Prediction engines are like karma: you get what you stream

“Stream services often allows account holders to create multiple, separate profiles, which I appreciate. I want the recommendations I get to reflect my taste and not my partner’s. Is this selfish? Is there any virtue in sharing a profile with others?”

—Island in the Stream

Dear Island,

Sharing, at least as it is often understood, is only virtuous in the case of finite resources. It is generous for a child to share her lunch with a classmate who has none, or for the rich to give money to the less fortunate. But I find it hard to believe that submitting an individual profile would be commendable when there’s plenty to go around. What bothers you is not the fear of selfishness, but the realization that you see the tendencies and preferences of others as a form of contagion, a threat to the purity of your personal algorithm. Insisting on your own digital fief suggests that you believe your tastes are so unique and precise that any disruption to the pattern compromises the underlying integrity.

At a basic level, prediction engines like karma are invisible mechanisms that record each of your actions and give you something of equal value in return. If you watch a lot of true-crime docs, you’ll eventually end up in a catalog dominated by horrific titles. If you tend to stream early 2000s sitcoms, your recommendations will turn into an all-you-can-eat buffet of millennial nostalgia. The idea that you reap what you sow, that every action elicits an equal response, is not just a spiritual pablum, but a law enshrined in the underlying architecture of our digital universe. Few users really know how these predictive technologies work. (On TikTok, speculations about how the algorithm works have become as dense as the scientific debates about the metaphysical constitution of angels.) Yet we like to believe that there are certain cosmic principles at play, that all our actions are faithfully recorded, that we , at any time, shaping our future entertainment by what we choose to dwell on, engage in, and buy.

Perhaps it would be worth exploring that sense of control a bit. You’ve noticed that you want your recommendations to match your taste, but what? is taste, exactly, and where does it come from? It’s common to think of someone’s preferences as sui generis, but our inclinations are shaped by all sorts of external factors, including where we live, how we were raised, our ages, and other pertinent data. These variables fall into observable trends that apply to all populations. Demographic profiling has proven how easy it is to spot patterns in large samples. With a large enough data set, political attitudes can be predicted based on fashion preferences (LL Bean buyers are conservative; Kenzo appeals to liberals), and personality traits can be inferred from what kind of music a user likes (fans of Nicki Minaj tend to be extroverted). No one knows what causes these correlations, but their consistency suggests that none of us are exactly in control of our own destiny, or the creator of a tailored persona. Our behavior falls into predictable patterns that are subject to social forces beyond our consciousness.

And, well, prediction engines wouldn’t work if they didn’t. It’s nice to know that the recommendations on your private profile are as unique as your thumbprint. But those suggestions are based on the behavioral data of millions of other users, and the more successful the platform is at guessing what you’re going to watch, the more likely your behavior is to match that of other people. The term “user agreement” describes how automated recommendations analog the behavior of customers with related habits, essentially meaning you have thousands of shadow selves streaming, viewing, and buying many of the same products as you are, like quantum entangled particles mirroring each other. from opposite sides of the universe. Their choices will determine the options you see, just as your choices will affect the content promoted to future users.

Karma is often regarded, at least in popular culture, as a simplistic form of cosmic reward, but it is better understood as a principle of interdependence. Everything in the world is connected to everything else, creating a vast web of interrelationships in which the consequences of each action reverberate throughout the system. For those of us steeped in the dualities of Western philosophy and American individualism, it can be difficult to understand how intertwined our lives are with those of others. In fact, it is only recently that information technologies – and the vast data sets they create – have revealed to us what some of the oldest spiritual traditions have taught for millennia: that we live in a world that is chaotic and radically interdependent, one in which the distance between any two people (or the space between two vectors) is often smaller than we might think.

With that in mind, Island, perhaps sharing a profile is less of an act of generosity than an acknowledgment of that interdependence. The person you live with has already changed you in countless ways, subtly changing what you believe, what you buy, the way you speak. If your taste in movies is currently different from theirs, that doesn’t mean it always will. In fact, it’s almost certain that your preferences will converge the longer you share a home. This is arguably a good thing. Most of us have experienced the self-perpetuating hell of karmic cycles at some point, the way one cigarette leads to an addiction or a single lie leads to a series of further deceptions. Similarly, automated recommendations can foster closely recursive habits, where we grow more and more of the same until we’re stuck in a one-dimensional reflection of our past choices. Consciously opening up your profile to others can be a way to breathe some air into that damp cavern of individual preferences where the past constantly reverberates and isolates you from the vast world of possibilities that lie beyond.

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