Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Artificial comfort in a random world

By Max Wiggins, Insight and Innovation Lead at VERJ | LAB Group and BIMA Human Insights Council Member

Since the turn of the millennium, the rise of digital has revolutionised the way we live, work and interact socially with each other. The digital age has accelerated business. It has also provided an extraordinary connection between people on a global scale by enabling greater collaboration, creating whole new sectors and assisting us all navigate the pandemic crisis.

It has also dramatically shifted our attention. Through the ubiquity of digital in our lives, we’ve become hyperconscious. It has driven us into a linear and goal-orientated pattern of thinking. While the technology we have at our fingertips has allowed us to be tightly connected, it has also exposed us to ‘comfortable’ content that often aligns with our beliefs.

The prolonged isolation we’ve experienced over the last year has made us live much more comfortably at home. As our physical interactions decreased or were depleted completely, they were replaced with introspection, Netflix binges and even cult-like banana bread baking.

Of course, the need to control our own lives is a natural response to government-imposed order and new heights of uncertainty.

But has it made us less tolerant? Are the effects of the pandemic making us more uncomfortable with randomness as we continue to focus more on managing our own routines to how we like them?

The endless seeking of information and unparalleled levels of digital connection that have come to define our lives in this time are utterly embedded into our routines now. But is this unique combination of increased comfort, lower tolerance to uncertainty, and higher social media activity resulting in a much more polarized society?

We’re all aware of the dangers of echo chambers by this stage – that all too powerful digital space where beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication inside a closed system insulated from rebuttal. Personalisation algorithms selectively guess what information people would like to see by aligning suggested content with their interests. What these algorithms do is exacerbate our blindness to alternative viewpoints. They leverage the availability bias we’re all susceptible to, allowing us to perceive things that come readily to mind as more representative. Familiar information is reinforced, whereas unfamiliar content disappears.

As diverse opinions or content fail to be seen, it is likely we have unknowingly drifted into digital echo chambers during the pandemic.

I’m not just saying this to sound Orwellian. But to put forward an idea: digital and social media could inject a degree of randomness into their product design.

It may sound paradoxical to what these platforms stand for. Certainly, the idea of anti-personalisation might disrupt the user experience at first, but, most importantly, it could benefit society in the long run. Perhaps consumers should be able to control the levels of personalisation they’re exposed to as a means of seeking less self-serving, predictable information.

It is difficult to know how digital is personalising content we see every day, but much easier to inject some randomness into our physical lives like pre-pandemic times. In fact, randomness, not comfort, is rather good for us. Remove randomness and our expectations take over. Our brains fill in the gaps predictively. It is alternative perspectives that expand our creativity by helping to disintegrate the common grooves of thought.

Regardless of what big tech does about the matter, we owe it to ourselves to welcome the random.

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