Years ago, I was hanging out with a group of friends, one of which brought up a joke he had recently seen online. Although the content of the joke would probably make this, the second sentence of this post, much more interesting, I have to say I can’t remember it. And the joke isn’t really the point. The point was the almost everyone in the group had already seen the exact same joke online. The joke was posted on Reddit, a popular news aggregation site where people can up- and downvote issues as they see fit. I remember thinking to myself (and I think saying out loud), that it was incredible that among the millions of jokes that are posted every single day online, this group of people had all seen the exact same one. This post you are reading has been in the back of my head ever since.
In more and more areas of life, at least it seems to me, experiences are being quantified according to a formula and then spit back out to users, sorted accordingly. I say “experiences of life” because I can’t think of a better phrase that accounts for the broadness of such disparate items as “knowledge”, “current events”, “music”, and “film”, just to name a few. Instead of a user having to make a conscious decision as to what they want to experience online, the answer is just given to them. Maybe some examples will clear up what I mean.
- You go to Reddit.com and naturally start at the top of the page – this is where the most highly rated items of the day are. Since they were the most highly rated by other users, chances are you will find the item good as well. You read the description, decide it is good enough, and click the link. Now you see the most highly rated comment of the thread and view comments in this order until you get tired of the thread.
- You are having a party and use Spotify, a music application. You type in “party music” and see already created playlists. You click the first or second playlist and your party is ready to go.
- You are on Netflix, a movie streaming application, and you want to watch a new movie. Movies are presented to you based on a complicated rating system, including feedback based on what you have watched and liked in the past. You pick one that is a relatively good match.
- You log into Facebook and have the default “Top Stories” mode selected, in which you see stories presented in an order based on Facebook’s algorithm for “top”. From Facebook: “, it uses factors such as how many friends are commenting on a post to aggregate content that you’ll find interesting. It displays stories based on their relevance, rather than in chronological order.“
This list could obviously go on and on. It goes without saying that these services provide benefits to society, but I think there are some troubling aspects that one could raise about such systems and how they could affect society as a whole:
- More and more people access the exact same information from the same sources. At a micro level you are probably going to find information that you find interesting. At a macro level, the chances are slimmer that you will come across someone with a different viewpoint than you. You have been consuming the same information as others, so the exchange of information between two parties will be lower. Instead of everyone being able to contribute a unique, nuanced perspective on a complicated issue, you are more likely to hear just a couple of points, and likely ones you have already heard and ones you may have given yourself.
- The information people know will be highly stratified. When you do encounter someone who has a different opinion than you, then chances of a meaningful discussion being possible are lower. You subscribe to “RightWingNews.com” on Facebook and you and thousands of other subscribers comment on the posts, all confirming ideas you all thought yesterday. You encounter someone who subscribed to “LeftWingNews.com” who did the same. You both think the other side is just saying gibberish. How could this not be the case? The information you have allowed yourself to consume is highly stratified and never challenges you to think in a different way from the exact way you already think, which you are already sure is the right way (If you are stuck inside of a system, how could it be the wrong way?).
- There is a certain loss of agency in giving up the choice to make a conscious decision. If an algorithm is deciding for you, you aren’t deciding. When I was younger, going to get a new CD was a big, fun decision and after the purchase I listened to each song on the CD over and over. I don’t do that anymore. If I hear any sort of self-generated mix it is usually the best hit from each of the best artists in a particular genre. I don’t hear the other songs from the artist that aren’t the “best” and I don’t hear from the “non-best” bands. Music touches me less directly. I think it is a shame. Imagine an ice cream flavor machine choosing your flavor for you at the store. It determined that most people that day liked chocolate and so everyone, including you, gets chocolate. It tastes pretty good. You eat it and you go home.
What can we do to combat problems like this? Improvise – do things you don’t normally do. Read a newspaper from a publisher that you have never read before. Read a site that has the exact opposite view on an issue you have an opinion about. Go into a bookstore and buy a book you didn’t read an Amazon review for on a topic that you think is interesting but have never explored. Ask someone who you don’t usually talk to about music what they have been listening to lately. Hit the “Random article” button in Wikipedia and follow the links down the rabbit hole. Tell me other ideas you have!