The unnecessary fear of digital perfection

I’ve recently noticed a recurring theme in many articles that cover technology’s impact on our lives. It’s the idea that the move to digital technologies has taken away an essential part of being human: the accidental discovery of new things by getting lost. The fear is that what we might call “digital perfection” is removing the natural wayfinding mistakes that are essential for serendipitous discovery — like getting lost in a new city and then finding that perfect coffee shop. I’ll share a few examples first, and then comment on why I think this fear is unnecessary.

The example that’s cited most often is how Google search is enveloping each of us in the Internet’s “filter bubble” where we only find what we’re looking for, and nothing more. Here’s Maria Popova in Are We Becoming Cyborgs?:

The Web by and large is really well designed to help people find more of what they already know they’re looking for, and really poorly designed to help us discover that which we don’t yet know will interest us and hopefully even change the way we understand the world.

There are several industry-specific examples, like the lament that we don’t browse record stores just for the fun of it any more. From Spotify and the Problem of Endless Musical Choice:

We seem to have created an environment in which wonderful music, newly discovered, is difficult to treasure. For treasures, as the fugitive salesman in the flea market was implying, are hard to come by—you have to work to find them. And the function of fugitive salesmen is to slow the endless deluge, drawing our attention to one album at a time, creating demand not for what we need to survive but for what we yearn for. Because how else can you form a relationship with a record when you’re cursed with the knowledge that, just an easy click away, there might be something better, something crucial and cataclysmic? The tyranny of selection is the opposite of freedom. And the more you click, the more you enhance the disposability of your endeavor.

And then there is The End of the Map, a fascinating article about the history of cartographic errors, which includes this statement:

The uncertainty that was once an unavoidable part or our relationship with maps has been replaced by a false sense of Wi-Fi-enabled omnipotence. Digital maps are the enemies of wonder. They suppress our urge to experiment and (usually) steer us from error—but what could be more irrepressibly human than those very things?

This idea is echoed in No one likes a city that’s too smart:

A great deal of research during the last decade, in cities as different as Mumbai and Chicago, suggests that once basic services are in place people don’t value efficiency above all; they want quality of life. A hand-held GPS device won’t, for instance, provide a sense of community. More, the prospect of an orderly city has not been a lure for voluntary migration, neither to European cities in the past nor today to the sprawling cities of South America and Asia. If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way; this is how they can come to take ownership over their lives.

Now, I’ll admit that I largely agree with the consequences that are pointed out in these articles. I’ll even admit to feeling the same sense of loss that these authors do. But I don’t agree that accidental discovery is a thing of the past. I believe that digital perfection opens up amazing possibilities, and combined with the fact that humans will always be explorers and flâneur no matter what technology we use, we’re starting to see some great products to help us replace what we’ve lost in the analog world.

Here are some examples of the types of discovery products and services we now have access to.

  • collects tweets, articles, photos, and videos that the people you follow have favorited, and presents that in an aggregated stream. I always find something interesting and surprising in my Stellar feed, because it’s based not on explicit recommendations from the people I follow (i.e., what they think their followers might like), but on the things they really like themselves, without the social media personal brand/engagement filter.
  • This is my Jam has become my favorite way to discover new music. You choose one song that you really like, and this song becomes your “jam”. It then shows up in your followers’ streams. By only allowing users to choose one favorite song at a time the service doesn’t become overwhelming. I suspect we’re going to see many new social networks like this — sites that are focused on a specific vertical, that build on the trust we place in people we know in real life, and that are designed for quality of content, not quantity.
  • While the big guys are fighting over photo filters and who shouldn’t show up in whose stream, Foursquare is adding some amazing features with every release. We really shouldn’t underestimate this company’s potential. Foursquare has become an incredibly good way to discover not just new cities, but one’s own city as well. As users continue to add tips, lists, ratings, and photos of their favorite (and not so favorite) places, Foursquare will slowly resurface some of the “getting lost” moments that have been buried by digitally perfect maps.

My point is simply this. Sure, there are things we used to do in an analog era that we don’t do any more. We don’t get lost in encyclopedias, record stores, and cities any more. And that has some negative consequences. But we shouldn’t grieve about it too much.

Our insatiable spirit to discover new things haven’t gone away just because we’ve moved to a digital world. We just need to meet those needs in different ways — ways that better utilize the benefits of digital media. In fact, it’s not that we won’t get lost any more. It’s just that we need to invent ways to get lost differently.