Friday, June 03, 2011

Filter Bubbles

Given that I have a lot of time on my hands lately, I've taken to watching TED videos. What is TED? Here's some information from the About Ted page:
TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences -- the TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh UK each summer -- TED includes the award-winning TEDTalks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

The annual TED conferences, in Long Beach/Palm Springs and Edinburgh, bring together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).

On, we make the best talks and performances from TED and partners available to the world, for free. More than 900 TEDTalks are now available, with more added each week. All of the talks are subtitled in English, and many are subtitled in various languages. These videos are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license, so they can be freely shared and reposted.

Our mission: Spreading ideas.
Some of it is pretty highbrow stuff, but much that's interesting is.

Anyway, I just finished watching this video and wanted to comment on it immediately. If you have 9 minutes and 5 seconds to spare, go watch it; if you don't, I'll not do it justice with this synopsis:
The speaker fears that instead of presenting us with a "worldful" of information, the internet instead is allowing each of us to live in a "bubble" wherein we get only the information we want to get--to the exclusion of ideas that challenge ours. This often happens behind our backs, as search engines use detailed algorithms to feed us information based on several criteria (e.g., our location, our browser, our search history, etc.). This lack of diversity of ideas being presented to us threatens, among other things, democracy itself.
I'll state up front that the author labeled himself a "progressive", and at that point I feared he was going to suggest some form of legislation mandating that we receive information we might not want. I was ready to award myself the Prescience Prize when he talked about newspaper editors as the old "gatekeepers of information", and his fears that nameless, faceless algorithms , without humanity and ethics, are replacing editors as gatekeepers. I was ready to pounce--but he never suggested mandates or legislation; rather, he appealed to search engine companies (Larry and Sergey in particular) to make their algorithms transparent and to allow users to have control over their own filters, to find and have access to whatever information they want regardless of their search history. In this I applaud the speaker.

If my tangent has taken us too far from the speaker's thesis, let's review it: that search engines are filtering content for us, without our knowledge, with the result that we don't even have access to a variety of points of view. Among other things, this is bad for democracy.

Again, I feared he was going to suggest legislative mandates. He spoke about intellectual fine dining vs. intellectual fast food, and I wondered: who is to determine that which is valuable and that which isn't? After all, is not one man's garbage another man's treasure? To his credit, he appeals to search engine companies to allow individuals to determine their own filters. He suggests society would be better off if people were to be presented with the opportunity, at least, to access information that might run counter to their own world views, and on this point he and I happily agree. Allow me to show a case in point:

In my Cross-cultural, Language Acquisition and Development (CLAD) classes I was introduced to the writings of one Paulo Freire, a Brazilian socialist who posited that rather than telling students what they need to learn, we should allow them to explore ideas that interest them. While it sounds wonderful, I side more with the idea of Bertrand Russell that education should get a child to see what's beyond his own nose.

You might think I'm being hypocritical here, stating above that people should choose what they want and here stating that we should force a curriculum on children, but honestly, let's not go there. I'm willing to be a bit more paternalistic with children than I am with adults, and for millenia that's been a reasonable position to hold. If you want to argue it, let's not do so here.

Back to the TED speech: I compare the speaker's point to Russell's in that we need to allow access to a wide world of information, and that we should resist a "tyranny of the local and immediate", especially when it is imposed on us without our permission.

We should be free to choose, and not be force fed information by either a human or an algorithmic gatekeeper. It's the same reason I oppose the so-called fairness doctrine.

Update: added the last two sentences.


allen (in Michigan) said...

I wish the kid would've learned a bit about the history of journalism before popping off about how slanted our view of the world is becoming due to personalisation. The fact is, journalistic ethics, i.e. "We report, you decide", is entirely a function of the free market.

Newspapers were traditionally, nakedly partisan. The language they used and lies they traded in would've made the editorial writers of the past right at home on any comment area or forum on the Internet. Somewhere in the 1890s, during the newspaper "wars", it was objectivity that started to become a selling point because the partisanship so evident on the editorial pages was believed to infect the news. Past is prolog, hey?

So newspapers, and the journalistic profession, responded with the concept of journalistic ethics. After all, if you could pick a newspaper that just reported the news on the news pages and a newspaper that couldn't which is the obvious choice? A "progressive" will be drawn to lefty opinions but they're less likely to want a "progressive" weather report. Well, at least back then.

Newspapers proliferated, in part, to provide differing editorial slants so people could pick the one that conformed to their world-view. Detroit had, at least by the time I became aware of things, a choice between the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, right and left. From what I've read they were the remaining two of a larger number of competing newspapers a typical occurrence as competition and unions squeezed the profits out of the newspaper business. But content was supposed to be sacrosanct. The news was supposed to be reported, with varying degrees of sensationalism, objectively.

The irony is that the slanted viewpoint offered by a newspapers of an earlier age is being recycled on the Internet but with the interesting wrinkle of the bias not the result an editorial board but by the individual doing the reading.

So is the danger that because we get what we want we'll never seek any other views, or any other subjects, then those we prefer?

I don't think so. If you want to know whether to carry an umbrella tomorrow that information doesn't come in ideological flavors and the technologies that Pariser is worried about will necessarily develop a certain "leakiness" or become irrelevant. What's changed though is that it'll be the individual who decides not only on what they see but on how much of what they're not interested in they end up seeing anyway.

Ellen K said...

my district is big on Technology. But our students gorge on intellectual fast food because like Big Macs, it's cheap and easy. But in response these kids demonstrate shalllow cultural knowledge. The first answer on Google isn't always the best one.