Recommender systems are confining us into a digital imprisonment.

Gone are the times when you needed to be a handyman to get search engines returning what you are searching for. In today’s digital era you dare to watch a movie on Netflix and the next thing you will see is a rain of suggestions of movies that really match your taste, pouring on your screen. Youtube has moved from being a collection of videos to a personalized basket of videos that you love. Amazon knows which books you might be interested in, Facebook shows only posts that might be of your interest and so on…

So what is happening? Are the digital-borne companies spying on us? How can they know us so much?

Collaborative filtering

Rest assured. With the world being digitized in all fashion; our lives have become dependent on technology than ever before. Be a mobile device that we can longer take out of the equation of our lives, computers, biometric devices, smart watches, and the list goes on, all have the ability to collect timely information on our activities, our health, our location and even our social habits and surroundings.

With computer processing power constraints removed, computers have now abilities to learn thanks to advanced algorithms and look for connections between unexpected patterns and inferences that can be drawn from those patterns. The king among them being Collaborative filtering.

According to Wikipedia collaborative filtering is a method of making automatic predictions (filtering) about the interests of a user by collecting preferences or taste information from many users (collaborating). I am not going to explain the math behind collaborative filtering but the take on is that collaborative filtering is based on the idea that people who agreed in their evaluation of certain items in the past are likely to agree again in the future. A person who wants to see a movie, for example, might ask for recommendations from friends. The recommendations of some friends who have similar interests are trusted more than recommendations from others. For those interested in the full concept please read here.

Imposed digital imprisonment

Unarguably the emerging of recommender systems has improved digital experience for the better. Recommender systems transformed all areas of business domains from customer, data, innovation, competition and even values provided by businesses. Recommender systems can bring traffic to our websites, engage visitors while delivering a personalized experience and convert them into customers.What is all the fuss about then?

Despite all the advantages as discussed above, recommendation systems are slow by slow confining us in a crystal word where everything is same and defined by region, race, culture and preferences. This crystal world can even narrow much further if one is defined with religious beliefs, sects, belonging to an extremist group and much more.

By basing on the idea that “people who agreed in their evaluation of certain items in the past are likely to agree again in the future”, these systems create isolation of a certain degree by providing to a group things that have only been observed to be in common interest of the group with no way to suggest the alternative. You probably have observed that if you belong to a western world then everything on your computer will be western. You would think no other worlds exist. If you are from a certain country and of course so are your friends and acquaintances, then all will be about your country. If you are from a religion group then everything will be about your religion as if no other religion is doing as well as yours. And that applies to all other sectors. As consequence of this digital imprisonment, people are virtually isolated from each other and blinded from the reality of what is really happening around them. Self-centered mind gains attraction to many, extremism gets at its high since according to these genius machines if you read or watch extremist materials then what you need is more of extremism. Nationalism, populism and And of course, crimes are not left behind since those seeking to do crimes are likely to be fed with more genius criminal minds. Statics talk by themselves, why are we seeing the rise in a number of crimes inspired by the internet? Why are we seeing the rise of extremism after a decade of many efforts into globalization, the abolition of fascism and racism? What about fanatic terrorism?
Technology might come with exciting improvement to our daily life but unexpected negative outcomes might overweight its benefits if remained unchecked. As scientists, we can’t expect a scientist to develop an algorithm and think at a time of its full impact on the market. But as leaders, we can provide the required leadership that takes into consideration all the benefits and drawbacks of our solutions both to our respective businesses and the society we serve. It is time for us as leaders and pioneers of the digital transformation for the next generation, to think beyond what we see and think about the implications of our suggested innovations in the light of our businesses and the society. Time to stop thinking only about customers, competition, data, innovation, business values, and think about the implication that our state of the art products will have on the sixth and invisible domain of our businesses which is the social life of our valued customers.

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