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X-treme Personalization

Don't be fooled for a nanosecond

By Annalee Newitz

THIS GUY MARK from an open source/wireless app company called Lutris--whom I've never met before--recently wrote me one of those rare "stranger emails" that made me want to write back. He said something like, "Hi, where do you work?" It was so weird and decontextualized, like he had truly emerged out of the electronic ether at random and was merely seeking another human in the vast, corporate landscape--a human whom he would first identify as being from a particular workplace.

So I told him where I work, and he wrote back at fabulous, exuberantly geeky length about his company's products--"exotic new foreign applications," he called them, which were used to produce websites that do "extreme personalization." He gave me some URLs, which of course I followed. I mean, who could resist seeing what would be produced by an exotic new foreign application? When I clicked, I discovered www.customatix.com, an e-commerce shoe company with what Mark called "very heavy architecture."

And it was pretty amazing--clumsy, but with obvious potential for being adopted in a zillion ways. Customatix is a shoe e-service store where you can use a web interface to customize the colors and fabrics of the sneakers and boots you're ordering. From a technological point of view, however, the website's purpose really didn't matter--that was just content bullshit. What mattered was the lightness of the whole operation, the methamphetamine-fast Java that made each new image of the shoe-in-progress jump onto the screen almost instantly. Even on a computer with 32 MB of RAM and a slow Pentium II processor, I designed an entire shoe without having to sit and wait while the site reposted data or reloaded the image. That's great, technologically speaking. Your code is juggling several extremely big chunks of data in relationship to one another very quickly--mmmm, good, as Homer might say.

But then there's this pesky content problem, which has more to do with "extreme personalization" rather than "very heavy architecture." Making your own shoes online is an example of extreme personalization, as is something like MyYahoo! or a place like Amazon.com, where they use collaborative filtering to match you up with products bought by customers who bought the same crap you did. None of these services are really working with the same kinds of software setups--except in broad strokes--but in terms of their overarching content mission, they are delivering exactly the same idea. Extreme personalization.

I've realized that extreme personalization is some kind of double-speak phrase, like calling secret police interrogation headquarters the Ministry of Love. The more "personalized" you get online, the more you're doing what everybody else is doing: creating the same "customizations" on your shoes, looking at the same news headlines, and buying the same Son Volt CDs or whatever. And yet we're all supposed to be seduced by the idea of personalization--it sounds so much like individualism, which people in the United States think is the greatest human ideal ever.

Really, though, individualism sucks. It creates psychotic loneliness, ruthless competition and a kind of offhand disregard for other people's feelings. I'm not saying that we should become repressed conformists. I simply wish to point out that individualism for its own sake is stupid. It's useful for one thing: creating a "personalized" desire for a bunch of nearly indistinguishable products when we only need a handful. It distracts us from individual differences that matter--like who has power and who doesn't--and supplies us with a pull-down menu of false distinctions. I've seen the best engineers of my generation writing robust code in the service of mad commerce. Shouldn't engineering be about making our lives go more smoothly? You know, juggling huge amounts of data to bring people together in ways that don't entirely involve commodities?

The answers to these questions will be hard to analyze with your database.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who spends way too much time analyzing her email at work.

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From the July 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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