I have defended the volunteer customer reviews on Web sites like amazon.com lately as being a useful way to get unprofessionalized opinions on things, a way to tap into genuine enthusiasm in a commercial culture predicated on a ceaseless flow of hype. But the personalized recommendations that Amazon and Netflix produce for you by tracking everything you view on the site and correlating it with bundles of similar things other people looked at strike me as extremely sinister. Especially when they are accurate, when they produce for me a list of things I am actually interested in.
Why should I be bothered by this? Shouldn’t I be thankful that Amazon has expedited my shopping experience and turned me on to some things I’ll appreciate? Shouldn’t I be glad that it has stepped in to provide the word of mouth I no longer really get from friends, because I don’t really have all that much time to spend with friends? Shouldn’t I be excited by all this access? Well, no. Cultural goods like these in and of themselves are generally less important to a person than the social network which they embody, the actual word of mouth among friends that makes them meaningful. Sure, some films, some records are better than others, possibly even from some objective point of view that argument can be made, but really what makes certain films and records personally significant is the kind of community it allows one to feel an allegiance to, a participation in. If that “community” consists solely of a mammoth associational database, it kind of demystifies the whole process, the whole myth of community through consumption. It exposes word of mouth to be not a social process but a sheer mathematical one, a probablity game. Maybe the destruction of that myth is worth celebrating; maybe those are phony communities to begin with — but it’s not like other forms of community are springing up to take their place.
What these personalized recommendations actually accomplish is depersonalization. They encourage you down the same cattle chute that any other person who has stumbled on to the same general interests may have been rushed down. This upsets any kind of organic flow to the discoveries one can make, obviating whatever sense of selfhood one’s discovery of interesting things might previously have offered. Internet tools that plug you into the mass cosolidation and aggregation of data reveal devestatingly just how homogenized you always already are, just how frail the illusion that you have conceived of something unique really is. Again, it may be ultimately beneficial to have the myth of individual uniqueness shattered, but in the transitional phase, when models of self-esteem through extreme individuation still rule, this experience painful.
With the thrill of discovery automated and the social aspects of consumption mechanized, all that’s left is speed of consumption, volume, amassing a miser-like collection of “cool stuff” for it’s own sake. What makes it “cool” eventually becomes simply a matter of its novelty, as the sensual qualities of things so quickly gets used up in the climate of imperative convenience. And this is the quintessential recipe for the hedonic treadmill, where the more you acquire, the more you need.