Are Humans the Key to Discovery in a World of Digital Abundance?

Opinion

We are drowning in content. Blogs made everyone a journalist. Self-publishing made everyone an author. YouTube made everyone a filmmaker. iTunes made everyone a musician. Publishing houses, record labels, and newsrooms have lost their long-held position as gatekeepers of taste.

This is largely a good thing, particularly for aspiring artists. I’m a novelist. FG Press published my first two books and I self-published the third one. I didn’t need to send out dozens of submissions, suffer rejection after rejection, finally accept a contract with draconian terms, and endure a two-year production cycle before sharing my stories with fans. Digital media is a great equalizer and I don’t think there’s been a better time in history for creatives.

But as consumers, we face a seemingly intractable problem: the haystack is growing faster than the number of needles. Our feeds are crammed with click bait. Our reading lists are stuffed with titles from the slush pile. Our playlists are bloated with uninspired tracks. In a world of abundance, how do we separate signal from noise?

At first, the answer appeared obvious: challenge the digital horde with digital weaponry. Pandora uses algorithms to automatically generate playlists based on our preferences. Amazon uses algorithms to suggest new books based on our past purchases. Google News uses algorithms to serve up stories based on our interests.

But the elegance of an algorithmic solution belies its inadequacy. I stopped listening to Pandora years ago because its suggestions were so generic. Google News rarely challenges me with a story that forces me to think outside the box. Oh, and BTW Amazon, just because I read Harry Potter doesn’t mean all I want to read is young adult fantasy.

Computers can beat even the strongest human chess players but still lose to intermediate go players. That’s because after the first round of moves, chess has 400 possible board positions while go has 129,960. Winning a game of go is all about pattern recognition, something the human brain is uniquely good at. Taste, like go, is complex and endlessly branching.

The pendulum is swinging back. Technology companies are now hoping to solve the discovery problem with… humans.

Apple’s new music service employs DJs, editors, and tastemakers to craft individual playlists and handpick up-and-coming artists. Algorithms help listeners find curators that might share their taste, but the curators are living, breathing humans. The system also allows musicians to post photos and videos to help bring fans behind-the-scenes.

Product Hunt, a popular discovery platform for new tech, is addressing the problem by launching a books vertical today. Human readers post and discuss new books, which rise to the top as users upvote their favorites. They accompanied the release with a dedicated book club and a Reddit-esque ask-me-anything platform that gives fans intimate access to their favorite authors.

I’ve used both Apple Music and Product Hunt Books extensively, and neither are perfect. Apple has resurrected the gatekeepers, with all their attendant problems. Product Hunt lists books in a chronological feed, even though a book’s quality is rarely a product of its release date.

But both services have reinvigorated my enthusiasm as a reader and listener. Their suggestions have delighted and surprised me by delivering high-quality content that challenges my preconceptions. They may still be working out the kinks, but I’m bullish on a future of tech-enabled human curation.

It turns out that the secret ingredient we need to thrive in a world of digital abundance is, well, soul.

Eliot Peper is the author of The Uncommon Series, the tech startup thriller trilogy. When he's not writing, he works with entrepreneurs and investors to build new technology businesses as a drop-in operator and adviser. Follow @eliotpeper

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