The Fantasy of Choice

BY Jeff Adelson-Yan // President & Co-Founder

To the casual observer, it may appear that we are living in the age of abundance. Americans have on average 179 TV channels1, access to 1.74 billion websites2 and could read 400 books per day each day of their lives and still not read all the books in print3

And yet, the average American only watches 17 TV channels4, visits less than 100 websites per month5, and more than 1 in 4 Americans don’t read a single book in any given year6.

For centuries theologians, philosophers and scientists have long argued about what shapes our actions and behaviors. From determinism versus free will to nature versus nurture, the dialogue has always tilted in favor of us largely being in control of our thoughts and actions. It is foundational to the belief in the American Dream and central to our justice system. We aren’t merely cause and effect made manifest. However, in the increasingly algorithmically-driven life, I fear that free will is under attack. 

Today, we live hyper-curated experiences in which algorithms determine what information we receive or don’t receive. What you see and experience is different from what I see and experience. In the algorithmically-driven life, it doesn’t simply stop with content, but also includes which stimuli are delivered and when. As was pointed out in the documentary, The Social Dilemma, some of the largest and most well-known tech companies are actively manipulating human behavior utilizing algorithms that encourage addiction to their platforms. 

As a marketer, algorithms are highly effective at curating content and experiences which in turn, allows advertisers (who pay for the free content we consume and free products we utilize) to reach audiences more effectively and cost-efficiently. The marketing benefits of algorithms are well known. The side effects and threats to free will are less talked about. 

Algorithms in the simplest terms play a zero-sum game that creates myopic and hyper-curated realities for all who play. Any and all data that can be recorded on an individual is, and that data is used in an effort to get that individual to take specific actions. What actions are being pushed is typically driven by who is willing to pay for that desired action. In this hyper-curated reality, individuals frequently miss out on a sea of products, services, information including other opinions and viewpoints (that might not align with their current thinking), and yes, even important facts. This is evidenced in the increasing “us” versus “them” thinking that exists in politics where our nation is so polarized that each side has a completely different view of what the truth is. 

To be clear, I believe that technology is a palmary precondition to solving many of our most pressing challenges such as climate change, food insecurity and COVID-19. However, I believe that technology used to create, and shape a given population’s reality has an inverse impact on perceived choice and even free will. I’ve illustrated this herein.

As someone who studied Psychology and has spent his entire professional career in advertising and technology, I’m compelled to indagate in search of a better path forward. After all, the original promise of the internet was the democratization of information.

I believe the time is now for all of us to have a candid conversation about the opportunities and challenges ahead on the course we are traversing. We have an opportunity to recast our relationship with AI in a manner that balances being useful, beneficial and profitable while restoring choice.