The filtered reality or why you think you are is always right
Jan 10, 2013
The Filtered Reality: Personalization and Its Impact on Democracy and Knowledge in the Digital Age.
A democracy is only built with disagreement, discussion, and clash of ideas. This is one of the premises on which a strong and independent press is a sine qua non factor in democratic societies. Countries that have a press with state origins or highly dependent on state favors or the establishment are chained to the fetid mud pit that is more or less explicit authoritarianism, with distinct variations ranging from absolute dictatorships (such as Saudi Arabia) to dysfunctional democracies like Brazil, India or Mexico. And the trend is for the situation to worsen with a tool that is rarely seen as negative - personalization, or as author Eli Parisier dubbed it, the "filter bubble" or Filter Bubble. You might think that increasingly, your opinion is the most sensible, but you are probably just accessing the reality in which you spend more and are more satisfied - and it is incredibly far from the truth.
The stimulation of discussion as a builder of knowledge is a concept that has its foundation in the religious reality of the end of the Middle Ages, when a guy named Martin Luther realized that the sale of pardons by the Catholic Church was a scoundrel's thing. The Protestant breakup not only changed the bias of religion - it also cemented the different path that all knowledge would have in non-Catholic Christian Western societies. The challenge to prevailing knowledge is encouraged in countries where Christianity changed color after the Protestant Reformation and condemned in Catholic countries, where knowledge was monopolized by the Church, and dissenting voices usually ended up silenced in the fires or swords, which included all non-Christians.
Following the example of Jewish culture (the first people in history to eradicate illiteracy), the countries that divorced from Rome and the Vatican had much more favorable conditions for debate and, consequently, for science. "If I could see further it was because I climbed on the shoulders of giants", stated Isaac Newton, in a very didactic assertion of the reasoning behind the construction of scientific wisdom. This mindset has persisted and it is no coincidence that the first newspapers in the world flourished on the trail opened by Luther. Democracies undoubtedly took decades of blood and struggle to build, but none of the fundamental disputes failed to be debated by antagonists who came to deeply understand the theses of their adversaries. From Marx to McLuhan and many after him, all the thinkers who made a contribution to humanity submerged in the ideas they confronted to polish their own reflections, an intellectual enhancement similar to Darwinian evolution.
If digital media brings a great risk, it is not that of "piracy", cartelization, false moral dilemmas or "excess of freedom" (if such a thing exists). The risk we run is that of isolating ourselves in customized bubbles of consumption and knowledge, with the filters being determined by the way we spend our money and "like" things.
Personalization is the master key of the experience of 10 out of 10 technology products and, like with any technology, it is not bad in itself, but it carries the seed of evolution and chaos. More and more we can avoid unpleasant subjects, uncomfortable ideas, provocations, uncomfortable news and dozens of other things that arouse guilt, anger, frustration, despair, sadness. Personalization can either put us in touch with everything we need to know or put us inside the Matrix of William Gibson and the Wachowski Brothers, where we can live our lives without realizing that the new SUV cost the life of a worker in a distant country. Our digital DNA is being programmed with each click. The consequences of this can be disastrous.
The disaster here does not come in the form of the destruction of an industry like the content industry (a lie that Hollywood and the major record labels have been trying to preach since antediluvian times), nor in the end of printed newspapers, whose doom is almost exclusively due to their selfish shortsightedness, lack of vision, corporatism, and complete detachment from the role they have in society. The disaster is individual. Human and social patterns often reproduce adaptations of biological patterns. Just as in nature, where racial miscegenation has always been a support for the refinement of the species, in the new digital world, ultra-personalized digital experiences are enclosing people and groups in ghettos where the reproduction of characteristics leads to distortions and problematic individuals.
When Google decided to personalize its search results according to the common interests of each user, it was trying to offer the best answers for each search. The company, which alongside Apple and Facebook are the real driving forces of scientific research in communication in the 21st century, certainly did not imagine that the personalization of its algorithms would lead to the creation of silos of knowledge, just like none of the competitors who also bet on the development of exclusive experiences for each user. But the fact is that never, in democratic times, has the West had its population so politically polarized.
The work of the press is central to this issue. Studies of economics suggest that, historically, newspapers in general tend to position themselves to the left of the center due to a matter of market rather than posture. Healthy societies certainly followed this trend. The logic of systematic opposition is stupid in politics, but mandatory in journalism. It doesn't matter who is in power - what is necessary is to tell the reader what they need to know about. Newspapers promoted ideas from various groups and stimulated debate. They provided the reader with input for discussion and, in many cases, contradicted the reader. This reader did not only buy information. They also bought a percentage of citizenship.
In the last two decades of the last century and the first of the 21st century, however, newspapers bought into the idea that they basically dealt with a product that had to meet market demands. Large corporations bought smaller newspapers and today media ownership concentration in the United States is only smaller than banking (where 80% of banks belong to 10 groups). The reader was increasingly treated as a client. As newspaper revenues dried up, the reader became more and more of a customer, and when that happens, there is no journalism.
Digital and ultra-personalization have only exacerbated this picture. When Google delivers a different result in an identical search because users have opposite political views, it is optimizing its own product and being more efficient. However, it is also increasingly isolating each user within their own bubble. A professor at the University of Maryland argues that the weakening of newspapers and the omnipresent digital access are two of the most relevant reasons for the radicalism of the American political scene, where a president has not governed with a majority in Congress and Senate since 1995. But the phenomenon repeats itself in practically all democracies that are now increasingly similar. [As the Brazilian Empire politician, Holanda Cavalcanti*(http://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partido_Conservador_(Brasil_Império)), used to say, "nothing is more similar to a conservative than a liberal in power".
The debate on social networks follows the same pattern with rare glimpses of change. Rabid oppositionists and fanatical government supporters share the same things only with people with whom they identify, and very, very rarely does the virtual discussion gain the dimension it should have - that capable of generating knowledge and new wisdom, the same one that made Newton climb on the shoulders of giants. Brazil well reproduces the deadlock that locks the political scenario with a corrupt government and opposition that are faithful reproductions of each other, from the modernizing discourse to the justifications for the occasions when they were caught doing what they do best: draining public blood.
Personalization is not responsible for political runovers, just as wine is not the cause of alcoholism. Society is. The great drama at the moment is to manage to unmask the demagogues and hypocrites who take advantage of this radicalization in time to avoid the worst. This rarely happens, but it happens sooner or later.