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What we need is more discrimination


Democracy resulted in the election of Donald Trump. Democracy resulted in Britain electing to leave the EU. The democratic process is what results in most of the laws that we have today (in democratic countries at least).

The core premise of democracy is that every citizen of the notional unit, be it a country, city or state, has the same rights, laws and responsibilities as every other citizen of that notional unit. Which is why, whether you are Jeff Bezos who is worth close to a hundred billion dollars or you are a beggar on the street with no home and possessions of your own, you have exactly one vote and it is equally powerful when it comes to electing a president, who is in turn responsible for overseeing law and order and running the country in general.

Similarly, whether you are a man or woman, black or white, muslim or christian, gay or straight, you are treated the same under the law and your votes have the same weight in any election.

Having worked for different Internet companies over the past few years, I feel that this is such an inefficient and ineffective model.

If you look at any of the Internet apps or websites that you use today from Google to Facebook to Amazon, there is absolutely no way that every user of these products has the exact same experience while navigating through the site or the apps. The experience is heavily differentiated. Each user is presented exactly what is (or is as close to) the ideal experience for them. And this differs from one user to another, sometimes by small amounts and sometimes drastically.

If I open the Amazon app, I see recommendations for books and mobile phones while the person living in the flat next to mine will see jeans and fashion accessories. If Netflix recommends me comedies and documentaries, it recommends thrillers and detective stories to my friends. If Google turns up results with an anti-Donald Trump bias when I search for the latest news, it turns up results with a pro-Donald Trump bias for some others. If Facebook shows me ads for a solo trip to Budapest, it shows potential honeymoon locations to a friend that got recently married.

And I've been working to make this happen for the companies I've worked. We understand the behaviour of a user and tailor their experience to match what they like most. Tell Amazon to show the same product recommendations to everyone that visits their site and they will scoff at you and point you to the nearest mental hospital.

Personalization is so prevalent and widely accepted in the products that we use today that we take it for granted and are not in the least bit concerned about the different experiences we have with the same products. Not until the US election, at least. After the whole fake news outbursts around the election time, there has been a lot of attention paid to ensuring less personalization and more normalization in the experience and results (at least when it comes to media, news and information).

But nobody is making the argument that there shouldn't be any personalization, rather the argument is only that we shouldn't perpetuate and amplify biases that already exist and instead act to correct or alleviate them. Which, at the end of the day, is again personalization of a different flavour for me, because we now want to surface the opposing point of view in order to educate people about the aspects and opinions they may not have considered before.

While this is the case, I'm surprised we don't have any real personalization when it comes to casting our votes to elect the next president or to frame or change laws of the land, or to allocate resources during our budget.

The core premise of personalization is to provide each individual the best possible experience for them. If an individual continues to grow happier using our product, they are less likely to switch to a competitor or to stop using our product.

I would like a similar approach to governance, framing laws, and handling justice. Discriminating one set of people from another that results in benefitting one set of people while harming the other set is bad. But the alternative need not be no discrimination. The alternative can also be discrimination in such a way that both sets benefit.

And this form of discrimination is called personalization.

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1 comments:

  1. I think it's important to distinguish between participation, regulation and service here.

    Participation is democratic, both with governments as well as Amazon. You only need to be a citizen, and an internet connection (net-neutral of course) respectively.

    Regulation is universal. You will be arrested or fined for breaking the law by the government. Amazon will flag and ban you if you do not abide by their policy regardless of who your are.

    Service is personalized. For the poor the government plans food subsidies and universal basic income, and for the rich it offers highways and airports to travel swiftly between cities, in a manner similar to Amazon's personalization algorithms.

    We need more discrimination, but only for services. Not for participation or regulation.

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