This post originally appeared here.
I’m scrolling down my Facebook News Feed.
I have 1,566 friends on Facebook (most of whom I should ideally unfriend), so why do I see the same faces everyday? Are the others not as active? Or is there something else at play?
Do you ever wonder the same?
A TEDx talk I listened to in 2015 began like this: “What if I told you, that the world we live in, is something that is constructed for us, not something that is constructed by us.” While the speaker set the stage for a much broader discussion on contemporary society with these opening lines, this concept applies as profusely to something as mundane (or as grandiose) as Facebook, and by extension, the internet. That it is conditioned to reflect the whims, fancies and the subtlest insecurities within us is a fact that escapes the average digital native. In effect, every single thing we do online is a brick laid towards building our own bubbles.
Is that necessarily a bad thing? Don’t we all deserve our personal space?
Think for a second about what the internet set out to do initially. It was meant to be a vehicle for an open world with less boundaries. Elsewhere, I have argued that it’s doing the opposite. The web has democratized commerce, made governments more accountable, and made communication much easier: there’s no doubt about that. But at the same time it has made us grow apart. We’re all contributors to this in ways we seldom realize.
We love to use machines which help us find stuff we like. So we love it when we’re bathed in what things we like to click on, and so the machine automatically feeds us the stuff that we like and we end up with this rose-colored spectacles view of the world called a “filter bubble.”
That is a quote from Tim Berners Lee, the guy who in 1989 thought it’d be nice to have a network for him and and his colleagues at the European Organization for Nuclear Research to communicate. Out of this need birthed the first version of what we know today as the World Wide Web. It’s fundamental purpose: sharing information. His warning about the “filter bubble” came at a 2014 TED Talk. The problem is clear: our increasing over-reliance on technology is paving way to a grossly under-valued take of the human potential.
I claim to be a technology optimist and evangelist, so why this rant?
All is well until we cease to become cultivators of knowledge and start becoming passive consumers of information. The moment we choose to listen to only what we agree with, we choose to defy the single most important purpose of the open web. I realize now more than ever that being an evangelist of technology carries the price of loosing faith in the human ability to harness it.
All this for not being able to see enough people on Facebook, you ask.
The filter bubble works in bigger ways than limiting our circle of stalk-able friends. The things we search for; the people we follow; the photos we post; the things we buy online; everything is an extension of ourselves. The algorithms that keep the internet running use these interactions to draw pictures of ourselves that they’d keep feeding with things we find agreeable. Given the natural human tendency to discount evidence that contradicts us, we embrace these treats and sink deeper yet. The result eventually is a narrowed-down, obscured worldview – one which is curated by machines.
Jim Rohn says, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” He should consider updating this quote to include the algorithms in our lives.
I completely appreciate the role algorithms play in making life simpler. After all, they are what allow marketers (like myself) to reach consumers with an actual need for what we sell. The interaction ends with them getting their hands on something they were looking for, and us making a buck out of it. It’s a positive sum game.
Except when it isn’t.
A curated life is a time bomb. It doesn’t blow up right away, it takes its time and counts down slowly. When it it explodes, the result is not pretty. Need a relatable example? Think of the 65,844,954 Americans who clearly didn’t want Donald Trump to become the 45th President of the United States; or Mahinda Rajapaksa when he realized his folly on that cold January day.
I’ve met people who are confidently aware of the fact that they’re living in a bubble, yet choose to be perfectly fine with it. At a time when social media is the main source of news for a sizable chunk of the population, that shouldn’t be an option. Breaking the bubble requires conscious effort. Sometimes it means facing uncomfortbale facts and encountering bullish people. Sometimes it’s as easy as following Milo Yiannopoulos on Facebook.
Curation is now the inevitable zeitgeist. It’s the easy path to take – as deeper into the maze as we can until reality is lost on us. Perhaps we should strive to leave behind a better legacy.
Featured image: searchenginejournal.com