Good morning, Quartz readers!
Marshall McLuhan, the late Canadian philosopher and intellectual, is celebrated for predicting that digital media would tilt our communication toward a culture centered on interaction, a style closer to ancient storytelling than the silo-building printed word. Google, which honored him with a homepage Doodle this week, centers its corporate rhetoric on the “global village” McLuhan famously envisioned.
McLuhan was off by a little bit, in ways that now mean a lot. The internet came to be essentially controlled by businesses, which use data and cognitive science (and our own tastes) to keep us spellbound and loyal, fueling the relentless rise of hyper-personalization.
Google just rolled out a new news feed driven by your particular search history. Amazon launched its Spark shopping tool, an Instagram-like mobile app that combines the company’s personalization algorithm with the power of social “likes.” Netflix, its stock soaring, uses a thumbs-up, thumbs-down feature to better match viewers to what they’ve enjoyed in the past, ensuring we’ll be unchallenged by the kind of movies we rarely watch—and undelighted by random discoveries. On Twitter and Facebook, algorithms collect all the updates from the people you’re already talking to, fortifying social-filter bubbles. (Sorry, town-crier types, you’re probably still posting to the proverbial choir.)
Some critics argue that it’s time to rein in the code-making behind those filters. Alternatively, we could leave the internet giants free to experiment, and hope that digital literacy saves us. (We may be more curious and concerned about the experiences of others than we’ve acknowledged, and more than our tech masters would like.)
For now, though, be prepared for one version of the future, that each of us creates in our own image. Deep-learning powered services promise to become even better custom-content tailors, limiting what individuals and groups are exposed to even as the universe of products and sources of information expands. If only we happened to have Mr. McLuhan right here. —Lila MacLellan
Six things on Quartz we especially liked
The German language’s missing letter. Until last week, ß—used in “Straße” (street) and in the expletive “Scheiße”—did not officially exist in uppercase, forcing German speakers to fake it with a double S. Thu-Huong Ha dives into a fierce century-long debate to explain why words in street signs and passports were essentially misspelled for so long.
Thermomix is here to conquer America. The $1,450 German do-it-all kitchen appliance with a cult following in much of the world is now coming to the US, where Silicon Valley has innovated madly around meal delivery. Jenni Avins explores the big question: Can Thermomix make Americans cook?
The chic French mom is state-supported. Behind every “sanguine, slim, and well-rested” French mother raising children who “eat haute cuisine iPad-free in restaurants,” stand progressive government policies that allow for her impossibly cool existence, Jenny Anderson writes.
Marshall McLuhan can be explained. Deconstructing the Google Doodle celebrating the 106th anniversary of the media theorist’s birth may be the best way to do it. Kira Bindrim found just the right professor to draw a delightfully clear line from McLuhan’s mind to the digital future he envisioned.
Free trade isn’t to blame for America’s manufacturing woes. That’s just one America First truism debunked by Ana Campoy, Youyou Zhou and Christopher Groskopf in their data analysis. The low-wage world isn’t sinking US factories—more likely it’s high-tech competition from abroad.
India is rolling out solar-powered train coaches. The country’s massive diesel-guzzling rail network rolled out its first set of cars with rooftop panels that keep lights, fans, and information displays going. Devjyot Ghosha reports that a single train can save 21,000 litres (about 5,550 gallons) every year.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
The new monopolists. Google commands 77% of US search-ad revenue. With Facebook it controls more than half of the mobile-ad market. Amazon handles 30% of US e-commerce. Citing conclusions drawn by author, entrepreneur, and former Bob Dylan tour manager Jonathan Taplin, Paula Dwyer argues in Bloomberg BusinessWeek that the success of winner-take-all “superstar” companies leaves most American workers—and would-be entrepreneurs—behind.
Frustration built the self-cleaning house. Francis Gabe, exasperated with demands on housewives, patented an ingenious home (paywall) that automatically sluiced away dirt from floors, dishes, laundry, and even pets. She passed away at the age of 101, the New York Times reports, having led a life “equal parts quixotic dreamer and accomplished visionary.”
America can never eat enough cheese. A record-breaking 35 pounds a year, on average, isn’t nearly enough to make up the US dairy-supply glut, Bloomberg’s Clint Rainey explains in his look at “the hidden hand guiding most of fast food’s dairy hits”—the government-sponsored Dairy Management Inc.
An especially candid view from the US Congress. “We desperately need adults in the room,” says Rep. Tom Rooney in a remarkably frank interview with Michael Barbaro on The Daily podcast from The New York Times. The Republican’s matter-of-fact assessment of serving as the opposition when Barack Obama was elected: “It was easy. We just voted no on everything.”
The birth of the wedding theatrical complex. Martha Stewart Weddings, Stewart’s signature 1987 book, can lay claim to inspiring much of the spectacle that marriage celebrations have become. The author’s gift, Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic: She saw where things were heading, foreseeing that America would someday Say Yes to the Dress in increasingly lavish ways.
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