Timandra Harkness: Our Personalised Century

The 20th Century set the stage for the personalised century we're living in. But can we keep the person at the heart of personalisation?

Timandra Harkness is a data scientist and journalist

These are liveblogged notes from Timandra’s’ talk to NEXT Limited Edition in Hamburg on 24th September 2021.

To understand the personalised century we’re living in, we need to look back at the mass production century. The 20th century was the era of the production line, where you stood there doing the same thing again and again. Nowadays, the Mini production line turns out a slightly different car every time, based on customer choice.

Newspapers were mass products, where a few people decided what would interest and entertain us. In 1969, half a billion people watched the moon landing — that was about a quarter of the people alive at the time. Those singular shared experiences are in the past. We now have individual media experiences.

The Baby Shark song has had more views than there are people alive on earth today: not because a gatekeeper decided it was important, but because it spread virally peer-to-peer. We all have our personal channels for entertainment and information, edited by a combination of professionals, ourselves, algorithms and our friends.

The Mass Century

The 20th Century was the century of political mass movements. The march for gay rights was one example. Until 1980, it was illegal in Scotland for two men to be in a sexual relationship. Now they can get married and adopt a family. The right to be different was one of the achievements of the 20th century, laying the foundations for the personalised century. 

What has allowed the personalised century?

  1. Technology — our phones are little data collectors, which travel with us and build digital profiles of us, which enable personalisation.
  2. Choice — mass production makes things cheap, which allows the people working in production to express choices in the way they didn’t used to be able to. We’re unlikely to just do what our parents did in terms of relationship, work, or lifestyle. But an abundance of choice can lead to insecurity. Did we make the right choice?
  3. Identity — It’s almost seen as the purpose of our lives to seek our authentic self. But it’s not enough just to be who we are — we want the rest of the world to acknowledge that. Because we have an element of choice, there’s always a little element of doubt, which is why we want our choices reflected back to us and affirmed. 

Where next?

We’ve been accelerated into this very personalised world by the pandemic. US teenagers prefer (slightly) text message communication to in-person meetings. That’s understandable — teenagers are both socially awkward and incredibly social aware. Texting takes some of the pressure and risks out of it.

Life is less risky when you relate through technology. You can control the uncertainty and mess that is human relationships. But you also miss out on the fun and the connection that comes from presence. 

The person within the personalisation

We need to save the person within personalisation. When things are personalised for you, it’s just done by mathematics. We feel like the world is being sorted for us, but actually, we’re being sorted for others. 

The core of the problem is how we think about things in terms of identity. We think about our identity as if it were a colour of paint. But colours don’t mean anything until you mix them up with others. And if you mix with other people in society, it will change who you are. 

Oh, and use a map when you get the chance to go to a new city, rather than following the dot on your phone. It improves your memory. It connects you with a place. And there’s a good chance you’ll get lost — and that’ll force you to connect with others to ask the way. And that’s a small step to rebuilding human connections.