If you’ve purchased anything online in the last few years, you may have noticed a new type of advertising. Sites like Amazon.com and iTunes use your searching and buying history to generate a constant stream of recommendations, all tailored to your preferences. These are generally titled: “Recommended for You,” “Related to Your Search,” or “Inspired by Your Browsing History.” My personal favorite is “Customers who bought this also purchased x.” It’s as if behind the screen there’s a little Amazon robot mocking you and saying, “You people are all the same!”
In some instances, these sorts of computer-generated recommendations are an excellent resource. They seem all the more advantageous (and less annoying) with regard to free music. Online radio sites like Pandora, for example, have an uncanny way of offering a steady stream of one’s preferred music on the basis of a very short “listening history.” You, too, may have exclaimed, “Pandora, you know me so well!” We choose one song, and our other favorites follow as if by magic.
Despite the usefulness of these resources, ultimately there is something dissatisfying about taking recommendations from a computer. When we walk into a store, there’s always the option of “just looking”—browsing the shelves for whatever happens to strike us. By contrast, the online recommendations seem to trap us within a closed loop of our own preferences. If one decides to search the Web for James Taylor albums and herbal tea, limitless images of teabags and acoustic guitars fill the screen.
How do we escape from the “preferential bubble” created by Amazon robots and Google Chrome cookie monsters? How do we avoid becoming a jack in Pandora’s musical box? Who will introduce us to a bigger world with broader horizons?
I submit that we need a person rather than a machine. We need a person, not just to give us what we want, but also to expand the very bounds of what we want. We need a person to help us cultivate desires and interests that remain undeveloped. No, I’m not talking about a pesky salesperson telling us to drink lemongrass or purchase computer insurance. No, what we need is a friend.
It’s due to friends that many of our preferences come about in the first place. We trust our friends, and so when one of them recommends an author, a musician, or a new sport to us, we’re willing to branch out and try something new and unfamiliar. What at first seemed boring or “not for me,” can quickly become one of our favorite things. A friend brings us somewhere beyond the computer-generated extrapolations of our ordinary wants.
The one who can truly broaden the base of our desires is Jesus Christ. He is the one who has “called us friends” (Jn 15:15). The Word of God, whose coming we anticipate this advent season, is a Word that disrupts. He pops the bubble of our ordinary preferences and awakens the heart. In him, the new and unfamiliar call of God becomes both possible and delightful. In this season, he comes as a little child to be our brother and friend and to recommend to us the things of God. In becoming man, he has given us “far more than all we ask or imagine” (cf. Eph 3:20).
Image: Amazon Robot