The Death of Discovery

It is the unknown that excites the ardor of scholars, who, in the known alone, would shrivel up with boredom.   

Wallace Stevens

I’m finding as I grow older, the appeal of the digital world is waning.

We have the whole world at our fingertips, different and diverse communities to converse with, interesting art to experience, and a bottomless wealth of opinions to challenge us. And yet, I feel that the limit of technology I am comfortable with is that off my early 20s. Wikipedia, Bulletin Boards, IRC, and the modern incarnations of those technologies.

On the one hand, my aversion to more modern digital applications: social media, video blogging, and interactive news could be easily attributed to nostalgia. I’m getting old, and I miss the simplicity of my youth. However, the bifurcation of my digital interests can be traced directly to the advent and adoption of a particular type of technology: the recommendation engine.

The concept of filter bubbles is well described, and each time you open yourself up to a recommendation engine, a part of the wider digital world is removed from your discovery space. Further, as recommendation engines are consolidated and combined with fingerprinting, the walls around that content will solidify.

Due to this, its hard to find unbiased news (or at least news with different points of views that aren’t extremely partisan), its hard to discover new content, and more importantly, its hard to gather the raw materials needed to change one’s mind.

It’s unlikely that services that rely on engaging people will stop feeding content which they know will be of interest, and which they know induces a drug-like euphoria from continuously consuming. And to top it off, its really difficult and for some services downright impossible to turn off the recommendations.

And so, I find the only place I can still discover challenging ideas, concepts, and art is in the analogue and the old. I can wonder (well I could, it’s hard right now) down a different row in a library, browse a different forum, or click the random button on Wikipedia to my hearts content.

I may not like what I find there, but at least it isn’t hidden from me. And while the pool is smaller, it is deep, rather than horizon to horizon ankle deep water.

Discussion Points

  • Do you agree with me?
  • How can recommendation engines be used for good?
  • What’s your discovery strategy?

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