What Is Making Us

Today the internet told me I would probably enjoy a documentary called Make. I had never heard of Make. I don’t know how many or what kind of other people have rented this film, or anything else about it. But some combination of camping gear shopping, political coverage watching, blog reading, twitter scanning, and podcast listening led an algorithm somewhere to spit out this recommendation. 

I think there’s a clever idea for a novel in that experience — the Almighty Algorithm ruling us mindless matrix-connected peons. But my experience wasn’t sci-fi. It was very real. And it has me wondering what the Almighty Algorithm says about our society. 

We seem increasingly willing to surrender our privacy and personalities to the Algorithm. In a world of endless interconnected choice, we need curators of experience, and the Algorithm has proven itself a worthy custodian of our wants. Make caught my attention because it was a personalized recommendation. It seemed just for me. And it seemed like just the kind of film I would enjoy. 

This experience is what WIRED Editor Chris Anderson prophesied more than a decade ago with his description of “the long tail.” With each step toward more granular personalization, we move consumers closer to the center of our economic and psychologic universe. When each personalized experience of the world is sufficiently individualized, the individual will be the one remaining unit of meaning, and consumption (“buy now with one click”)  his one remaining act of volition. 

This, I think, is reflective of the idols of our time — the behemoth resilient heartthrobs of our modern consciousness — the icons to whom we have so gradually surrendered that we no longer see our idolatry: individualism, consumerism, fame, self-actualization, and absolute moral agency. We name reality shows after this idolatry, but fail to name our reality. 

A few years ago, a popular ad campaign for Jeep declared “The things we make make us.” That is true. And the persistently self-focused milieu that generated a recommendation for Make is making us less connected, less empathetic, and less human.