If you use services like online retailer Amazon or music streamer Spotify, you’ll be familiar with the concept of recommendations. Based on your previous consumption patterns and those of consumers similar to yourself, an algorithm (or algorithms) instantly suggest to you other products or music you might like. Based on my photo, you may be surprised to learn that I am disproportionately fond of 70s funk. Spotify is not surprised. More than that, it seems positively delighted to be able to inform me that if I liked Earth, Wind & Fire (the band, not the elements of nature), I might like The Meters. And you know what? I did like The Meters. You would too. I was unaware of their existence but the modern magic of technology connected us and now I’m a fan. Moreso, I feel educated as I can trace the genealogy of the sound from the 60s through to the music of my actual life. This kind of ‘screening’ is a boon to my life and soul. Their tight melodic grooves and highly syncopated New Orleans second-line rhythms under highly charged guitar and keyboard riffing get me through some days. Let’s don’t forget James Brown.
However, despite my sense of betterment from the screening software, or perhaps because of it, I’m not immediately aware of the downside. As I was trying to use this Spotify feature as an analogy for employee screening in workplaces, I had to squeeze on a DeBono-esque negative thinking hat and force myself to think of a downside. How am I ever going to experience new music or genres if I only ever sample music that is like what I already like? That’s the stuff that bubbles are made of.
I get a sense of uneasiness from this. Partly it’s because I sometimes train in business writing and I know that sentences should not end with a preposition such as “of”. That sentence should have read, “That’s the stuff of which bubbles are made”.
The uneasiness also comes from thinking, why can’t I just like what I like and things that are similar to what I like? It’s quick, logical and low effort. Surely everybody wins. Who does it hurt? And aren’t bubbles simply a whimsical delight, even for an adult, to return to childlike fascination? No, the type of bubbles I’m talking about are those self-imposed blinkers that turn into silos and insulate us from seeing the world as it really is beyond our ivory towers. (If you’re keeping score on the liberal elite scale, that last sentence had five bits of figurative language. That’s a personal record. I was going to say personal best, but I think we all know that’s too many).
Let me get back to my analogy with employee screening. I used to half-seriously talk to workplace leaders about “cloning their stars”. Through recruitment, induction, training, coaching etc, create a model of what you’re after based on existing or previous top performers and seek to attract and re-create that. It’s not a bad idea but is it the best idea? Isn’t that approach effectively the same as Spotify telling me that if I liked that, then I’ll like this? What about diversity and innovation? Aren’t they diluted or diminished when all you do is re-hire the people you’ve always hired?
Maybe my life and soul would be even further enhanced if Spotify suggested to me that I might like to try Norwegian trance music? (It didn’t but I tried it anyway and it wasn’t. But it might have and I never would have known if I didn’t make up a style of music that I guessed I would never otherwise have encountered, then Googled it, found out it did actually exist so I sampled it. It’s quite deflating but at least now I know. Imagine if they’d taken early Donna Summer music, removed all the interesting sounds, changed all the chords to minor chords, then slowed it down).
I suppose the Spotify analogy isn’t perfect. You can test-drive a song at almost zero-cost. Click the play symbol, give it thirty seconds and never worry about it again. You don’t have to worry about hurting the feelings of DJ Splash from Trondheim. You can’t do that with a new hire (nor should you want to, or try to).
I was going to base this article around some legislation being proposed in the US that could impose hefty penalties on employees who decline to participate in genetic testing as part of workplace wellness programmes. That’s a level of sci-fi Gattica (look it up) screening that I found depressing so I didn’t. I wrote about Norwegian trance music instead. That is slightly less depressing. And it is really depressing.
Here’s one last suggestion: If you liked DJ Splash from Trondheim then you’ll love Finnebassen from Oslo or perhaps Boom Jinx from Bergen. But if you ever work where I work, you do not get to choose the radio station.