One of the big debates of our age is big data. The tech we use every day can track and quantify our user behaviors in ways that we never imagined even ten years ago. Sites, services and gadgets that you use every day know what you shop for, what you listen to, where you go and who your friends are. With the rise of health tech, it’s possible for them to know how you’re breathing or how many steps you take each day.
Some people worry about the prospect of being that thoroughly known by strangers. Others are excited about the possibility of a truly customized, personally ideal version of the world: after all, if the tech you use knows so much about who you are, what you do, and what you like, it should also be able to predict your behavior and offer you exactly what you need to be happy.
Still, the question remains: the services you use may know your data. But do they know you? A fascinating piece by Stuart Dredge in the Guardian provides one very cool test case, as he tests the team at Spotify to see how well they can quantify his musical taste.
We think of taste as something purely personal and emotional – not something you can nail down in terms of metrics. Still, by using its internal software Nestify to process what Dredge had played and how often he had played it, they were able to present him with an accurate assessment of his taste. Regular Spotify users get a very limited taste of this software if they partake in the service’s annual Your Year In Music round-up – but Dredge’s experience was both more extensive in terms of the data it used and more accurate. Spotify was able to provide a nearly complete summary of which artists Dredge liked, which genres he liked and how much he liked them.
Spotify’s software could also make some fairly nuanced judgments, which are useful for predictions. For example, it could distinguish between a fondness for individual songs or artists and a fondness for the artists’ genres. That is, if you listen to one Britney Spears song fifty times, but you listen to every Black Sabbath and Megadeth album once, Spotify knows that your favorite genre is metal, not pop. Therefore, the service will be a lot more likely to recommend Alice Cooper than Ariana Grande when you log in.
The software isn’t perfect and humans are probably too unpredictable to ever be fully quantified. Still, this seems to show that the era of big data is a lot less scary than some people imagine. When we let services know what we enjoy most (which we inevitably do, by using them) we’re letting those services know how to be optimally satisfying and tailored to our needs.
The Internet of Things makes it even more possible for big data to serve our needs. Imagine an interconnected Amazon or FreshDirect that could know exactly what you need around the house or in the refrigerator, a seamless app that understands which dishes you tend to enjoy on winter evenings versus summer afternoons, and streaming entertainment that understand exactly which new songs, TV shows, or movies you’re most likely to enjoy, and delivers them to you immediately on customized networks.
Granted, living in fully customized worlds might cause us to lose out on being exposed to new things and developing our tastes. But letting our tech know us might not be such a bad thing – in fact, as it develops the capacity to know us even better, it may make the world a better place, or at least a much more comfortable place.
Image credit: CC by Bob West.