The paradox of freedom in the digital world has long become apparent, but it hasn’t sunk in with many people. The oft promoted idea that people somehow would be freer in a digital world and that computers “allow” for personalisation and more individual self-fulfilment in learning, working and playing is simply false.
Just recently again, I read many avid bloggers bash the one-size-fits-all education system while hailing online self-study. What they don’t realise is this: Computers – even “adaptive” systems – only work on rules! These rules are set by programmers and always start by modelling the generic user and use case, the intention being to apply to every user entity in the same way and unequivocally (sounds like one-size-fits-all? – well it is!). Even in the most adaptive of systems, the world of computers knows no individuals nor does it recognise personal need or want. And most importantly: the rule sets are non-negotiable! It becomes most obvious when an online form doesn’t accept your postal address or cuts off your name due to some formatting rules in the text entry box.
Machine learning model
Over time, to accommodate outliers in services like e-government, e-learning, e-business, etc, more detailed rules, models and exceptions have to be created and are built into the system. This does not make the digital world more flexible, but allows for more inclusion and for some, if only limited or illusioned choice. It can hardly be called personalisation as the power of change does not lie with the end user, but with the system engineers.
Moreover, even with the best of intentions, system engineers and designers of, say, learning platforms follow the logic and principles of the competitive market. Hence competing products which are interpreted as “individual choice” and the basis for a personalised online experience are all pretty much the same (e.g. travel portals, VLEs, online banking services, MOOC platforms). They compete with the same (mainstream) users in the same market segment. Personalisation, however, starts with the individual. Ask yourself for example: Where in an adaptive personal learning environment would you send pupils with behavioural difficulties, attention deficit, lack of confidence, disinterest, or dyslexia? – of course, you wouldn’t send them, cause this is personal learning, so you couldn’t. But how would they know and remedy such weaknesses themselves? This obviously necessitates the understanding that socialisation is an essential part of the upbringing and education of citizens. Would computer systems recognise and adapt according to their needs? Do the mainstream online systems cater for anything other than content transfer and verbal exchange? NB: ‘likes’ and social metadata are not part of human communication.
Another characteristic of the rules and logic based systems is the transparency of the individual it creates. Despite the strong political rhetoric which asks for more transparency, I hold it with Byung-Chul Han that transparency of individuals is an instrument of controlling the masses and only serves the ones in power.
There is, however, one other tested and proven rules based system that we know, which does in my mind do well in personalisation and individual democratic freedom! As unlikely as this may sound, it is the legal code our democracies follow, whether it is case-law based or posited law. Unlike the digital world this is more a boundary framework than a set of determining rules. It doesn’t anticipate or predict individual behaviour or requirements. You are more or less free to do what you like until you overstep the mark or conflict arises. The digital world should be more like this.