A Dying Squirrel

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’ve been worried about this for a while now.

A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

YouTube – ?What Google and Facebook are Hiding??.


On the one hand I really like having things tailored to my tastes and interests – and we’re getting to the point where we’ve come to expect this in every thing we do. It has it’s perks. On the other hand, it has some very disturbing implications, not the least of which is the subtle message that we, as individuals are ‘special’. Humans have a tendency to attribute intent to everything. We have a really hard time getting our heads around randomness – in other words, the idea that something could just happen, and not be because we somehow deserve it, or did something to cause it.

Little by little we are coming to believe that we, as individuals are far more important than we really are. We are getting our own personally tailored version of the web, our shopping experience, our banking experience, etc. because we deserve it. They call that narcissism. And it’s not a good thing in big doses.

The other really big problem with this is that most people do not seek out balanced perspectives. We look for opinions that support ours. It may even be a fundamental tribal imperative. The kind of tailoring that groups like Google and Facebook do foster that approach. Hell, it’s one of the big reasons that Facebook is as popular as it is in spite of the fact that the company itself has made no secret of the fact that all it really wants to do is sell our information to marketers.

“The internet is showing us a world we want to see not what we need to see”

Again, there are many positive aspects to this tribal approach. But if we use a different word to describe it, say , clique, we start to uncover the potential problem. Things quickly become narrow-minded and exclusive. This kind of approach can easily lead to a deepening of prejudices – it tends to harden an ‘us versus them’ kind of stance. It’s how cults work.

This is not good. Like Eli Pariser says, there is no functioning democracy without a balanced perspective.

1 person likes this post.


A Dying Squirrel — 2 Comments

  1. So, some people seem to ‘get’ that there can be value in serendipity and others don’t. Some are open-minded and others not – though I suspect we are all pretty dogmatic about some things. Is it something that we are born with? Is it in any way tied to being keen to learn new things? Is it something that is taught? At home? At school? If it’s taught – can we do it in school? Will be allowed to?

  2. Don’t a particularly like squirrels, they dig up my bulbs. Don’t particularly like Zuckerberg, he eavesdrops on my conversation, shares it with 3rd parties and shows me ads for nurseries that sell bulbs.

    In the early nineties as part of an overall obsession with all things user experience, I became enthralled with ‘adaptive user interfaces’. I was working on an interactive digital phone book and I had just read an article about Oxford working on the discipline. I though what a wonderful idea, to help the user avoid constantly typing in the same numbers repeatedly or requiring multi step searches, why not use hinted self filling fields?

    It was a great hit, people loved it. The interface saved them time, it was convenient. To learn a bit more we tracked the use of the system to compare it to its former self without the feature.

    We discovered something, surprising at the time but obvious if you think about it. We found that people who had used the search before the adaptive feature had been added would store more alternative phone numbers when they executed a search for a particular item or service. They also saved more contacts for items they had not searched for, accidents, things they stumbled across by entering a ‘wrong’ search item and yet found interesting.

    When the adaptive feature was added the users got to their desired search criteria much more quickly but their overall knowledge of the other material available in the system began to narrow. Eventually the problem would be identified in many similar systems and come to be refereed to as ‘rutting’ -to get into a rut.

    It is clear that as we swim in avast sea of data that we need ways to get to what we want. When we are determined and have a well defined goal, we want what we want and little else. I get very irritated when I cannot coax the information out of Google that I want. On the other hand, I have discovered and then read some fascinating, course correcting stuff, when I failed in my search found one of these ‘happy accidents’.

    Facebook and Google are obsessed with me giving more information about my friends and colleagues, I can handle that, get out of my way. What I want is to meet new friends and colleagues and have ‘happy accidents’. This is far more challenging and probably has less commercial appeal.

Leave a Reply