Infinite Personalization: A Layer Cake of Fake

David Siegel: “Infinite personalization comprises the artificial intelligence-driven, big-data based tools that allow algorithms to build a personalized Internet echo chamber customized just for you, designed to make you feel great. Infinite personalization feeds you the real, the fake, and everything in between, with the simple goal of holding your attention and getting you to come back for more. It is the process by which companies can measure, match, and predict consumers’ individual preferences with amazing accuracy and then tailor offerings to maximize revenue.”

“Particularly when it comes to information, however, infinite personalization has a dark side … Today, each and every one of us has a custom-designed experience based on our past preferences … One result is that Americans seem to be losing a certain commonality of experience—even, in some cases, within the same household … The problem is likely to get worse. The technology of infinite personalization is getting so good that it’s debatable whether we choose our information sources, or the other way around.”

“The scientific method and the advent of artificial intelligence offer us the promise of greater empiricism and a more evidence-based understanding of reality. Perversely, infinite personalization seems to deliver the exact opposite. Worse yet, we are still in the early days of this information revolution. The ability to use such tools to shape our thinking will only grow more powerful in the coming years. As individuals and as a society, we should be very wary about their potential to warp our perspectives.”

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Vegan Condoms? Introducing: ‘Sustain’

The New York Times: “The latex in Sustain condoms comes from a Fair Trade rubber plantation in Southern India … The factory is solar powered. And the condoms are free from nitrosamines, possible carcinogens found in many popular brands … With Sustain, Meika Hollender is trying to do for the contraceptive industry what brands like Honest Company, Mrs. Meyer’s and Seventh Generation have done for cleaning products — introduce all-natural alternatives to household staples such as diapers, hand soaps and paper towels.”

“That’s no coincidence. Jeffrey Hollender, one of the founders of Seventh Generation, is Meika’s father and runs Sustain with her … After founding Seventh Generation … he lost control and was forced out by his partners in 2010. On the beach … he zeroed in on condoms. Condoms, he figured, were a product that hadn’t yet gotten the full environmental treatment. And he knew that they were an inherently sustainable product — latex is made from the sap of the rubber tree, an endlessly renewable resource.”

“But vegan condoms are shaping up to be a more difficult sell than recycled paper towels … Three years after founding the company, sales have topped $1 million annually, and big stores like CVS and Target are carrying their products, but the brand has yet to really crack the mainstream … What’s more, the Hollenders have come under fire for what critics describe as dangerous alarmism … its Twitter account posted a video titled Are Condoms Killing You’… Yet Sustain still touts the fact that its condoms are free of nitrosamines on its packaging. Ms. Hollender explains: “This is what resonated with consumers. Maybe because it’s a big, scary chemical word.”

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Footwear: How Saks Attracts Men

The New York Times: “Next week, Saks will open its first free-standing store specially for men, in Brookfield Place, the retail, office and dining complex in Lower Manhattan … The 16,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Store will include leather and shoe repair services, made-to-measure suits and a tech bar selling the latest gadgets … In the spring, an in-house Sharps barbershop and Fika coffee shop will be added. And a monthly rotating pop-up shop will feature, in the opening weeks, 200 styles of sneakers, 40 of which are Saks exclusives.”

Saks President Marc Metrick explains: “Footwear is a gateway drug.”

“Saks is luring the stylish new man with a palette of whites, taupes and silvers and chevron-patterned porcelain flooring. Gone is the brown-wood, Morton’s steakhouse look of the uptown men’s department. The vibe is not unlike the Saks women’s store at the opposite end of the complex.”

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The Happiness Effect: The Dark Side of Social Media

From a review of The Happiness Effect, by Donna Freitas, in The Wall Street Journal: “The real downside of Facebook, Instagram and their ilk … is constant cheeriness. Young people learn that any hint of unhappiness or failure may not be posted; it can haunt their futures and damage their ‘brands.’ This imperative then creates a vicious circle.” Freitas writes: “Because young people feel so pressured to post happy things on social media, most of what everyone sees on social media from their peers are happy things; as a result, they often feel inferior because they aren’t actually happy all the time.”

“Young people feel that they have to be online almost all the time, but they cannot share their real selves there, a situation that produces even greater unhappiness … Yet avoiding social media is almost impossible; professors, for instance, create discussion groups on Facebook. So the beast must be mollified and a ‘personal brand’ maintained: that of a studious yet social person who does the right activities and holds the right opinions. ‘Many students have begun to see what they post (on Facebook, especially) as a chore—a homework assignment to build a happy facade,’ Ms. Freitas reports.”

“Some of her interviews contain real gems … One young man tells her that he doesn’t think his generation is any more self-centered or self-obsessed than any other … ‘Everybody wants to be noticed,’ he says. ‘Everybody likes feeling approval. They all like it when other people like them.’ Anyone who has posted a photo on Instagram and then checked 10 times over the next two hours to count the number of ‘likes’ … knows this feeling.”

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Bank of America Tests ‘Robo-Banks’

The Washington Post: “Bank of America has opened three mini-bank branches­ since the new year that have ATMs and video­conferencing but no people. Two opened in Denver and one in Minneapolis. In addition to the ATMs, the new robo-banks — called automated centers — allow customers to make a video­conference call to a Bank of America employee at another location to discuss more complicated money issues.”

Peter Fitzgerald, a former U.S. senator from Illinois, lifelong banker and founder of Chain Bridge Bank, comments: “This is the beginning of the end of the American bank branch. Bank branches are dead. They were killed by the iPhone. It’s like the horseshoe when the automobile came along.”

“Bank of America spokeswoman Anne Pace said live banking isn’t disappearing … She also said Bank of America is adding 50 to 60 traditional centers.” She also says: “We are simply following our clients … Mobile banking users increased to 21.6 million, and 19 percent of deposit transactions are done through mobile. That’s equivalent to 880 financial centers. We need to be there whether it’s through the mobile phone or inside a financial center.”

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Quote of the Day: Derek Thompson

“We want to live in a world where originality constantly wins and the best stuff constantly wins. But instead, we live in a somewhat arbitrary world where people just want that which is ultimately familiar and it’s the companies which own distribution power who have the capacity to dictate popularity.” – Derek Thompson, author, Hit Makers, quoted on Vox.

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What Makes Doritos The Perfect Snack Food?

Business Insider: “Doritos are one of the most successful snack foods ever, with a market-leading $1.5 billion in annual sales in the US. What makes them so good? Food scientist Steven Witherly explained ‘the perfect snack food’ at length in his book, Why Humans Like Junk Food.” His analysis, in part:

“That red powder is high in salt and sugar — two major pleasure solutes — and loaded with flavor-boosters like MSG, disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate. Not to mention garlic, Romano cheese, cheddar cheese, and more … The powder also contains acids (buttermilk solids, lactic acid, and citric acid) that trigger the release of saliva … Your brain is excited by the sensation of biting into a hard substance that quickly dissolves. This is also an example of vanishing caloric density, where food seems to disappear in your mouth, tricking your brain into wanting more.”

“A complex mix of flavors, known as non-specific aroma quality, keeps your brain from getting bored … the stuff on your fingers is 5-6 times more concentrated than the stuff on the chip, says Witherly. Your brain gets a pleasure explosion when you lick it off.”

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What Makes ‘Snap’ Crackle & Pop?

The New York Times: “When Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy were undergraduates at Stanford University, they made an unconventional observation about what makes a social network valuable. Thanks to the rise of Facebook, most everyone believed that networks became exponentially more valuable by amassing more users. But Mr. Spiegel noticed that in real life, even people with thousands of acquaintances spent most of their time with just a few friends whose value outweighed a large number of looser ties.”

“So when Mr. Spiegel and Mr. Murphy created Snapchat in 2011, they inverted the social networking dynamic. Out of their Stanford dorm rooms, they made Snapchat as an app that would send disappearing messages and photos in a way that more closely mimicked the dynamics of a real world conversation. That would increase the appeal of Snapchat as a service that people used with a small number of good friends, they figured.”

“While online identity previously emphasized everything anyone has ever done, with Snapchat ‘my identity is who I am right now,’ Mr. Spiegel said in a 2015 video to describe the app:”

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Amazon’s Alexa: The Ultimate ‘Marshmallow’ Test?

Jenna Wortham: “There’s a theory that behavioral economists use to explain our consumption habits called ‘hyperbolic discounting,’ which is the tendency to choose short-term rewards over long-term gains. The ‘marshmallow test’ of the 1960s tested the ability of preschoolers to resist temptation — the titular marshmallow, within reach — with the promise that they would be rewarded with two if they waited.”

“In the experiment’s most popular interpretation, those who had self-control grew up to be much more successful than those who did not. It is one of the most formative studies in self-control and how people make decisions.”

“Alexa is the ultimate marshmallow test, and most of us are failing. We are being conditioned, as a population, to never wait, to never delay our gratification, to accept thoughtless, constant consumption as the new norm. But how we think about consumption and willpower carry enormous implications for the environment and the culture of society as a whole. Think about that the next time you ask Alexa to order you another roll of toilet paper.”

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Indie Theaters Reinvent Movie Experience

The Guardian: “From themed weddings to live-streamed operas and interactive movie nights, (UK) indie theatres are reinventing themselves as the new entertainment hubs on the high street – eating into the market share of the multiplex giants and in-home rivals such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. These independents accounted for almost a quarter – 23% – of all screens nationwide in 2016, up from 17% the year before, according to data from research firm Mintel.”

“Sam Neophytou would vouch for that. Together with a small group of actor friends, he founded the Arthouse in Crouch End, north London in 2014, converting a former snooker hall into an indie cinema. Its two 85-seater screens have been a huge success.” He comments: “People want to be in this kind of environment rather than a multiplex where there isn’t that intimacy.”

“When Lyndsey Holden, from Birmingham, was planning her wedding last year, she didn’t want a church or a register office … She and husband-to-be James Burrows ended up walking down the aisle of their local indie cinema, the Electric, flanked by half a dozen stormtroopers and a 6ft 7in Chewbacca … The cinema’s manager, Sam Bishop, says he is constantly thinking up new ideas … Special wine-tasting evenings have been staged in sync with the film Sideways, pausing the movie whenever the main characters have a drink and serving customers the same wine.” He comments: “You drink cathartically with their journey and leave as spiritually uplifted – and as drunk – as the main characters.”

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