Does personalization increase agency?
“Customization is by me. Personalization is for me” (Schulte 248). But what of agency?
Personalization increases agency in that it offers digital citizens the tools they need in molding their environments to their needs and desires. The tools and materials offered are predictive and targeted (personalized), and individuals can adapt these to fulfill both external and internal demands. In this way, agency enters the remediated self as “we employ media as vehicles for defining both personal and cultural identity” (Bolter and Grusin 231). The ads, types of digital tools, and entertainment we interact with every day give us the opportunity to fashion and refashion our subjective selves; making these choices forms the hypermediated self, the self who seeks the real or transparent, even when it’s done without conscious thought.
This notion of agency sounds useful, but it’s not without issues. Foremost stands manipulation for gain. Schulte notes that an internet that “commercializes culture and politics” (Schulte 252) is possible, which turns a huge and vital connection to the world into an area of commoditized users. Close at its heels is the loss of productive discomfort, which equates to the loss of the ability to handle being outside of a comfort zone and the benefits that come from associated growth. One might argue that agency is precisely what can prevent these, but I think the real issue is that agency through personalization, especially in the digital sphere, has focused too heavily on a few less-than-fruitful areas, including entertainment and the use of digital technologies as narcissistic mirror.
Entertainment and vanity might be described as one type of “bubble” or area that “ensconce[s] individuals within their preferences” (Schulte 250). When a group of digital citizens use agency to create impregnable areas of amusing noises and sights (that are most likely echo chambers, as well), then its ability to act in a meaningful way is forestalled. While it’s true that such a group has agency through the personalization of media, what they lack is an impetus for using their abilities to move beyond immediate concerns. If something negative occurs, they can pop back into the bubble. These types of users are in a cycle of seeking transparent experience followed by remediation, but it brings them no closer to the “real.” Agency, but for what purpose.
Is this unconcern characteristic of the many selves that constitute the digital sphere today? Do people who interact with media and technology every day consider to what degree their digital actions truly reflect them? Schulte writes: “Predictive personalization requires ‘personal’ knowledge of a person; yet ‘personal’ has historically signified that which is not, should not, or cannot be known by others” (Schulte 249). If predictive personalization becomes a vicious cycle of careless or spur-of-the-moment choices reinforced by targeted marketing, then outside data masquerade as what is “true” and takes the place of that most private interiority. When we aren’t required to consider ourselves, our connection to those close and far, how we fit in, what our impact is, then personalization fails because it leads us away from ourselves. In this way, it fails agency, too, since it lacks the ‘personal’ in personalization and creates automatons, instead.
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000.
Schulte, Stephanie Ricker. “Personalization.” Digital Keywords. Edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 242-255.