Isolation narrows our physical connections. It also increases the digital mediation of our lives, work and interactions. We need to take care that algorithms aren’t distorting our work.
I have been working entirely at home for more than two months. In that experience, I have been privileged to have good technology and deep networks on which I can rely to enable me to continue to work and interact. However, as time goes on, I have been more cognisant of the limits of my new patterns of work. I feel the comfortable bubble around me slowly freezing.
There’s been lots of discussion of a new normal, but I have been most interested by how my digitally mediated life reinforces patterns. Our brains search out, build and reinforce patterns. I am finding these patterns are also being strengthened by the algorithms that openly and secretly support our digital lives.
The content and conversations we see on social networks are shaped by algorithms. The advertising we see are driven by algorithms. Our online shopping is shaped by algorithms. The more time we spend on digital tools, the more these algorithms learn and reinforce our patterns. When all our personal and work devices are in one location, on one IP and in fluid interchange all day, the web of algorithms closes more tightly.
I notice this most when I decide I want to change one of these digitally engrained patterns. Even as I seek to look elsewhere or do different, I find algorithms offering my brain the easy and familiar patterns. Digital habits are hard to break when the algorithms are working in concert to reinforce them.
I value the serendipity of chance discoveries. Much of the value in my work comes from accidental meetings, browsing books, diversity of ideas, wider inspiration and other accidents. In a digital bubble of isolation, we have to work continuously at creating and expanding our chances for discovery. I need to create my own accidents and break the algorithmic grip.
Rediscovering serendipity requires us to go look for new connections. Reading widely is important, particularly reading offline where you can begin to escape the echo chamber of repeated views. Exploring weak links in networks and finding new voices to follow is important, especially those who don’t always agree with your current perspectives. Pulling out the phone and calling distant and lost connections needs to be a regular action.
Bursting The Bubble
We don’t need a new normal. There was nothing particularly satisfying or attractive about the old normal. Algorithms, systems and information flows that work to push us back into new steady norms are comforting and safe for our institutions, but they work against the needs of our own growth and the needs of our society as we recover from this experience.
We need to discover, to experience, to learn and to do different. We need to find new ways to leverage our personal and collective capabilities. All of these actions push us beyond our patterns and into the uncomfortable & dangerous spaces beyond the bubble. Those are the things beyond any frozen bubble of normal. Pushing out to explore them will always burst the bubble.
Beyond our bubbles lie new ideas, new patterns and new discoveries. These will be disruptive, but they are a path to greater potential. Despite the comforting reassurance of the new normal and its reinforcing algorithms we need to remember to go looking for those disruptions.