Allard: Culture of Customization

Customization isn’t always such a good thing.

by Sydney Allard | 5/2/19 2:10am

The AUX cord in my car is broken. I know it’s a not a big deal. I could just listen to the radio. But the thing is, I’ve gotten pretty accustomed to listening to exactly what I want whenever I want. If I am bored with a song by the second verse, then I skip the next one. Or, if I want to discover something new, the geniuses at Spotify have a trusty algorithm for that: They deliver new custom playlists to my account every week. Spotify has created a musical universe that revolves around me, the consumer. And in doing so, Spotify has managed to construct the feeling that the broader universe, beyond just music, sometimes revolves around me too. 

When my parents were young, they listened to albums on record players, straight through, from start to finish. Everyone heard, for the most part, the same songs in the same order. Now, even when my friends are sitting right next to me, we each plug in to listen to different songs tailored to our different tastes. I don’t have to listen to anything I don’t want to. Today’s world is more customized and customizable than ever before. 

Customization means that we can get everything we like just as we like it. But it also means that we can become unaccustomed to compromise. When you’re used to getting your lunch from Chipotle, where you can make your own meals exactly as you like them, then just eating whatever shows up on the menu elsewhere sounds a lot less appealing.

While personalized music and food choices are relatively benign, our culture of customization has more profound consequences in other areas. Universities are forgoing course requirements in favor or allowing students to take only the classes that interest them. While never having to take a lab science is certainly an appealing prospect to me, I also recognize that I need an interdisciplinary education — without it, I won’t know how to make findings in my field meaningful to the larger population. Taking courses in fields that we aren’t necessarily interested in forces us see things from different perspectives, and that’s a good thing.

The more we personalize, the less common ground we have with others. Our culture of customization manifests itself in big and small ways. It might look like seeking out only American-style restaurants while studying abroad — restaurants that have the foods we like and are used to eating but don’t expose us to important parts of local culture. It might look like a world where minor political differences can make or break our friendships. 

Around the time of the presidential election, customization culture lets echo chambers run rampant. If you didn’t like the way that CNN presented the news, you could change the narrative by switching to Fox News with the click of a button. The news was, effectively, customizable. You didn’t have to listen to any commentators with whom you disagreed, read articles by anyone who challenged your beliefs or even see Facebook posts by friends whose political affiliations differed from yours. 

When the information that you believe has little overlap with the information that your political adversaries believe, constructive dialogue becomes impossible. 

Compromising might not feel as good as getting exactly what you want when you want it, but only compromise can solve the great challenges of our times. Healthcare reform, gun laws and free speech are complicated issues: Some give and some take is necessary for anything to get done. So try a new food, read an article from a news sources you would normal stick up your nose at, text a friend you lost after the 2016 election and ditch your AUX cord for a radio station full of surprises: Try to see things from a perspective that challenges you.