Bubbles and Brains

bubbleI’ve been seeing the term Filter Bubble periodically on various news pages that I frequent.  It’s a term that, as far as I can tell, was coined by Eli Pariser for the title of his book.  The book’s longish slug line provides a pretty good definition of the term: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think.  We all know we’re being tracked.  I go to a website I’ve visited before and even before I log in, it says Hi, Bud up in the corner.   Of course, that’s because when I last visited, the site left a cookie on my computer that identifies me.  It also kept track of what I looked at on the website.  The same thing happens when you use search engines like Google and Yahoo.  If you have a Google account … which toys like smartphones and smart TVs encourage us to have … you may have seen videos you’ve watched on your computer show up on your YouTube history on your TV.   Of course Amazon keeps track of what I look at and buy so it can make helpful (and profitable) recommendations on future visits.  I actually like that it suggests music along the lines of what I buy … with record stores gone, it’s a great way to find new artists.  But since I’m a regular Amazon user, they do know a lot about me.  And with social media like Facebook we intentionally and inadvertently toss gobs of information about ourselves into cyberspace, where someone is carefully tracking it.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot more comfortable with businesses tracking me in order to sell me something than the National Security Agency tracking me for who knows what.  That’s a sad commentary on our government, but that’s perhaps a subject for another post.

According to Eli Pariser, a Filter Bubble is what occurs when internet sites use all of this tracking information to decide what to show us.  For example, if all I ever click on are football articles, it would seem harmless for a webpage to feature more football when I view it.  But is it?  Does that mean that important news doesn’t show up unless I scroll way down the page?   More to the point, suppose I consistently click on conservative websites, then when I Google, say, gun control, pro gun control articles will appear higher on the pages than they will for my liberal-clicking neighbor down the street.  In a ten minute video on TED.com, Pariser argues that we get trapped in a Filter Bubble and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview, which will ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.

We humans already have two built-in psychological traits that tend to make us close minded: confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.  According to Science Daily, In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.  For example, liberals tend to track down liberal-leaning news and interpret events from a liberal point of view.  Simply Psychology says that cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance).  When we encounter a news source that contradicts our beliefs … say one that supports gay marriage when we believe it’s a sin … our inclination is not to read it or to mentally shred its arguments.  So, if Eli Pariser is correct, the algorithms used to personalize our web experience bring the considerable computing power of the internet to support our confirmation bias and minimize our cognitive dissonance.  Not everyone thinks he’s right.  Geeking with Greg says that Personalization seeks to enhance discovery, to help you find novel and interesting things. It does not seek to just show you the same things you could have found on your own and cites several good examples.

So, what do I think? With or without website personalization, we are more than capable of finding evidence to support our own views and of deciding for everyone else exactly what would make them more open-minded. I found it interesting that Eli Pariser started a website called Upworthy that he says is designed to draw attention to topics that really matter on a mass level, and help it win out against the empty information calories.  As it turns out, though, Eli is very liberal and most of the articles on Upworthy that will broaden my horizons will broaden them to the left. Another site, DuckDuckGo offers a very nice presentation on how the Filter Bubble works, along with a search engine that promises not to track you and use no filters.  The reviews of DuckDuckGo have been pretty good so I may try it.   So we can try a less familiar search search engine with no filtering, we can use a website where someone else decides what should broaden our horizons or live with what we’ve got.  But we are always going against filters, whether they are our own confirmation bias or online filtering algorithms. If I don’t bother to read alternative viewpoints on a subject, I will not be informed, no matter what search engine I use.

In my own reading of the online news, I use a news homepage personalized by me using the iGoogle alternative, igHome, featuring feeds from a variety of sources. There’s the Orange County Register, ABCNews, BBC, Heritage Foundation, The National Review, The New Republic, Real Clear Politics, and the Huffington Post. That makes it easier for me to easier for me to challenge or broaden my world view when I’m so inclined.  Because at the end of the day, I’m responsible for using my own brain to burst my Filter Bubble and open-mindedness is an inside job.

What do you think?

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One Comment on “Bubbles and Brains”

  1. Coming East Says:

    I had not heard of the Filter Bubble until I read your post. It’s amazing how sophisticated technology has become. It knows us better than our spouses I some ways!

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