A key Enlightenment value is a commitment to a spirit of enquiry, a recognition of the importance of opening oneself to a variety of opinions, experiences and knowledge, accepting that such exposure may cause you to alter your existing views or act differently.
Easier said than done. Even in the 17th Century.
Here is Francis Bacon on the subject
The human understanding, when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things … to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises or … sets aside and rejects in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination, the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.
This is another way of describing confirmation bias. We are dealing with a tenacious, deeply ingrained aspect of human nature, therefore it becomes all the more important to guard against it.
Now imagine a world reconfigured to provide you with a constant stream of information designed to support your current beliefs. It plays into your established interests, never seriously questioning anything. It only connects you with people who think like you.
We call these “filter bubbles”. They have always been around but, as with so many things, the internet has put them on steroids.
Obviously, we still have free will but some find it harder to wriggle away than others. Many online environments are designed and constructed to keep your eye on the page. Silicon Valley employs some of the world’s smartest psychologists. They know how our brains work. Big money bonuses go to anyone devising new and better ways to lock us in.
Then there’s the attention economy, operating as another kind of shackle.
Myth v reality
Filter bubbles undermine an oft’ repeated utopian idea about the internet providing a way to draw people together or allow for dialogue across previously difficult boundaries of nationality, culture, religion and politics. Let’s leave the Tower of Babel on one side for the moment but it ought to figure somewhere in the calculus of global harmony.
Sure, we know of cases where young Palestinians and young Israelis hang out together (virtually), Catholics speak to Protestants in Northern Ireland (ditto), pro-environmental action flash mobs are put together, people organize and contribute to good causes, but these examples need to be weighed in the balance. It is misleading – nothing more than marketing hype – to camouflage the difficulties by adopting the pose of Mr Pangloss or attacking critics as Luddites.
Building communities or digging deeper trenches?
The suggestion that the internet is only holding up a mirror to society is hardly a point in its favour. There are quite a lot of things going on in society that we must know about but that is not a reason for putting them on parade.
This can magnify, amplify, even normalize, encourage or promote some really evil stuff. When it comes to evil we should not be in the amplifying, promoting, encouraging or reflecting business but rather be in the reducing business.
Thus, far from drawing people together, as former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown aptly put it
The internet often functions like a shouting match without an umpire. Trying to persuade people through social media seems to matter less than finding an echo chamber that reinforces one’s own point of view
Achieving a consensus in a wilderness of silos is difficult, if not impossible.
Some companies describe what they do as “building communities”. Maybe they should look for a more accurate term? “Digging deeper trenches”. How does that sound?
Children and filter bubbles
The relevance of all this to young people hardly needs explaining. Unless we are on a mission to indoctrinate children, unless we positively want to keep them away from different ways of looking at the world, we start from the premise that every child deserves to be able to embrace the widest possible horizon.
Through education, through teaching critical thinking and media literacy, we strive to give each child the best possible start to that voyage of self-discovery we call growing up.
If it turns out the internet is fighting, determinedly and effectively, even if not intentionally, to push children in the exact opposite direction, what are we going to do? Answers, please, on an old-fashioned, non-virtual postcard.
We cannot force anyone to mix, online or offline, with others who hold different views and, as a good friend said to me, it would anyway be bizarre if we insisted that members of anti-fascist groups had to sing the Horst Wessel Lied at least once per year.
But might there be other things that are scalable and effective or which at any rate ameliorate the tendency towards the prison of blind conformity and sameness?
I am limiting this to a plea to ensure we look for ways that don’t force children into straight jackets too early in their lives. I will leave it to others far cleverer than me to work out what we do about poor old adults.
Lastly, and obviously, this is too important an issue to be left solely to the industry to resolve. Much larger interests are at stake.
I think this is going to be important in 2018.