A status report on our digital freedom

There are plenty of movies analyzing the yin and yang between destiny and choice — from The Adjustment Bureau to Serendipity — and even Final Destination. People are fascinated by the relationship between free will and a pre-destined path. This relationship has never been more interesting than in today’s digital world, where the ultimate goal of most companies is to personalize their web content based on your demographic data and known preferences.

But, as personalization technology grows increasingly sophisticated, it raises an interesting question about the future of our digital interactions: Will complex algorithms eventually engineer our entire destiny online — guiding us to certain pages and influencing us to take specific actions?

To be clear, we aren’t there just yet. As it stands, most companies merely add a customer’s name to the top of an email so they feel like a valued shopper, or feature localized deals on their homepage. It’s easy for users to poke holes in this approach and dodge any influence brands are hoping to achieve.

But as we move toward an online “Adjustment Bureau,” where brands use behavioral patterns to infer a customer’s next step, I think we can all agree that many will label this strategy as sinister — an approach that removes the free will of browsing online. Some could argue that it kills what’s inherently good about the web — a Wild Wild West where people can seek out whatever they want.

No matter where you stand in the personalization debate, big changes are coming. And I’m a strong believer that they will ultimately improve our online experiences — not take away our free will. After all, there are about 1 billion websites in the world, and one could argue that we need some guidance to navigate all the content out there and sort through the clutter. Odds are, the average internet user hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of relevant information on the web, spending hours searching when the right content could be presented quickly and in an organized fashion.

Once a company loses trust, it’s hard to get it back.

For a hint at what the future has in store, look no further than major players like IBM, Google and Amazon who are investing in better data analysis with Watson, Tensor Flow and DSSTNE. As these big-name companies continue to evolve their technology set, I think we’ll see a wave of acquisitions happening, targeted at startups that have refined their approach to personalization. Combining a powerful background in data analysis with innovative approaches to crafting better online experiences will bring users more of what they want and less of the “surface personalization” at which many currently roll their eyes.

The fundamental way we interact with the web is changing, and better personalization is essential for the next wave of digital communication to be successful. Take the initial skepticism around the use cases of chatbots. The developers building bot interfaces know that responding with a user’s name isn’t enough for a bot, but trying to take on too much functionality won’t work, either. Instead, bots have to make smart suggestions about what users want to see and hear based on intelligence they’ve gathered from previous interactions.

Whether it’s automatically identifying preferred restaurants when a user asks Amazon’s Echo and Alexa to order a pizza, or suggesting that a user move a conflicting appointment to a different time when scheduling a meeting. There are few better arguments for better personalization. I believe the growth of bots will accelerate an approach that infers and acts on anticipated next steps. I also believe that, once users see how personalization can impact their daily lives, the reaction will be far more positive.

But it’s not all about the technology. To ensure the future of personalization is more approachable than alarming, we first need to understand the “creepy factor” behind the tech. For those working behind the scenes to make personalization a reality, it’s easy to forget what the final product (or even the idea of it) feels like to the average online user. We need to acknowledge the common fear that companies will have too much control over what users see, turning curation into censorship. Just look at the recent debate about Facebook’s censorship of content in its Trending Stories section. Once a company loses trust, it’s hard to get it back.

It’ll take getting over some major technological and communication roadblocks before personalization is accepted by the masses and understood as a way to engineer better experiences — not lead consumers down the wrong path. We have the opportunity to deliver users a far better online experience, and guidance will become even more crucial as the number of websites continues to skyrocket.

Ultimately, better personalization is essential and inevitable, but it will require trust from all parties involved to work. For brands, it’s the best way to broaden outreach to potential customers, upsell existing ones and drive bottom-line business results. For customers, it’s a necessary way to sort through the clutter and improve the efficiency and relevancy of their online experience. Now, we just need to get there.