x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Put a penny in the slot and try something new for a change

A range of new startups and campaigns aim to reinsert spontaneity and randomness into contemporary living.

New apps can help restore randomness into our lives. Illustration by Alex Belman
New apps can help restore randomness into our lives. Illustration by Alex Belman

Looking for a great novel to read? Feel like a trip to the movies and want to make sure you watch the best new release? Or maybe you’re planning a day out, and looking for advice on where’s hot right now in your city.

Whatever you’re planning to consume – content, a product, an experience – one thing is certain: you’ve never had more data on which to base your choice. Some of it is created by other consumers, on a plethora of reviews websites.

Many recommendations, though, are not the product of other minds: they come via algorithms that crunch vast amounts of data to tell you that “other users who liked that also like this”: see Amazon for a prime example.

In short, your experience as a consumer has been transformed by instantly accessible, highly useful, free information. Back when your parents wanted to buy a new camera, all they had was a copy of Which? magazine and a prayer. You have it pretty good by comparison, right?

Nevertheless, there’s a growing feeling among some that while we’ve gained much, we’ve lost something, too. In a world where so many of our choices are now shaped by data, aren’t we losing touch with the joy of old-fashioned discovery? The movie you see on a whim and fall in love with. The album you find by chance that becomes the soundtrack to your summer.

Now, a spate of start-ups are working on this problem: finding new ways to inject randomness back into our lives. Among the leaders of the pack is Yplan (as in “why plan?”), a London-based start-up that’s just received US$12 million (Dh44.1m) in funding from investors.

Yplan’s premise is simple: an app that, each day, offers a short, curated list of events happening in London tonight. It’s 6pm, and you have the evening free? Check the app, see what’s happening and book the event that takes your fancy. In this way, the team behind Yplan say they can help Londoners embrace the spontaneity they so long for. Next, Yplan has designs on New York City.

Other services are also picking up on the desire for a little more random. UK-based Glossy Box has proven a hit with British women, as has GlamBox in the UAE: both send a monthly box of make-up and toiletries to subscribers, and you don’t know what you’re going to get until it arrives. The surprise, and the discovery, is half the fun. Meanwhile Sean Parker (yes, the Napster and Facebook guy) has launched Airtime, a platform that connects users to one another at random for live web chat.

At heart, this reaction against algorithmic recommendations and data-guided choice is about a deep-seated sense that the choices we make, the products we consume, the content we engage with, are a part of who we are as people. What’s more, if we never allow ourselves to venture beyond the walled gardens of our own preferences and past behaviours, how will we ever change, or grow?

The start-ups tackling these questions are surely involved in a noble endeavour. But don’t forget, there’s still another way to achieve genuine, open, random discovery. Step away from the PC screen for five minutes, leave the smartphone at home and just walk.

David Mattin is the lead strategist at trendwatching.com

For more trends go to www.thenational.ae/trends


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