"Personalization" Gone Wrong

Most Internet users have experienced some degree of personalization such as the "Amazon recommends" feature of the Amazon.com site. At their core, these are attempts to provide value added content and capitalize on impulse purchases. This Wall Street Journal article talks about some fairly humours TiVo personalization gone awry.

The TiVo is a specialized computer called a Personal Video Recorder (PVR). It can record television shows and can even edit out the commercials. TiVo offers a service which attempts to guess what television shows you'll be interested in and preemptively record those for you. As you can imagine, the WSJ article is rife with amusing stories and anecdotal evidence against the omniscience of computers.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), TiVo only knows what you watched, not why you watched it. Similarly, though sites like Amazon.com may have a small inventory of what we like, they don't know why we like those things. Did I buy the collector's edition of "The Thing" because I like John Carpenter the director, Kurt Russell the actor, or bad '80s horror in general? Or, maybe I just wanted to see the original movie on which the video game was based?

To take it one step further, Amazon.com may know what I bought but not necessarily who I bought it for. For instance, just because I purchased a book on the Nikon N90 camera doesn't mean that I 1) own said camera or 2) even like photography much less taking pictures. Try to tell that to Amazon.com recommends, which once recommended "Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity" to Jeff Bezos himself.

For now, most of these types of personalization are harmless and amusing. However, it is worth noting that, as we've pointed out here in the past, at least one such PVR supplier, SonicBlue, has been ordered by a federal court to turn over all the information they've collected about their customers to none other than television and movie industries themselves. So, though we may find these mishaps amusing now, they should provide a clear and ominous reminder of how good intentions can wrong.

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