Whatever happened to thinking for yourself?
A new website – called “Let Simon Decide” – purports to help users make major life choices, like whether to get married (or divorced), sell (or buy) a home or even undergo surgery. You just plug in some background information about yourself, the options you’re trying to decide between, various factors at play, and rate the importance of each factor for each option. A few clicks later, the algorithm spits out an answer.
There seems to be a certain eerie logic behind Simon, but the process is soulless. If you’re desperate enough to let a computer program decide your fate, you might be just as well off trying a Magic 8-Ball.
Simon – a bespectacled cartoon character who happens to share a first name with the pop culture figure best known for offering blunt advice and quick assessments – isn’t your pal. He isn’t even real. Plans for the site, though, include building a social network around decision-making – which at least would provide a somewhat more personal repository for advice, if only from strangers.
Making life-altering decisions is a very human process, one that’s best performed in conversation with trusted confidantes. There’s also something to be said for going with your gut, which, as Malcolm Gladwell tells us in "Blink," isn’t all together a bad thing.
Simon isn’t evil – there’s some value in having a program that will help you lay out pros and cons, which, in consultation with others, might add something to the mix. But there’s a danger to making decisions in isolation, and yielding personal responsibility to a machine. You can’t go back and cry on Simon's shoulder if your choice goes awry.
There are no ads on "Let Simon Decide," but that doesn’t mean the creators aren't looking for a payoff. The site was produced by Ayax Systems, a consumer research firm that apparently plans to use the anonymously collected data for marketing purposes.
“Let Simon Decide helps both consumers and marketers gain unparalleled insight,” Ayax’s website declares. “Consumers find clarity about upcoming personal and life decisions, while marketers get access to a goldmine of aggregated, anonymized data.”
Hmm, so folks who are trying to sell you products are going to know a lot about who you are and what you're thinking – even if they don't know your name. Let’s channel the Magic 8-Ball for a moment and ask, “Is Let Simon Decide the best choice for making life-altering decisions?”
“Don’t count on it.”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.