The Pitfalls of Personalization: Isolation in a Customized World

Do you know about the new personalized Coke cans? It’s your coke can now, begging the question, what were you drinking before? Coca-Cola generic? Coca-Cola meant for everyone? Thanks to modern technology, you can finally have a can made specifically for you.

Having a lot of stuff isn’t satisfying anymore. Our society places a premium on tailoring services and products to each person’s specific needs. Everything we do—from what we eat to where we live—should be a reflection of who we are as individuals. Each and every man requires his own “man cave,” as seen on HGTV, and each and every woman must have a home that is uniquely “her.”

This is becoming a standard component of the ideal lifestyle. These days, when I’m living the good life, I don’t just buy things to make my life easier; I also buy things that are specifically made with “me” in mind. More than just the obvious issue of excessive consumption, I see two major issues with this concept.

One is the self-delusion that what I like is what everyone else likes. The constant popup ads on the internet remind me quite frequently that “my” preferences are being generated by what I see, where I live, and my background. Specifically, it is a mathematical algorithm. It’s a fact that I’m responding to advertisements around the clock. The marketing industry is a brilliant joke because it fools me into thinking my tastes are genuine.

Change is never easy, but the need to adjust enriches our lives with spontaneity and delight despite the discomfort it can cause. At first glance, the personalized lifestyle appears to be more convenient, but in the long run, it can cause feelings of isolation. As my tastes come to define me, I isolate myself and make it impossible for others to participate. The more I enjoy my custom-made existence, the more I crave autonomy. That, or I start to believe that I require them in that form. As soon as the initial sense of calm wears off, however, I find myself experiencing intense irritation. Strangely, the more I tailor my life to suit my individual tastes, the less comfortable I feel. It’s clear that my mental agility and adaptability have increased since my twenties, when I was twice as old as I am now. When I was in my twenties, for instance, I frequently visited various people and places, staying with friends and family on a regular basis. Most of these events happened on the spur of the moment, and I didn’t reserve one of their spare bedrooms in advance.

I spent many nights on the floor, whether it was a bedroom, living room, or basement. The ground was concrete in some areas. The concrete floor of the basement replaced the bed, carpet, and therm-a-rest. I didn’t spend my twenties stumbling around drunk on strangers’ floors, by the way. Instead, it was a period of rapid adaptation on my part. It was a time when getting out and about to see and experience things didn’t require any special preparation or planning. This wasn’t just me, by the way. I’ve found that many of my friends’ lifestyles were similar to that when they were younger. As a result of not being shackled by our individual preferences, we were easily able to make necessary adjustments.

My impression is that this is the sense of independence that still exists when people go camping or visit remote parts of the world. When you don’t have to worry about every detail being just right, you gain a sense of independence. It’s the independence to change in response to new information or new people. With the adaptation, we get the freedom of belonging.

To be clear, even with the best of friends, I have no desire to sleep on the cold, hard floor again. The fact that my husband and I have different “sleep numbers,” however, means that we can’t even sleep on the same mattress. This has a negative impact on my happiness.

Can we admit that the degree to which we tailor our experiences to make them “good” for us materially may be inversely proportional to the degree to which we shut ourselves off from everyone else?

Almost every aspect of our daily lives, from eating to entertainment to sleeping, can now be tailored to our unique preferences. Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point where we can’t even watch television as a group because everyone has “their” own shows they must constantly switch between. The rare occasions when we are able to watch the same show (World Cup, anyone?) together are truly thrilling. But these days I can hardly make it through anything that isn’t one of “my” shows. All of us have our own screens, and everything is “on demand.” Recently, my son and I were flying, and we each had our own set of individualized movies to watch. Meanwhile, I found myself wishing I was watching his movie alongside him, joining in on the hilarity. In any case, I got my wish, and Mad Men started playing.

Even with food, our great social connector, we are becoming more isolated as our diets are personalized. The comedian David Sedaris recently made the observation that it is now impossible to entertain in America due to dietary restrictions. Who can make a vegan, paleo, gluten-free, sugar-free dinner?

The instructor at last week’s meditation class remarked that both joy and suffering can make our hearts feel as if they are about to close. When we’re in pain, we naturally want to retreat, fight, and push away. Pleasure, however, is more difficult to achieve because it tricks us. When it comes to pleasurable experiences, we tighten up because we don’t want to give up our preferences. In both cases, the attempt to control our experience is hopeless, yet we continue to believe we can avoid pain, and secure our customized pleasure.

Will we continue to be so nave as to chase after transient pleasure? Maybe we’re just adapting to the inevitable end of life as we age. Is it true that having more “me” oriented material possessions makes me feel more permanent? My customized diet, my specially ordered granite countertops, my custom designed walk-in closet, and my sleep number bed. The illusion of the customized life in the house and landscaping that some how are “me,” and yes, finally a Coke can that was made just for Susan.

Do you recall, however, having to sleep on the floor? Can you recall a time when you were able to get up without the aid of caffeine, dairy, or a premade meal? Do you recall sharing experiences of listening to a wide variety of music with friends? Can you think back to a time when you didn’t have your own private space to shower in, your own set of toiletries, and your own special morning and nighttime rituals? Can you recall a time when you were content with life as it was presented to you?

And did you feel more alive then?

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