We often get messages from sources that suggest they know just where we’re coming from. Bloggers, politicians, major media, advertisers, and sometimes even well-intentioned friends tell us what they think we need to know, and I’ve been struck by how little of it resonates with my actual life. I’d estimate that less than 1% of the uninvited information I see, hear, and read is meaningful. So much junk to wade through, every day, every year.
It seems to be getting worse. Fewer sources present alternative ideas, suggest consulting different viewpoints, or admit to potential biases. Instead, we’re authoritatively told a “truth” that is in some cases so absurd and insulting that it approaches art. A perfect case in point is the idea that politicians can somehow create jobs. As expertly explained by Adam Davidson in a recent New York Times article, this simply can’t happen, and most politicians know it. But that doesn’t stop the framing of the upcoming election as being “all about jobs”, creating endless reporting on how the unemployment rate will make or break the presidency.
Mr. Davidson is one of my islands of sanity amidst this insensible sea. His work with Planet Money and This American Life helped to produce The Giant Pool of Money, a one-hour audio program released in 2008 that explains the origins of our economic crisis in a concise, understandable, and remarkably entertaining way. [Michael Lewis’ The Big Short is also excellent, if you’re interested in this sort of thing.] I am so grateful for this kind of work, and for having a tool like the Internet that allows me to discover this and other islands of sanity. These things sustain me through the occasional dark night.
That brings me to my next problem, though. Spend a few minutes online, and sanity might not be the first word that comes to mind. The very tool that I find so vital is also home to the world’s most vapid, polarizing, and deceptive content. My guess is that .001% of what’s online is worthy of consideration. As a result, I’ve worked hard to develop a system that continually sifts through and filters all of this content to deliver a range of ideas and information that is meaningful to me.
It’s tempting to wish that I could have a button that zaps that crappy 99.999% away, but I could never bring myself to use it. As much as it pains me, I must recognize that the .001% that works for me might not work for you. I’d rather live in a world where we all have a system that connects us to whatever makes sense in our infinite multitude of realities.
And therein lies the rub: it’s not easy to find our .001%. It requires analytical skills, technical proficiency, an ethical framework, and a strong desire to find our own truth. With the Internet at its infancy – keep in mind that we’ve had pervasive human-computer interaction in our society for less than a generation – I think there’s a great potential for things to get better in the future. A look at search engines like DuckDuckGo and Blekko gives us an exciting peek of what might come. What, you haven’t heard of these?
Right now, however, technology is being used to restrict most user’s online experience. It isn’t some sinister conspiracy to keep us wallowing in ignorance, either. It’s being done to give us what we want, and narrowing our world by default. It’s much easier to stick with Yahoo! News when it’s the home page that opens when you take your computer out of the box and connect it to the Internet, thanks to some distant handshake between corporate partners. Yahoo! News isn’t necessarily bad, but how would you even know that something like Al Jazeera English exists, and why would you care?
Default inertia requires effort to overcome. Who goes beyond the first page of results in Google? If my search engine thinks I’m their definition of liberal and serves me what it thinks I want, it’s harder for me to learn from different perspectives … and even more difficult to change my mind. The reality I’m expected to have may continue to get more and more disconnected from my real life even as it seeks to become more relevant. Meanwhile, the methods that help me to find my islands of sanity are disappearing.
If this trend continues, and our online freedoms continue to erode while our access to information is increasingly shaped by institutional interests, the future is bleak indeed. I worry most about our children because they don’t have the benefit of an offline past or a future that’s put this problem behind it. Their expectation of privacy seems to be significantly different than it used to be, and it gets easier and easier to stay within the same small network of sites as you surf.
Many young people I know, however, see the problems with the system and are making their own reality, connecting with one another directly, bypassing traditional channels of communication entirely. If they can find a way to use these new methods to expand from their circle of like-minded friends out to a wide range of different voices, the status quo that’s currently trying to take hold doesn’t stand a chance. That’s a reality to look forward to.
Image by Kyle MacDonald