The Problem of Choice
Tools exist in order to make our lives more efficient in some way. They function as an extension of us – the user – and serve to enhance experience or improve effect. For example, on a basic level, hammers came about so that we could be better at shaping or nailing, and spears evolved so that flesh could be penetrated more effectively. Bring it forward to the 21st century, and our tools are much more complex, and serve much more frivolous needs: iPods are there so that we can listen to our favourite music, and contactless card payment exists so we can waste even less time in the purchasing process.
Our journey into the digital world over the past few decades has seen an influx of tools that bring with them a live and growing network of data and information. In social media, instant communication platforms and applications, for example, we face an augmented existence that is saturated with information, and where tools are no longer even tangible.
The problem with such a lot of information is that we don’t know how to negotiate it. We are overcome by options and this stifles us, stopping us from being effective; our modern tools are making us inefficient (spot the irony). Then, on top of that, we’ve gone and made more tools (algorithms) to try to correct and amend our laboured, human behaviour. They (try to) read us before we read ourselves so that we can make better, more sensible decisions (the effectiveness of that is another debate entirely).
A good example of this would be the Netflix experience. I must be one of many who frequently imagines nothing better than returning home after a long day, flopping on the sofa, choosing a film or TV programme from a high-quality selection and letting a nice evening of immersive and enthralling entertainment roll out. But, inevitably, this never happens. The reality is one of frustration and much time spent scrolling through a seemingly endless cohort of films and TV programmes only to decide that I’ll either: 1. watch the film/documentary/programme I thought about earlier in the day, or 2. go to bed with tired eyes that are red-raw from an fevered, exhaustive session of trawling through the catalogue. Why? Because I’m not good at filtering information and making a decision. In being given an abundance of choice, I am free to consider many scenarios at once and ultimately I am arrested by FOMO (‘Fear Of Missing Out’ – in this case it would be this sort of thought process: “Well if I pick to watchArgo, I am sure to be thrilled by action. But who’s to say that, in my current state, I wouldn’t enjoy more the wit and banter of 90s rom-com Notting Hill?”). I want to make sure that I make the right decision, but my judgement is clouded by the abundance of choice.
This difficulty has real-world impact, however, if we consider the state of digital literacy and ability on a bigger scale. Recently, I attended a lunchtime talk from Paul Maltby, Director of Data for the UK Cabinet office at the Urban Innovation Centre in Farringdon. He was speaking about the UK’s situation with data (specifically ‘open-data’) now – how we use it, how we want to use it, and how we should be using it in the future.
What he made clear was the great potential of this fundamental “part of our country’s infrastructure,” and how we might – or should – harness it for social good. In order to make the most of our digital environment, we need to understand it properly and take measures to ensure that it is accessible and usable for generations to come, too.
“Having access to much of the accumulated knowledge of mankind is well and good, but skills in sifting, choosing and analysing information will become more and more acutely needed. The accumulated information should be there to serve us, rather than crushing us under its weight.”
– Vaira VIke-Freberga, ‘Through the looking glass of the digitised society’
Society has the potential to benefit greatly from a public who are better educated and well-versed in the language of our technologies but, in order to achieve that, we must make data user-friendly. We need more people who are skilled in analytics and data science, so that they can make data effective. More than that, we need to better educate the wider population so that we are equipped for a data-led world. We should be bringing to the fore companies and organisations who encourage and facilitate that digital literacy, where they can acquire direct funding, mentorship, resources or simply seek general support and advice. As well as that, we should be making concerted efforts to integrate the presence, comprehension and practice of digital into schools for the next generation. Do this, and the decision-makers can make decisions – right from the government officials and senior associates in global corporates down to the frustrated punters trying to pick a new pair of shoes on ASOS. For years, people with money have chosen to invest in the tools themselves but – in truth – there is a need for investment into people. We need to raise awareness of this problem, otherwise we will find ourselves in a rising pool of our own data with no clue of what to do with it or how to get out.
Algorithms won’t cut it, but people will.