Sunday, October 14, 2012

Truth: A Matter of Taste

According to Wikipedia, the term "filter bubble" was coined by Eli Pariser in 2011. Basically, it's what happens when "users get less exposure to conflicting viewpoints and are isolated intellectually in their own informational bubble." His book focuses on technology, mainly showing how companies like Google and Facebook use algorithms and user-supplied data to cater to the assumed wants of their "customers," and he goes on to explore the ramifications of creating and collecting unprecedented stores of personal data (much of which is sold to data collection companies, advertisers and various other third party interests). For example, someone searching for information on climate change might get more results confirming their view of it as a hoax if Google has data on that user (or household) suggesting that this is their view. While reading Pariser's book I remember wishing he had applied the "filter bubble" concept much more widely to include all technology, and then once again—even if only very briefly—to comment on how one's entire culture can act as a kind of filter bubble.

Because it fits with my previous O'Reilly / Stewart post, and because I was reminded of Pariser's Filter Bubble when I re-read it, I wanted to re-post something I wrote in 2008. The difference between what I wrote briefly about and what Pariser wrote about in his book is that the bubble he talks about relates solely to the Internet whereas the bubble I outlined pertains to a certain psychological mindset that various conditions and technologies help foster. Now, I'm not claiming to be the first person to note such things, but over the past week or so I've heard various news anchors and pundits—encouraged by the recent Presidential debate—talk about "truth as taste" and "filter" bubbles (though not exactly in those terms), most recently this morning by Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC (give me a break; I was washing dishes!!!). And they've been doing so as though the ideas were new developments or insights as opposed to being things that were fairly apparent at least four years ago. I can't say I haven't found that frustrating.

A: Boy, it sure is cold out!
B: What's the temperature?
A: Mid 30s.
B: No way! It definitely doesn't feel like it.
A: Well, that's what my car thermometer said on my way home from work.
B: Hah! Do you know who makes car thermometers?
A: Who?
B: Liberals!

"The masses have never thirsted after truth... Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim." Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

The rise of the Internet has given people an easy means in which to combat corporate media biasone of its most important functionsbut along with that it has given people an easy means in which to combat what they perceive to be the bias of reality itself. The Internet allows people to stay isolated within a very small frame of reference, reading only a very narrow and specific range of opinions. Instead of researching, people only read articles found on their favorite websites. Instead of investigating sources, people believe only the things that fit in with what they want to hear and disregard the things that don't. This is true of all forms of media, of course. Radio and television have so many channels and personalities that all one has to do is tune out everything that doesn't fit into ones ideological framework. We no longer have news in this country, we have companies that sell various "realities" to their consumers.

During an interview on CNN, Joe the Plumber was asked about some of the back taxes he had failed to pay. His response was another question: "Why is the media vetting me more than they are vetting Barack Obama, someone who's running for President?" So what was Joe really asking? What part of Obama's past was not already explored by the media? His association with Bill Ayers? The endless clips of Revered Wright that were played over and over for two weeks and then emerged again later in the campaign? The fact that he admitted to using cocaine? His voting record? The fact that he wants to "spread the wealth around"? What exactly did "Joe the Public" not know about Barack Obama? Was he referring to how the media didn't expose Obama as a Muslim? Was he talking about how Obama wasn't born in the United States and used a fake birth certificate? Instead of believing that perhaps these things weren't carried by the mainstream media because they didn't stand up to the scrutiny of professional journalism, or that the sources he was reading and listening to were not after truth but a McCain Presidency, Joe decided to believe that these truths remained hidden because of a worldwide, highly organized Liberal Media Conspiracy. Or perhaps he was completely oblivious to the fact that Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright were covered at length by CNN because the sources he got his news from told him these issues were being ignored. He never bothered to check because he had no incentive to step outside his bubble. This is a tendency we all share, and one that we must constantly force ourselves to deal with, especially in our super-saturated, information-overloaded culture. (For criticism of CNN, see this post.)

1 comment:

Tyler said...

"Now, many young Republicans worry, they are the ones in the hermetically sealed bubble — except it’s not confined to geography but rather a self-selected media universe in which only their own views are reinforced and an alternate reality is reflected.


"Even this past weekend, days after a convincing Obama win, it wasn’t hard to find fringes of the right who are convinced he did so only because of mass voter fraud and mysteriously missing military ballots. Like a political version of Thelma and Louise, some far-right conservatives are in such denial that they’d just as soon keep on driving off the cliff than face up to a reality they’d rather not confront.

"But if the Fox News-talk radio-Drudge Report axis is the most powerful force in the conservative cocoon, technology has rendered even those outlets as merely the most popular destinations in the choose-your-own-adventure news world in which consumers are more empowered than ever.

"Facebook and Twitter feeds along with email in-boxes have taken the place of the old newspaper front page, except that the consumer is now entirely in charge of what he or she sees each day and can largely shut out dissenting voices. It’s the great irony of the Internet era: People have more access than ever to an array of viewpoints, but also the technological ability to screen out anything that doesn’t reinforce their views.

'The Internet amplifies talk radio and cable news, and provides distribution for other sources like Newsmax,' said Trey Grayson, 40, the former Kentucky secretary of state and the current head of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. 'Then your friends, who usually agree with you, disseminate the same stories on Facebook and Twitter. And you assume that everyone agrees with you!' "