Fashion is a powerful tool. Within a split second, a person’s glasses, jeans, and haircut can communicate quite a bit about them—everything from age to socioeconomic status to connectedness to trends. Now, courtesy of scientists at the University of California, computers are getting a similar ability. Researchers there are developing a new algorithm that can distinguish someone’s urban tribe—whether he or she is a "biker, country, goth, heavy metal, hip hop, hipster, raver and surfer"—just by looking at a photos. And it’s accurate about 50% of the time. (Whereas a chance guess would only be right about 10% of the time.)
The software program keys in on personal details, like haircuts, hair color, makeup, jewelry, and tattoos, as well as colors and textures. It also takes this analysis a step further, by not only studying the key subject, but also every person photographed in any given scene. Each person essentially represents another datapoint about you.
Now for decades, our television programming has catered ads to its viewers. And today, computerized cookies have taken that customization a step further by tracking our Internet browsing habits to cater ads and other content to our interests. It’s an incredibly invasive, completely automated practice that, very quietly, reshapes our world to what advertisers believe are our tastes. UC researchers say that their algorithm is the next step in this tailoring, empowering "more relevant search results and ads" and allowing social networks to offer "better recommendations of content," according to their press release.
But what kind of a world does this much customization create for the consumer? Just because someone drinks microbrews served by a bartender wearing suspenders and a handlebar mustache for a Thursday happy hour doesn’t mean that they want deals on hops, suspenders, and mustache wax. And it doesn’t necessarily mean they have the same hobbies or political views, either.
No doubt, companies like Facebook have employed countless engineers to analyze the very real, and endlessly intricate venn diagram of someone’s friends, family, and shared interests, but there’s an important catch: A critical part of the human experience involves exposure to other cohorts. Imagine if, as a man, I’d never seen a tampon commercial. Or if, because I’m over 30 and listen to a lot of independent labels, my collective Internets never told me about Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus?
It’s bad enough that the things I look at online will already, to some extent, dictate what I see next. Do I really want the digital world looking back at me—quite literally—and rearranging my media to match my haircut?