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We All Live in a Bubble

December 4, 2017

Almost exactly two years ago, Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out in theaters. Hundreds of millions of people (including several of my own friends) were eagerly awaiting this release. I, on the other hand, was completely oblivious. I only found out about the existence of this movie about a week after its release, when I overheard spoken conversations during the holidays. I was surprised and disappointed at my own ignorance. Clearly, I’d been living under a rock.

I am still, in many ways, living under a rock, in my own bubble. I know quite a few things about compilers, machine learning, and the soap opera that is American politics, but I’m largely unaware of what goes on in municipal and local politics, for instance. I also know very little about local (Quebecois) artists and musicians. To tell you the truth, it’s not that I don’t want to know about these things, it’s that this information never makes its way to me, and I don’t go out of my way to find it.

When I was a child and a teenager, I was in many ways more informed about what might be termed “mainstream” culture. Every night, me and my mom watched the evening news and various talk shows. Much of the information we got about our local culture was delivered to us in this form. Today, it seems we celebrate the death of television, the cutting of the cord that came with the arrival of the information age. This is the end of this dominant thread of culture that was imposed upon us, in favor of access to a seemingly unlimited amount of information.

We have the freedom to choose what we’re exposed to. The information doesn’t come packaged and predigested in evening news bulletins ready for mass consumption. The downside of this, however, is that to some extent, we’re all living in our own bubble. There is no longer a common thread of culture that I share with everyone I know. We each can pick and choose what interests us, and ignore all the rest. The thing is, to some extent, we don’t even make that choice.

Facebook, Google, twitter and reddit run some ranking algorithms which we only see the end result of. If I had some input, I would tell Facebook to please show me more information about local news and politics, because I’d like to stay in the loop. Unfortunately, they never asked for my opinion. They’re not in the business of making sure that I’m a well-rounded individual, they’re in the business of capturing my attention, and selling some share of it to advertisers. The unfortunate truth is that in some ways, the internet isn’t so different from television: which information we get or don’t get to see, is a choice that’s increasingly being made for us.

I think the internet has brought us many wonderful things. We have more access to information than ever before. We also have the ability to reach many more people than we ever could. However, it seems to me that our ability to choose is also contributing to worsening social isolation in the modern world. We’ve been given the freedom to find threads of culture online that cater to our precise tastes.  That can be wonderful and enriching, but there is also a huge downside: it also means that people have the freedom to pick a cultural bubble online that is as comfortable as possible, and never make the effort of stepping out of it. The downside is the confirmation bias.

Some political commenters have said that modern politics are becoming increasingly polarized. More and more, things are being spun as left versus right, liberals against conservatives. There’s a lack of empathy, with each side portraying the other as morally bankrupt and unsalvageable. I think that the internet and the attention economy may be largely to blame for this situation. With the internet, no matter how radical your beliefs are, you can find people and sources online who will tell you exactly what you want to hear: that you were right all along, that those who disagree can only be disturbed individuals, and that you can rest comfortably in your sense of moral superiority.

Google, Facebook, twitter, etc. are not concerned with your personal growth, your edification and rigorous fact-checking. They’re also not concerned with your long-term well-being and whether you have healthy relationships with the people who surround you. They’re happy to spoon-feed you a diet of whatever they think you like and will keep your attention the longest. I would say that it’s up to you, me, and all of us to make the uncomfortable effort of standing up, and stepping outside of our cozy little bubble. However, I’m also quite worried that this simply isn’t going to happen, that most of us are going to remain addicted to the information equivalent of shitty french fries, reconstituted chicken meat and flavored sugar-water.


From → Psychology

  1. Mike S. permalink

    Hey, I happen to like some fast food french fries! (Not that they’re good for me. I just like them.)

    I agree with your points. I’ve been trying to make the argument to people for years that proprietary social networks are bad because they make money by violating privacy, they can censor what they like and our only option is to quit, and they can filter and prioritize content as they like and our only option is to quit. It didn’t get any traction with anyone and I admit that I still used Facebook.

    But the angle that really resonates with me is addiction, and I like your description of it as junk food or fast food addiction. Facebook and Twitter make money in proportion to how many ads the users watch and click, and users watch and click more ads when they use the site for longer. So we have companies with a greater than ten billion dollar incentive to make their content addictive.

    And if you’re cynical or nihilistic you might still make the argument that an addiction that is not harmful is okay. However, at least for me social media addiction is harmful. I miss needed sleep and I skip or shorten workouts to use social media. Beyond that, the more often I use these sites the shorter I find my attention span and the worse I find my moods.

    So I’m off. I kept my Facebook account as a form of ’21st century yellow pages’ but used a Chrome add-on to delete all of the content and remove all the tags and pictures. I’m better off.

  2. Where did you first come across this idea or think of it?

  3. wlach permalink

    “I would say that it’s up to you, me, and all of us to make the uncomfortable effort of standing up, and stepping outside of our cozy little bubble.”

    Agreed, but trying to do this in the face of twitter and facebook’s algorithms is a daunting prospect indeed. How does one stay well-informed if the systems that decide what information to show us are wired with such a different priority, namely keeping our attention for as long as possible so they can show us more ads?

    I despair of what to do. Unplugging from this system entirely is a tempting option, but it’s not one that I feel would have mass appeal. And it feels like alternatives built on different premises would have a hard time competing with algorithms designed to maximize one’s attention, like a public library trying to compete with a casino for a compulsive gambler’s business.

  4. Mike S. permalink

    Great point. I unplugged, but I can’t even persuade my wife and my kids to do the same – much less anyone else in my social circle. This isn’t a scalable solution.

  5. Hello. I found you on the GitHub and from there I came here. Your thoughts on this post are very interesting and I fully agree with them. Me and my friends often talk about this information bubble that social medias have brought to us. I hope we (the society) will someday overcome this sad reality — but I am not confident about it, unfortunately.

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