Borders Blues

It’s not like I was a frequent customer. Its absence doesn’t directly affect me at all. But Borders Books is no more, and I have the Borders blues.

Oh, I freely admit I’ve been an Amazon junkie for a long while. (Sorry, Steven.) But bookstores are not shopping sites only; they’re destinations. Bookstores are for the imagination, not just the objective. Bookstores are for wandering, and quick reading of books I would never have picked up anywhere else, and reminding of those things I have “always” wanted to read. Bookstores are about exposure to the thinking and wishing of diverse ages and tastes and perspectives and works. Bookstores are shrines to curiosity and creativity. And they should not go away.

But my blues are more than nostalgia. They are a kind of anxiety about the narrowing of our world, a world that we share with a rich variety of political, religious, cultural, linguistic postures. A world that, seemingly, we can tolerate less and less. The diversity explosion, intensified by media exposure and 24/7 connectedness, is unbearable for many, and thus we turn to filtering methods and devices.

Technology has come up with ways to circumvent the ones who have, seemingly, nothing to offer us. Some of this is innocuous, apparently. Some call it “personalized content delivery” and talk about tools for managing the information explosion needing. Others give it a more sinister turn:

When you search the Internet, search engines now show different results to different people. Results are tailored to who you are, based on your search history and your click history. Since you often click on things you agree with, you keep getting more and more of what you already agree with, which means other stuff gets demoted (effectively filtered). This begs the question: what are you missing?

In other words, you are living in a Filter Bubble that promotes things it thinks you’ll like, and demotes (effectively filters) out some of the rest, which may limit your exposure to opposing information. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to pop your filter bubble, because the technology is used so much across the Internet.

Google, Facebook, news outlets all tailor the information you receive according to your past choices. If you click more conservative sites more frequently, fewer and fewer liberal articles will be presented to you. And vice versa.

If you’re wondering why you don’t see some of your friends’ news posts any more, it may not be because you’ve been “unfriended,” but because your habits of reading – opening links and visiting others’ pages – have “informed” Facebook that you prefer to read only about people who think like you. Read about the filter bubble here.

Sometimes it isn’t machine-generated, but popularity driven. Digg.com, for example, is a news site that offers you only the news items voted most read-worthy by its readers. Imagine how useful that would have been in, say, 1930s Germany.

More and more we “cleanse” our worlds by exposing ourselves less and less to the thoughts and ideas and opinions of those who see things a different way. (By the way, this is one reason I relish history – it forces me to see people and cultures and viewpoints that are not my own.)

Sure, I could “roam” through the virtual Amazon shelves, but I don’t. Amazon does all the work for me. I find my book or my author, and then Amazon suggests similar books and authors. And I gradually move into the maze of more and more of the same.

I like what philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote about technology, which he calls “technique”:

Here ends the long encirclement of men by technique. It is not the result of a plot or plan by any one man or any group or men who direct it or shunt it in new directions. The technical phenomenon is impersonal, and in following its course we have found it is directed toward man. In investigating its loci, we find man himself. This man is not the man in the mirror. Nor is it the man next door or the man in the street.

Proceeding at its own tempo, technique analyzes its objects so that it can reconstitute them, in the case of man, it has analyzed him and synthesized a hitherto unknown being.

“It has analyzed him and synthesized a hitherto unknown being.”

E-readers and online bookstores increase accessibility but limit the grace of wandering and increase our isolation. We become less capable of stretching our imaginations, less informed about our world, less able to embrace the miscellany of life.

Don’t even get me started on the fate of libraries.

About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.


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