We never truly want what we think we want. Sure, it’s nice to get the thing we want, but the whole “wanting” part is for the birds. Wanting is a negative emotion, a state in which we feel lack and uncertainty, incompleteness. Someone who has received absolutely everything they’ve ever wanted is bound to be unhappy. Why is that?
It’s because what we really want to have is not the thing we think we want, but rather the thing we never knew we wanted which we stumbled upon along the way. These things we encounter but which we did not expect to encounter are happy accidents. The reason we like those things better is because we appreciate them more. When we aren’t expecting to receive something, or experience something, we are more open to that thing or experience and therefore can receive it or experience it more purely. When we get something we think we want, there is always a disconnect between what we wanted and what we actually got. Have you ever craved a toy, or a tool, only to finally get it and have it sit in the closet for years. Finally you sell it at a yard sale and you have a vague feeling that it’s sad. It is sad. It’s sad to realize that the thing you thought you wanted wasn’t what you wanted at all.
Luckily we encounter happy accidents every day. If only we stop to appreciate them our lives are filled with wonder and surprise.
The internet is a veritable treasure trove of ways to get lost along the way to trying to find something. You think you want to do some work, but the next thing you know you’re flipping through incredible photos of someone’s bizarre bat mitzvah on Facebook, or reading a list of the ten things not to dress your kitten in for the holidays. We consider the computer to be a tool we do work on, or create things on, but the computer is also a gateway into so much information that it is almost impossible not to fall in and end up with a new circular saw, or chatting with a serial entrepreneur in Bangkok. The real highlight of our hi-tech existence, working and playing on the computer for 12 hours a day, is the incredible power of distraction available to us and all those wonderful happy accidents we stumble upon every day.
Yet, there are forces at work, which are attempting to stymie that joy. People are toiling away with one goal in mind: remove the happy accident. Are these people evil? Do they hate us? No. They are simply deluded into thinking they can figure out what we REALLY want.
High tech companies are in the advertising game. Every time you buy something from Amazon, or like a post on Facebook, a small entry is made into a log file. That log file captures everything about you and everything you do. Intricate, cutting-edge algorithms then take this log and compare it with other people’s logs. The algorithm tries to find similarities between logs. It’s looking for people like you. People who buy the same things, like the same things, search for the same things.
Once the system finds correlations it tries to suggest things to you. Not only things to buy, but things to read, things to explore. It basically builds a profile on you and then caters content to present you with it’s best guess of what you really want.
A concrete example: have you ever noticed how on Facebook, there’s a little dropdown on the top-left of the page which reads “News Feed”? It doesn’t even look like a dropdown, it just looks like text, but if you click it you’ll see you have two choices: “Top Stories” or “Most Recent”. You’ll also notice that “Top Stories” is pre-selected for you. Interestingly, even if you set this to “Most Recent”, if you navigate away from the Home stream and then return it will automatically set it back to “Top Stories”.
First, what does “Top Stories” even mean? What makes the stories “Top”? This is our friend the algorithm. I don’t have a view into how Facebook actually do it, but I am certain the gist of defining “Top” is to find what other people like you, or in your circle think is interesting and then serve it up to you. The list of “Most Recent” gives you the complete view of all the activity of all your friends. And as you can tell by the message scrolling by on the right side of your screen in the activity feed, most things people are doing are really boring.
So, what’s wrong with them trying to feed you interesting things? Why am I against Facebook trying to make my life better, more “Top”? By trying to guess what we want and delivering it to us, we are losing out on all the things the system thinks we don’t want. And this is the vast majority of things. By comparing and correlating us with others ‘like us’ they are reducing the available stuff to the least common denominator. They will rank highest in their list of what we most likely really want exactly those things that most people ‘like’ us are deemed most likely to really want. And then they recycle our reaction to these things back into the system.
So, let’s say that I search amazon for a book on Chemistry. If I search for “chemistry book” I am going to get a lot of results. I’ll click one and check it out and at the bottom of the page there are two sections entitled “Other customers suggested these items” and “What Other Items Do Customers Buy After Viewing This Item?”. Both of these are attempts to help us find the best book on chemistry, but both assume we are looking for the same chemistry book everyone else wants. If we buy one of the ‘suggested’ books, this will be recycled back into the system and the next person to search for a chemistry book will be shown the book we bought a little higher in the ranking. The system is guessing that this is the best chemistry book for that person because this is the book more people bought.
Do you see the fault in that logic? It is assumed that the thing you really want is the same thing that most people got, so it is offered to you first and foremost. And if you too get that thing, then it will only reinforce that this is indeed what someone wants and be offered to the next person even more strongly. What’s missing from this are the millions of other things that exist in the world. We will never stumble upon that hidden gem this way. We will never see that one person writing “Help.” on their Facebook wall. Because no one is liking it and commenting on it. We will never read that amazing, groundbreaking new treatise on Chemistry because it’s too amazing and groundbreaking for the masses and hasn’t yet achieved enough ‘buys’ to be deemed what we really want.
Even if we trust that these algorithms are smart enough to throw some random things in there to see if they trend, how many random things can they offer us before we think they are out of touch with what we want? They can’t afford that. Don’t forget that these algorithms serve a second master. They are not only created to try to guess what you really want, they are also used to make money; and we are the ones they make money from. If they can’t get us to buy something, they at least want to keep us clicking so they can sell our log at a high price to someone who will try to get us to buy something.
Soon the entire internet will be reduced this way. Everything you search for on Google, every email you write to and from an Gmail account, every search and purchase on Amazon, every action you take on a Mac, every action you take in Chrome can be logged, correlated and used to create a picture of what you really want based on the wants of the millions of others trapped in the same system (disclaimer: I am not entirely certain how much data these platforms mine from out actions. I am speaking in hyperbole here). Your search results are catered, your feeds are custom made to fit you, your purchase options are curated. You’ll never find the diamond in the rough, you’ll lose the simple banal. You’ll just be a rat on the treadmill of the correlative algorithm.
So, what can we do to circumvent this downward spiral. We can opt out of social media and for profit platforms, but this is very difficult and can also render us terrible dinner conversation. We can be wary of what relevance means in a search engine, what is driving suggestions on a commerce site. We can use random words in our search queries to stumble upon more interesting things. We can change the Facebook News Feed toggle to “Most Recent” every time and revel in the banality of the real activities of our “friends”.
As creators and web professionals we can also add touches and flourishes of unexpected inspiration to our designs. An inspirational quote (for example “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.” – The law of Thelema) that revolves in a header, a discreet widget memorializing people or events, or an expressive image can go a long way to remediate the banality of the algorithm. Someone creates that quote, event, or image. Someone selects that quote, event or image. Someone tries to inspire rather than only to fulfill perceived desires and sell stuff. These small acts of individual effort can go a long way not only to bringing the joie de vivre back to a user’s experience through re-introducing the happy accident, but can also make our user’s experiences richer and their opinion of our products more favorable. It can be a win win.
The Google Doodle is a very successful attempt to do this. I can’t count the number of times the Google Doodle has managed to become a news headline; serving both the needs of the corporation and the user by providing a moment of expression in what can otherwise be a landscape devoid of surprises.