interrelationships, where the consequences of every action resonate throughout the system. For those of us who have been permeated by the dualities of Western philosophy and American individualism, it can be difficult to understand how intertwined our lives are with the lives of others. In fact, it is only recently that information technologies – and the vast datasets they create – have revealed to us what some of the oldest spiritual traditions have taught for millennia: that we live in a world that is chaotic and radically interdependent. where the distance between two people (or the space between two vectors) is often smaller than we might think.
With that in mind, Iceland, sharing a profile may be less of a generosity than an acknowledgment of interdependence. The person you live with has already changed you in countless ways, subtly changing what you believe in, what you buy, the way you talk. If your taste in movies currently differs from theirs, that does not mean that it will always do so. In fact, the closer you share home, the more likely it is that your preferences will get closer to each other. This is without a doubt a good thing. Most of us have at one time or another experienced the self-sustaining hell of karmic cycles, the way a cigarette leads to an addiction or a single lie breeds a number of additional deceptions. Automated recommendations can similarly promote narrowly recursive habits and breed more and more of the same until we are stuck in a one-dimensional reflection of our past choices. Intentionally opening your profile to others could be a way to let some air into the damp cave of individual preferences, where the past constantly resonates and isolates you from the vast world of possibilities that lie beyond.