My friend David Allison has always been reliable for a comfort-rattling op-ed, but this outing struck a nerve with me. His topic is intriguing, but on my first pass I actually felt some very interesting (subtext: potentially disturbing) deeper threads going on. When he talks about using “predictive insight” and algorithms and datasets to build “a building with people who cared about the same things,” I immediately began to free associate with a lot of what I’ve researched about the underlying infrastructure of social media. “Give the people what they want” is the bedrock of sales and an axiom as old as the hills, no question, and it fueled social media developers to go one step beyond and not only give people what they want, but give them more of what they want and only what they want. Predictive scoring algorithms lay bare our “wants” with shocking accuracy, and filter bubbles make sure we see only more of what we want, to great success: Facebook is one of the top five companies in the world by revenue.
But where does that lead us? Many argue social media has inflamed tribalism, where people only seek out those who already agree with them. Overlaying that to Allison’s thesis, I tabled a question: while it may boost sales rates and bottom lines for developers, from a city building perspective do we really want to program a built environment that functions in much the same way of narrowing fields of vision and creating echo chambers of reinforced belief, not through hearts and emojis and shares and comments, but residential developments of “shared values”?
In a nutshell, David’s response to my query was: we don’t have a choice. “I think that we are under siege by information and input, and on some level, our fight-or-flight response is being triggered. We can’t possibly cope,” he said in our thoughtful email discussion thread. “Back in the day when we had the luxury of sifting through the world (or even just the Sunday New York Times) and seeing what might come along, our pre-Internet brains could sort for us. But now, how could we possibly stay open to what the world might offer? If we must tribalize (which I think is inevitable) I hope our core human values are the sorting mechanism through which we do this. My data backs up the theory that if we organize our tribes around shared values, we can hope that the place we are headed might be a more humane version of the world.
“I’m encouraged by the enormous upsurge of activity around humanistic design, values-based strategies, and research into alternative forms of segmentation. The end goal of my drive to build the world’s first statistically accurate dataset of what we all care about is to give [that] data to global organizations working to make things better. For example, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is working on global standards for A.I. and machine learning and they asked if they can have my dataset to include in those standards so that those technologies are referencing what we care about and what our values are as they make decisions independently without human oversight. Of course I will say yes. I’d be Doctor Evil if I didn’t!
“Full circle: you are correct. It’s sad that my pal Marshall’s Global Village is breaking up into neighborhoods. But I think it is inevitable. So let’s make them into the best neighborhoods we can.”