A few of you asked about the changes KDD has made to the way we use big tech and social media – and about where to begin when considering making similar changes. As a starting point, I would suggest reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism, which I read back in the middle of 2019. This is perhaps not an easy book, but it is an important one, and out of many tomes I’ve read on similar topics, this is the one which provided me with the clearest understanding of the disturbing story of how our “behavioural surplus” became the raw material which a handful of poorly-regulated tech monopolies exploit to huge profit.

There’s no point in my summarising what’s so disturbing about the relentless monetisation of behavioural surplus: I know that for many, the problem seems as hard to see as it is to extricate oneself from – and this is, of course, entirely by design. But if you find yourself troubled by these issues, and want to take some simple, useful action, I’ve found the information provided by Duck Duck Go really helpful – this post about changing the tech you use when working from home, for example, is a good place to start.

There are a host of political, moral, psychological and economic reasons to stop using Google, Facebook, and other intrusive data tracking and commodifying apps and tools, either as an individual, or in association with one’s business, but one thing that I’ve found to be very important to me personally, over the past year of not doing so, is I suppose something a bit more philosophical. I’d describe this philosophic something as the experience of intellectual serendipity.

I can best describe that experience as follows:

When doing some research a few years ago (the result of which was the “Design for All” chapter in Handywoman) I met a very interesting woman, who had spent her life designing and adapting innovative baby-carrying devices for a prominent Swedish children’s brand. Among the many topics we discussed, during a very lively and stimulating conversation over dinner, she enthused about BBC radio, and particularly about how much she loved listening to the World Service and Radio 4. She enjoyed the intelligent in-depth programming of these stations, but most of all she loved them, she told me, because she never knew quite what she might hear next, and what she might possibly find interesting. In other words, she loved these stations because they brought her the opportunity of serendipitous discovery. I’ve thought a lot, both before and since, about how important serendipity is to my intellectual life and I suppose I have always found it useful to approach the things I read, see or listen to with a very open mind, without precisely knowing what I might be interested in in advance. Certainly, this approach has served me well when poking about in libraries researching many different topics, and just like my Swedish dinner companion, I also love BBC radio because it frequently allows me such moments of pleasurable serendipitous discovery. It is because I listen to such stations that I’ve come across brilliant writers like Anne Wroe or Richard Watson – writers who I might not otherwise have felt would be of any interest to me personally, but whose words have stopped me in my tracks, and whose work has subsequently enriched my thinking enormously. To take just a few examples of recent audio-serendipity, by turning on the radio while I knit, I might hear a British woman talking about changes in the gendered culture of skateboarding over the past two decades, learn about the struggle to maintain a free and transparent press in the Philippines, or listen to the moving testimony of blind people dealing with the neurological peculiarities of Charles Bonnet syndrome. I find such chance encounters with inspiring individuals and interesting subjects deeply refreshing and they often prompt me to pause, to think a little differently, or to explore a topic in greater depth. I also occasionally think about the fact that it was because a literary agent randomly tuned in to Woman’s Hour, and heard me talking to Jane Garvey about my experiences of brain injury and disability, that I was able to have a series of conversations that eventually galvanised my resolve to write Handywoman – a piece of work of which I’m very proud.

Serendipity is something of great importance in my own intellectual life, yet it seems that the more digitally connected we are, the rarer the opportunity to experience it becomes. Streaming services prompt us to select the content of what we want to watch and read and listen to in advance, and these platforms in turn hone and shape our decisions, helping us to “make better choices” about what we read and hear and see. In a world where YouTube would present to us Peppa Pig in terrifying perpetuity because we chanced upon one video, or Netflix decides that because we watched a single movie that it categorises as “horror” that we must want to watch all horror movies, it is becoming more difficult to move our viewing or thinking forward beyond predetermined generic bounds. We seemed doomed to follow the paths of our existing choices to whichever cul-de-sacs they lead, and the way that audience engagement works on social media means that all of the content we access on such platforms is continually pushed towards cul-de-sacs of affirmation or disapproval. Algorithms ossify our thinking by merely confirming what we already know (or think we know) with the end result being that we are increasingly unlikely to encounter anything that’s strange or different, troublesome or challenging, if it hasn’t been flagged as likely to arouse our outrage or endorsement because 15 people that we follow have already clicked the like button.

On a changeable day, when I set out for a walk, I don’t know that I’m going to see a rainbow, but I’m very happy when I do so. I think of serendipity in my intellectual life as something just like that rainbow, and it seems that it is a phenomenon that I’m increasingly unlikely to experience on a social media platform. In short, if I want to experience the pleasures of serendipity, I go for a walk, turn on the radio, or read a book by someone new, with an open mind. And, over the past year, I’ve found that it is much easier to retain an open, exploratory mind in spaces beyond the ossifying environments of social media.

Further reading:

James Bridle, The New Dark Age: Technology and the end of the Future (2018)
Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019)
Shoshana Zuboff, The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism (2019)