“Streaming services often allow account holders to create multiple separate profiles, which I appreciate. I want the recommendations I receive to reflect my taste and not my partner’s. Is this selfish? Is there any virtue in sharing a profile with others? “
“Island in the stream.”
Sharing, at least as it is often understood, is only virtuous in cases of finite resources. It is generous for a child to share his lunch with a partner who does not have it or for the rich to give money to the less fortunate. But I find it hard to believe that losing an individual profile would be commendable when there is enough to go through. What bothers you is not the fear of selfishness, but the awareness that you see the inclinations and preferences of others as a form of pollution, a threat to the purity of your personal algorithm. Insisting on your own digital feud suggests that you believe your taste is so unique and accurate that any disruption to its pattern will compromise its underlying integrity.
At a basic level, prediction engines are like karma, invisible mechanisms that record each of your actions and give you back something of equal value. If you look at a lot of documents about real crimes, you will finally find yourself in a catalog dominated by horrifying titles. If you’re used to playing sitcoms from the early 2000s, your recommendations will turn into a buffet of millennial nostalgia for everything you can eat. The notion that a reaper sows, that every action engenders an equal reaction, is not just a spiritual pablum, but a law codified in the underlying architecture of our digital universe. Few users really know how these predictive technologies work. (At TikTok, speculation about how the algorithm works has become as dense as school debates about the metaphysical constitution of angels.) Still, we like to believe that there are certain cosmic principles at play that each of the our actions are being faithfully recorded, that, at every moment, we are shaping our future entertainment with what we choose to stay, relate to, and buy.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to investigate this feeling of control a bit. You’ve noticed that you want your recommendations to be in line with your taste, but what? is the taste, exactly, and where does it come from? It is common to think of an individual’s preferences as sui generis, but our inclinations have been shaped by all sorts of external factors, such as where we live, how we grew up, our ages, and other relevant data. These variables are found in perceptible trends that are valid among populations. The demographic profile has shown how easy it is to discover patterns in large samples. Given a large enough data set, political opinions can be predicted based on fashion preferences (LL Bean shoppers lean conservatively; Kenzo appeals to liberals), and personality traits can be deduced for the kind of music a user likes (Nicki Minaj fans tend to be extroverted). No one knows what causes these correlations, but their consistency suggests that neither of us is exactly the owner of our own destiny, nor the creator of a bespoke person. Our behavior falls into predictable patterns that are subject to social forces operating beyond the level of our consciousness.
And, well, prediction engines wouldn’t work if that wasn’t the case. It’s nice to think that your private profile recommendations are as unique as your fingerprint. But these suggestions have been reported in the behavioral data of millions of other users, and the more successful the platform is at guessing what you see, the more likely your behavior is to be in line with other people. The term “user similarity” describes how automated recommendations analogize customer behavior with related habits, which basically means you have thousands of shadow egos out there streaming, viewing, and buying many of the same products. that you are, like quantum intertwined particles that reflect each other from opposite sides of the universe. Your options inform you of the options that are shown to you, just as your choices will influence the content you promote to future users.
Karma, at least in popular culture, is often seen as a simplistic form of cosmic overcoming, but is more properly understood as a principle of interdependence. Everything in the world is connected to everything else, creating a vast network of interrelationships where the consequences of each action reverberate throughout the system. For those of us who have been imbued with the dualities of Western philosophy and American individualism, it can be difficult to understand the extent to which our lives are intertwined with that of others. In fact, information technology — and the large data sets it creates — have recently revealed to us what some of the oldest spiritual traditions have been teaching for millennia: that we live in a world that is chaotic and radically interdependent, one in which the distance between two people (or the space between two vectors) is often smaller than we might think.
With that in mind, Island, sharing a profile could be less of an act of generosity than an acknowledgment of this interdependence. The person you are living with has already changed you in countless ways, subtly altering what you think, what you buy, and the way you talk. If your current taste for movies is different from yours, that doesn’t mean you always will. In fact, it is almost certain that your preferences will be closer the more time you share at home. This is definitely a good thing. Most of us have experienced at some point the self-perpetuating hell of karmic cycles, as a cigarette leads to an addiction or a single lie breeds a series of additional deceptions. Similarly, automated recommendations can encourage less recursive habits, reproducing more and more of the same thing until we get caught up in a one-dimensional reflection of our past choices. Deliberately opening your profile to others could be a way to leave some air in that wet cave of individual preferences where the past continually resonates, isolating you from the vast world of possibilities outside.