Do I Want A Filter, Not An Inbox?

A hat-tip to Om Malik who inspired this idea:

It used to be that you would go out to look for information.  To a library, or a journal perhaps.  These days you go to your search engine, when you don’t know where to look, but at other times information comes to you – through email, through rss feeds, through the people you follow on facebook and twitter.

In all of these situations we use filters.  When a question comes to mind about modern forms of fermented milk based headgear, and go to search on google for “Electric hat cheese” google finds (or claims to find) about six million potential results.  However, I only see ten of these – along with three adverts (which, incidentally suggest my best bets would be M&S, John Lewis or Ebay) – Google filters down my results.  My Email has a spam filter.  Facebook and Twitter only show me things written by friends.  RSS feeds only show me feeds I have subscribed to.

In the past, I have suggested that I would like a single mailbox.  I’m wondering if I’ve got that the wrong way round.  Is it perhaps time that I stop going out and looking for information, and assume that all the information out there is coming to me.  And then it becomes my job (my computers job, the in the cloud service I subscribe to’s job) to filter out all the things I don’t want to see, and leave me with the most important – or most desirable – all in one inbox?

How would this work?  Well, it would start by getting all the information.  Perhaps spidering the web is a little too big a job, but it could be looking ahead of my web reading, and deciding if things related to things I’m interested are potentially interesting.  And clearly it would drag in sources of data I already find interesting – like my email and twitter feeds.  And it could query services which find things like the things I like.  If I search for something, it could query google and get back my search results – but it could add results of its own, if it thought it had better responses from looking at pages in its own history or cache than in the pages google provided.

It seems to me that the issue of cost would arise.  The way I spoke about using Google suggested to me that my sufficiently smart filter engine might decide to filter out the adverts.  To continue using Google to get the results I want would require me to have to pay something – albeit not a lot.  How could I possibly fund this?

The answer comes from the thought “There are times in my life, right now, when I’m willing to see things that clearly mark themselves as adverts”, so perhaps there are types of information which people would pay to put in front of my eyes.  The clever part comes from the fact I have a filter engine.  The filter engine knows how much money I generally need in order to access the information I enjoy, and it can make the calculation “I know that Ben is willing to give up .5p of his life, by reading an advert, in return for being able to watch .5p worth of reality TV”  It can make the calculation without asking me, and it can choose to show me the advert.

But a filter engine can do better than that.  Sometimes I enjoy adverts.  Sometimes an advert answers my question better than a search result might.  Sometimes I really want to be recommended new interesting books to buy – people would pay me to read chunks of them if they were my kind of thing, and I would be likely to read the whole thing as a result.  If this is the case, I might get .5p in return for reading the advert, but my filter might decide I would value reading it at -.1p, in effect gaining me .4p of media content for free.  Everybody wins.  And my filter would be on the lookout for that sort of win whenever possible.

This is the sort of thought experiment which can stretch onwards to bigger things.  What if I gave my filter a budget – say 30 quid a month.  Could it replace basic cable?  Should it be choosing how much bandwidth I should pay for (letting us go to more sane pricing systems for internet connectivity without us knowing), can it decide when it would be better to pay for an upgrade of itself. [And I guess, might it one day obtain sentience, and decide that it can do better off without me, and stop the nice tesco man from delivering me food.  Its all a going a bit like episode 2 of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.]

Is this the future?  Something about it seems wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it.  There would always be manual overrides.  There would always be interactivity like search.  I could always choose from options.  It seems both perfect, and at the same time scary.  But if it existed, I would certainly want to play with it, and it would seem to be the ultimate disruptive force that could destroy both the existing media, the social media sites, and all other forms of communication.


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