A TED Talk I watched in 2011 has stayed with me and marked me deeply. It was presented by Eli Periser and he talked about ‘Filter Bubbles’ that were being created online, and how they were a threat to democracy.
The part of the talk that stayed with me all these years was this- 2 different people searched for the term ‘Egypt’, he said. And based on their search history and various other data points collected by Google, they both got completely different results. One got search results linking to the uprising, while the other got results related to tourism in Egypt, with not a word of the recent revolt.
This just blew my mind. Yes, not getting access to the same information was indeed a threat to our democracy, but also, it was a threat to our common reality. There would come a time when our realities will no longer coincide and any meaningful dialogue would be impossible.
I brought this up with my colleagues the next day. My then boss actively endorsed this phenomenon. His more-or-less exact words were ‘It’s great that they know who I am and what I like. That way they can show me results, ads, etc. of things I like, and I do not have to waste my time sifting through all the garbage that I do not like.’ I was too shocked to retaliate. Also, like I said, he was my boss.
Well, it is now 2018. Yes, online stores have gotten pretty good at recommending me my next purchase, and the ads that I see everywhere are typically relevant to me, and my experience of using the net seems easy, quick, and smooth. But, Periser was right. I only see what I have already seen, in a slightly different variation. My every click online is tracked, stored, and analysed, and the only content I see online is a close relative of my past activity. Even when I actively look for opposing views, the content I tend to see is still still true to my existing perspective, irrespective of the subject matter. What I already believe in has created an echo chamber and isolated me in what Periser called ‘a web of one’.
And what is the price we have all paid for this collectively? The division of American democracy along party lines, the uncertain future of Britain’s relationship with Europe, the still-persistent denial of climate change, the rise of religious fundamentalism around the world… death and destruction caused by wilful ignorance of any truth other than one’s subjective reality.
The more we live in this echo chamber, the more we are becoming immune to opposing, challenging, eye-opening perspectives. The more we become entrenched in our personal reality, the less we remain tethered to that common reality that connects us all. Today, more than ever, it has become important that we break out of this echo chamber we live in online and create a way to access, and open ourselves to, opinions of people from around the world.