Friday, August 12, 2011

In a bubble?

During the half-year I live in New England I read two newspapers every day: the Boston Globe and the New York Times. Both liberal in their general outlook, intelligent, and comprehensive. Just like me, in other words.

OK -- wink, wink -- I'm being facetious. Those are my legitimate reads. I sneak around a bit, too. In the college library, I slum with the columnists in the Boston Herald, a right-wing tabloid. And I daily rendezvous with a politically conservative upscale mistress, the Wall Street Journal.

That's something I picked up in science, I suppose -- wanting to know the other side of the story, testing one's ideas against the alternative. Of course, one is naturally predisposed to what one already believes. Early nurturing and education is not to be discounted. One might even have a genetic nudge toward liberality or conservatism. Still, it behooves one to approach alternative views with an open mind, or at least as open as one can manage.

Some fixity of thought is essential. If all ideas are equal, then there's no such thing as "truth." I've suggested here before that a proper scientific attitude is to be radically open to marginal change and marginally open to radical change. So I read the Wall Street Journal and let it nibble at the loose threads in my core beliefs.

And now I read Sue Halpern reviewing books about the internet in the New York Review of Books (June 23-July13), and in particular Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. I discover what I suppose I already knew and didn't think much about, that since December 2009 the Google search engine -- which I use regularly -- contours every search to fit the profile of the person making the query. That is to say, Google knows quite a bit about me -- a "Chet" profile resides in some massive server in (I'm guessing) California -- and its search algorithm ranks its "hits" according to what it thinks I want to see.

Halpern writes:
Among the many insidious consequences of this individualization is that by tailoring the information you receive to the algorithm's perception of who you are, a perception that it constructs out of fifty-seven variables, Google directs you to material that is most likely to reinforce your own worldview, ideology, and assumptions…In this way, the Internet, which isn't the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.
That is to say, a Google search is less like a visit to an encyclopedia, dictionary or public library than it is like spending all one's time exclusively with either Fox News or MSNBC.

Google is a fabulously useful tool, but it is good to know it is using me while I am using it. Meanwhile, I'll continue my assignations with the Wall Street Journal, and balance Richard Dawkins, say, with Karen Armstrong, carefully parsing what I already believe against other possibilities, fishing as best I can for unexamined predispositions and delusions.