Who’s Doing Your Thinking For You?

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I was oddly paralyzed in a used bookstore the other day. A feeling of helplessness seized me as I surveyed the creased spines of the numerous books crowding the dusty shelves. Rifling through the faded paperbacks, I felt bored and listless, like I was rehearsing a tedious habit I'd long since outgrown. Usually, time stops the second I step into a bookshop. On this particular occasion, however, the exit exerted a near-magnetic pull. Like any self-respecting booklover, I wondered what was happening to me.

Setting aside my tendency to be overdramatic, a surprising thought occurred to me as I beat my hasty retreat. I’ve grown so used to retail websites like Amazon.com assembling lists of recommendations based on my ratings, interests, and shopping history that it now takes a concerted effort on my part to actually find something for myself, to actually think for myself.

The ingenious strategy of these sites is to use our choices to build a shopping experience that is uniquely tailored to fit our tastes and “preferences.” Each item you click helps to narrow the parameters of your search, and to customize the page so that you're perusing a uniquely you-shaped store. Ironically, the more choices you make, the more customized your page becomes, and the less choices you actually have. Helpful as these lists are, they do have a tendency to paint us into our respective digital corners.

To be fair, some sites have sought to minimize this tendency by supplying “random” lists that contain items and titles that don’t conform to any of our established interests. Contrived as this might seem, it does manage to restore a modicum of spontaneity to a consumer experience that increasingly resembles a hall of mirrors. And, of course, there’s still the good old word-of-mouth tradition.

But, all qualifications aside, when I look at my own habits, the fact remains that I often prefer to have my mind made up for me. Not even a meal out is complete without a compulsive investigation of online reviews. Let me be clear, I am not saying that consulting online reviews is tantamount to surrendering all independent thought. If that were the case, I'd be an empty-eyed drone... What I am saying is that we often have a tendency to bypass the risks involved in forming our own thoughts in favor of the thoughts and opinions of others.

One of the more insidious aspects of current online culture is that so much of what crosses our screens tries to tell us what to think. Even the titles—50 Excellent Novels by Female Writers Under 50 That Everyone Should Read, for example—assume we're passively waiting to be fed answers. This, I would argue, is one of the more shallow and lamentable trends in the age of instant information. Thinking for yourself is one of the most potent freedoms you can exercise; it also takes work. Though we certainly don't abandon all free thought every time we take advantage of one of these many online conveniences, it’s also worth pausing to ask: Who’s doing my thinking for me?

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