Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Happiness Industry

Those commercials for the on-line matchmaking service E-Harmony alway crack me up. The founder announces that they look for compatibilities along 28 dimensions, or some such twaddle, as if finding a mate could be reduced to a shopping list of characteristics (as an aside, Malcolm Gladwell's latest book Blink has a section on how what people list as the desirable characteristics for a partner rarely match what actually attracts them-- i'm not sure if that's an argument for or against E-Harmony). Basically, E-Harmony is a recommendation system for potential mates.

Of course, there have been social networking sites like LinkedIn for years now, and there are other interesting experiments in the personal happiness vein, like 43Things. But i think that the driver behind the ever-increasing personalization of our entertainment and news experiences will be, for lack of a better word, happiness. This of course presumes that identifying content or people that match our preferences will bring us satisfaction or pleasure. So the combination of all the media with social software and personalization technology could roughly be designated as the Happiness Industry. It's possible that either the sex or drug trades might lay original claim to the name, but have they blogged about it?

The emerging technologies in this arena (recommender systems,, Technorati, Friendster, etc.) are close to achieving the idea of an intelligent agent as it was envisioned in the early days of the intarweb, although they require a bit more work. The intelligent agent is a very smart black box that infers your tastes, finds content or fellow net denizens who match your taste, and brings them to your attention. At the time intelligent agents were first imagined, few people had the vision to imagine that the black box was the whole freaking on-line community, suitably monitored and filtered.

My problem with intelligent agents then, and the Happiness Industry now, is that they don't work like my brain, and i hope they don't work like anyone's brain. To illustrate, allow me a large digression. A couple of times in my career i've worked on simulated annealing, which is a technique for doing optimization by mimicking the physical process of annealing (you heat something up, and then let it cool slowly, then repeat). Simulated annealing approaches generally attempt to solve the problem of getting stuck in a local minimum by using a statistical approach to choosing the next state of the system. To visualize a local minimum, imagine an olive in a martini glass. The olive will sink to the bottom of the glass, but it can't go where gravity really wants to pull it, unless it magically jumps over the rim of the martini glass. The statistical methods used with simulated annealing choose a new system state based on that state's probability according to the Boltzmann distribution. Unlikely states will become more likely the higher the temperature. Put more simply, in some relatively improbable cases, the olive will jump out of the martini glass and drop to the floor.

The point being that personalization technology might never let you out of the martini glass, which might be a piss-poor metaphor, but i hope you grok my meaning. I don't want software that will interpret my compulsive visits to Slashdot and ESPN as evidence that i really want more sports and technology news. And god forbid that it should interpret my bookmarks as indicative of the sort of people i want to hang out with. I've often said that i think hell will be a cocktail party in which all the guests are identical copies of myself. I don't think i'm unique in that i often want to discover music, art, literature, people, experiences that are completely different than anything/anybody i've experienced before. And if you're thinking that you can accomplish this by simply finding negative correlations, then good lord you are a hopeless geek.

My personal view of happiness is more wholistic. Over the years i've reduced the idea of happiness to a single question: is there anybody with whom you would trade? If not, you're probably as happy as you should be. There is a certain subtlety here, which is that you have to trade lock, stock, and barrel. No picking and choosing. For example, i'd really like to have Johnny Dep's looks and money; but i would not trade my life for his because under no circumstance would i give up my wife and kids. That doesn't mean though that if i listed everything in my life that makes me happy, and everything that i don't have that would make me happier that i could find correlations with somebody else with whom i might trade. Even if the idea weren't patently absurd, the set of things that make me happy is fuzzy and time-dependent and mood-dependent and subject to all of the other vagaries of the human brain.

The practical reason given to justify personalization technology is that it assists in filtering the overwhelming flood of information into a manageable flow. That might be true so far as professional concerns go. But it's equivalent to saying that you'd understand the world much better if you never left your neighborhood. On the contrary, that would only reduce the entire world to just your neighborhood.

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