The personalization - and polarization - of America

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]


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The personalization movement, enabled significantly by communication and design technologies as well as global manufacturing supply chains, is well under way...

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If I want to, I can personalize – and often even custom design – my shoes, my clothes, my jewelry, my car, my house, my computer, my soda, my candy, my cell phone ringtone, and so on. Even when I can't design myself what I purchase, the seemingly limitless choices that I have allow me to customize my lifestyle in infinite variations (how many kinds of toothpaste or dog food are there?). Sites like CafePress even allow me to custom brand my own goods if the current range of choices isn't satisfactory.

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The personalization movement applies to where we work as well. Richard Florida has written extensively about how we are sorting ourselves into communities of talent. Creative, talented people are migrating to certain cities and college towns. Companies are following people rather than the other way around. As a result, the vast majority of economic productivity and growth is coming from these 'creative communities' while smaller communities or non-creative cities are left behind.

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Not only does the personalization movement extend to our jobs, it also applies to our homes. As The Big Sort describes, even within our communities we are clustering with other like-minded people. Whole neighborhoods reflect particular lifestyles and exhibit little ideological or lifestyle diversity. Finding someone in your neighborhood that doesn't look, act, or think like you is becoming increasingly difficult.

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Never before have our politics been so polarized. The so-called 'independent voter' is all but nonexistent. Voters that actually listen to both sides and then make a decision comprise less than 10% of the voting population. The rest of us already have sorted ourselves out on one side or the other. The key to politics today is mobilizing the voter base on your side, not persuading independents. The key to the 2008 Presidential election will be the Right's mobilization of church groups, civic organizations, and other groups that traditionally exhibit stronger ties versus the Left's mobilization of younger voters, urban areas, and other groups that traditionally exhibit looser ties.

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Personalization even extends to education. Between private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, online schools, and home schools, the options for parents to customize their children's education have never been greater. The same goes for our religious institutions, as churches, temples, mosques, and other places of worship increasingly segment their services to target particular groups.

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As I noted in my earlier post about narrowcasting, we also are personalizing our information streams. Our magazines, music sources, television stations, Internet sites, and news channels all are more customizable and individualized than ever before. The likelihood that we might run into information that runs counter to our existing beliefs is less and less probable with each passing day.

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So where's our common ground? As we increasingly utilize digital technologies, employment choices, neighborhood selection, and other lifestyle decisions to segment ourselves, where will we find the glue that holds our country together? Shouldn't we be talking about this as a society? Doesn't this need to be discussed somewhere in our educational system?

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