Algorithmic cures for gift anxiety

With the “social graph” ramping up, it was only a matter of time before recommendation engines would stop suggesting to us merely what we might be interested in and start telling us what our friends want. It certainly seems to make more sense and is far less epistemologically threatening. Rather than implicitly suggesting that we don’t really know ourselves and that we are machine parse-able despite all our deep interiority, the recommendation engine for friends merely lifts the burden of having to pay enough attention to them to get them a gift that’s not completely inappropriate. The WSJ‘s All Things Digital blog has details about one of Walmart’s algorithmic holiday solutions, called Shopycat:

Since gifting is a practice humans naturally struggle with, maybe algorithms can do a better job. After using Shopycat, Harinarayan learned his wife was a fan of “Game of Thrones,” the TV series on HBO. She has posted several times on Facebook about the show, but he hadn’t noticed. “Facebook is so transient and things flow by. Here’s a way to aggregate it all and put it in one place,” he said.

This seems to be the application that Facebook was made for. The “keeping in touch” and whatnot is all so much cover for the core functionality: allowing for the translation of the self into a shopping list.

I’m sure this should probably be hailed as an economistic victory against the deadweight loss of Christmas. More people will get what they want, and less time and money will be “wasted” figuring it out. But in an algorithmically airless world of perfect emotional efficiency, where every gift given is the right one and the risk of social faux pas are eliminated, I’m not sure what will be left of the holiday spirit, which seems to hinge ultimately on a generous amount of familial forgiveness. Bad gifts measure the distance we’re trying to close with more important gestures than bequeathing gifts.