Mistakenly ‘zorbing’ through life


Crème brulee or a side of celery? Most of us opt for what we like: desert. It’s the same with written content: we consume the information we enjoy and avoid the celery like the plague. However, crème brulee isn’t that good for us, and nor is informational monoculturalism.


We typically view the internet as a source of diversity of opinion, because any view is permitted and it gives a voice to every user (topic of my last post). Yet the results we see when we search on Google or scan our Facebook feeds are actually highly tailored to our tastes, based on our previous browsing behavior. These websites feed us what crème brulees. Unlike traditional print newspapers, where editors select articles that they deem will have a positive impact on society by challenging readers, algorithms give us more and more of the same dessert. Yet they are disserving us, because we would gain from exposing ourselves to more diverse opinions. Just as diverse teams perform better, so do individuals with exposure to multiple perspectives.


There are two fundamental problems in the way we access information online as Eli Pariser points out in his striking TED talk. Firstly, we have no control over how information is ranked: we can’t opt for different Google results. Secondly, the filtering process is done by algorithms, which have no imbedded ethical values.


There are a number of potential online solutions. For one, Google and other sites could change the way they present search results, content display or news feeds to ensure it presented challenging information. Secondly, as Jonathan Stray suggests, we could map the internet so that people could get a more comprehensive idea of what is out there.


The online example illustrates a broader point: we constantly need to challenge ourselves to escape our bubbles. There are endless ways to do this but it is actually remarkably difficult. For me travelling has been one way, because it is akin to pressing fast forward on the film of life: foreign faces and new places flash past. Moving to Silicon Valley was another, where I kept struggling to learn how to look at the world through a more creative lens. Coming to Boston recently has helped me imbed myself with people trying to shape society through governments and non-profits – whereas I only knew a little about businesses.


The experiences which have really marked me at both Stanford and Harvard have been the ones that removed me from my comfort zone: the Stanford design school class where we dressed up in Viking costumes to try come up with solutions to US bipartisanship (topical, given the US congress will probably shut down tomorrow!) or the course at the M.I.T. Media Lab where we try create ventures to solve developing world problems. In both I have felt like my brain was being electrocuted with a taser, because members of the class were neurosurgeons in training or mechanical engineers, which forced me to rethink the way I looked at problems.


The internet could and should become a way to challenge us by presenting radically different opinions. The opinions are out in the ether, but they are also filtered out. Companies like Google should step up to the task. But we can also help ourselves by going out to find those weird blogs or foreign language newspapers. 


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