What do you really want? The internet knows... or does it?

Digital is making the entire decision-making process easier, but is that necessarily a good thing, asks strategy director James Brown...

Granary Square

What do you want?

OK, that’s a bit of a hairy question for last thing on a Friday. How about a simpler task: can you think of something that would make your life easier? And no, you can’t choose ‘closing this tab'.

Technologist and writer Dustin Curtis has put an unusual amount of effort into answering that question. The result is an outrageous and brilliant list of inventions that he would like the world to please just hurry up and get on with inventing.

One of my favourite things on his list (among things like a personal, always-on medical scanner, and a special pill that disposes of excess calories) is a service that can immediately find him the best product in any category.

He describes this magic service as “like Amazon, but when you search for 'toaster', you are presented with only one model of toaster: the one that 80 per cent of people would consider to be the best toaster in the world.”

Nice idea. And actually there are some people trying to build it. If you know me, then you’ll know that of course I let The Wirecutter choose my beard trimmer, and Thread choose my new smart trousers, and The Sweethome choose my bath towels. My mum’s stationery collection is now almost entirely stocked by recommendations from a favourite YouTuber.

So not only has the internet led to an explosion in personal choice – you already knew that – it now appears that it is politely hacking off and chucking away entire sections of the usual awareness/research/consideration decision journey. What’s next? Letting Siri choose what I have for dinner?

Well, Sundar Pichai certainly hopes so (though clearly it won’t start with, “Hey Siri…"). The Google CEO demonstrated the potential of their new Google Assistant during a keynote at this month’s IO conference.

While driving, he announces: “Let’s have curry tonight.” Moments later, his watch notifies him that his order is 15 minutes away: it’s going to be waiting for him when he gets home.

But what’s actually in the bag? Are we expecting Google to know or guess my preference for a saag gosht with mushroom pilau? And, of much more significance, where is it going to be ordered from? Presumably only from a business that has a prior financial arrangement with Google.

Tristan Harris, ex-design ethicist & product philosopher at Google (I want to meet the manager who signed off on that job title!) made waves with a keenly observed post on Medium this week, highlighting how digital products can be designed to hijack our psychological vulnerabilities. Sundar’s Indian odyssey is a rather perfect example of his first key point: “If you control the menu, you control the choices.”

In this instance, the menu Google is offering you appears to be vast – any cuisine one could care to imagine, made available through a one-sentence request. But that free choice is illusory, because the real control over your eating experience has already been made before you asked the question. Google has already chosen the dishes, the chef and even the way the meal is packaged and delivered. 

The internet might give the impression of offering an infinite variety of options, but they're on a menu written only by a select few.

Is that what you want?