There's been a burst of discussion recently about Internet "filter bubbles," mostly surrounding the release of a new book by that name. The author argues that search and social media companies manipulate the tenor and skew of the information they provide to match what their algorithms suggest any particular user wants to find. The result is an information bubble in which individuals need never encounter information or opinion that runs counter to their own preferences as expressed in their previous usage history. This makes for a comfortable information-eating experience, but not, it's argued, a broadening or challenging one.
The algorithms by which this particular kind of social climate control is achieved may be new, but the phenomenon of political and social self-segmentation on the Internet is not, of course. Folks have worried for years about the ease and speed with which the Web allows us to retreat into our little niches, surrounded by like-minded people and commentary that seems to confirm our own views. Nor is it only solely an online thing: traditional forms of media and social networking can achieve the same bubble effect, in magazines and newsletters and church congregations.
It's not hard to understand why these bubbles form, whether by a sinister cabal of pandering Internet CEOs or by our own ease-seeking behaviors. To confront information that challenges one's cherished, even constitutive, worldviews is an uncomfortable experience. A fairly extensive psychological literature on cognitive dissonance describes the unpleasant mental and emotional arousal that occurs when we are forced to hold two deeply conflicting ideas in mind, and the cognitive tricks we play on ourselves to diminish that discomfort.
I experienced a classic case of this phenomenon yesterday, while browsing through my Google Reader and skimming headlines from the Scientific American network of blogs. I scrolled past a blog post titled "The Sunny Side of Smut," and, prurient surfer that I am, I clicked through. The blogger summarized a handful of semi-recent studies showing that moderate pornography consumption seems to have no ill psychological or social effects on the young males who are its main users. In cases where psychological distress does follow porn use, the blogger concludes, it's due only to the consumer's shame at violating a personal moral code.
There are few topics on which I have a more overwhelming moral hunch than on pornography. I find the idea of pornography, the circumstances of its production and consumption and the implications of content, entirely revolting. There would be no personal circumstance more disgusting to me than living with a pornography user. I quake in premature horror of the day when my sons encounter it. Only a few hot-button issues surrounding abortion, disability, and the care of infants evoke in me the same level of red-alert moral indignation. (Tip: never engage me in conversation on the recommended mainstream practice of leaving infants to cry alone in their cribs. It won't end well.)
So my reaction to the blog post was a fairly predictable one, according to the literature. I read the piece with a mounting sense of unease and outrage, fought the urge to click away from page and Google for information on the social and personal ills of pornography—that is, to search for information that would re-confirm and stabilize my existing moral hunch. I could barely focus on the claims themselves, as I formulated rebuttal after rebuttal. I felt physical tension gathering in my shoulders and gut. For several hours afterwards, I felt upset whenever I thought about the piece, and even as I write this I can't bring myself to actually click back to the post; I just copied the link location with a right click to insert the hyperlink. If that doesn't indicate true psychological distress, I don't know what does.
According to the logic of the advocates for broad-minded, niche-less, preference-challenging Internet consumption, my experience was a bracing but salutary corrective to an entrenched cognitive bias. I should pat myself on the back for gritting my teeth and finishing the article, and bask in the self-congratulatory glow of the broad-minded. As I require myself to confront and process more information of this kind—not only on the effects of pornography, necessarily, but any kind of information that challenges my assumptions—I'll begin to deconstruct the mental barriers of inherited prejudice, false consciousness and arbitrary taboo. I'll get closer to the airy, open realm of bias-free cognition, seeing things as they really are and freeing myself to live in the real world.
Setting aside the scientific merit of the particular studies in question, a part of me agrees with this sunny therapeutic scenario. I am convinced that all manner of cognitive bias distorts my thinking, poison my perceptions and corrupt my reasoning. I would very much like to apprehend the real nature of the universe, to school my intuition in rationality so that I can trust it to guide me toward truth. If orchestrating collisions between data and personal hunch could accomplish this, I'd be game for the sport.
But part of me suspects that the quest for the View from Nowhere is doomed from the start.No opaque algorithmic shenanigan is necessary to create a filter bubble around my world; my very own mind can do that all by itself. If that's the case, why not just allow my bubble to develop in the way it has for all humans since the emergence of culture, through organic social hierarchies and the socially-situated knowledge-making that is their raison d'etre?
No really, I'm asking. Comments welcome below.
I'll be on vacation for the next two weeks. Meet you back here then!
7/26/2011 4:00:00 AM