Reading the MR press, one might be forgiven for thinking that social media and big data have more or less completely colonised the environment. What happens online is what really happens. This, despite plenty of evidence that human beings still largely live and communicate offline, and still more evidence demonstrating that we are more analogue than digital (a design fault maybe, but that’s the way it is).
Two recent books may help to redress the balance, and perhaps persuade those with ears to hear that the shiny new world of digital everything is not necessarily a step forward. The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser[i], and The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr[ii], suggest that the interface between humanity and its digital alter ego is a contested space; and that the changes in both us and our favourite machines have significant implications for the way we do things, including business, in the future.
Eli Pariser is an archetypal digital maven. Founder and board president of MoveOn.org, Pariser has been an internet activist since 2001, when his online petition calling for a non-violent response to the events of September 11 was one of the first internet items to go viral. In the Filter Bubble, Pariser looks at the various personal preference filters and algorithms used by the likes of Google, Facebook et al to bring you relevant online content.
What he finds is both intriguing and sobering. Preference filters work in what is, on the face of it, a simple way; every time you indicate approval of an item, by clicking on it, or ‘liking’ it, or sharing it with your friends, the filter re-sets the world so that more of that content comes to you. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? You get more of what you like. Well, yes and no.
For every item that gets added to your environment, something has to be taken away. The things you don’t click on, don’t ‘like’, don’t share; these things disappear from your online world. And that means your world shrinks, little by little, until you see only the things you like. Vast areas of potential experience are denied to you, whole genres of information are out of your sphere of knowledge.
I went to a talk by Eli Pariser some time ago. He gave a startling demonstration of how much filtering can segment, even fragment, one’s view of the world. Two volunteers from the audience, with similar demographic profiles, were asked to do a very basic Google search, first for the term ‘Egypt’, then for ‘BP’ (this was around the time of the big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt). The first search produced only two common items, the second none at all; that is to say, each of the volunteers saw an entirely different news-scape, in each case a news-scape predicated on the person’s previous use of Google.
Nicholas Carr’s book the Shallows is an exploration of neuroplasticity and its implications for what – and how – we learn. Neuroplasticity? That’s the idea that your brain actually changes physically depending on what you learn, and how you go about learning it. For instance, London cabbies (the ones who’ve done the Knowledge, not the ones with a Satnav and a clapped-out Skoda) have an enlarged hippocampus (not surprisingly, that’s the part of the brain that helps with spatial recognition).
Carr traces the history of learning technologies, from the first books, through the printing revolution, and the rise of mass media, until we come to the internet. He then looks at how our brains have changed over that time. Less abstractly, he looks at a mountain of evidence to show that we think and act very differently when we use a screen, whether television, computer, mobile phone, or any of the ancillary toys that fall into the market before their R & D is near complete.
And we are very different. It transpires that online thinking is much more a process of decision-making than one of information-gathering. The crowded, over-stimulating circus of images on-screen (beautifully described by Cory Doctorow as ‘an ecology of interruptive technologies’) leads the user to make choices, constantly and frequently; and it turns out that this is not a good way to learn anything. Clinical tests have shown that we learn much more when we learn from books, or from other people; the constant distraction of the online environment stops us retaining information, and shortens our attention span to the point where it can’t get through enough information to make it stick.
So the virtual world is a shrunken kingdom, censored to a degree that might appeal to the pigs in Animal Farm; and it’s inhabited by novelty-obsessed magpies with the attention span of goldfish. That doesn’t sound like such a brave new world, does it? Perhaps this explains why I am seeing an increasing number of articles by tech-savvy individuals suggesting that they are making a deliberate effort to spend less time online.
The implications for MR, for social marketing, and for the whole panoply of public information providers is profound. How do you get a new product or service, one that lies outside the narrow world of a ‘typical consumer’s’ like/share environment, to puncture the filter bubble? How do you impart information that is by definition complex, that demands attention, to an audience that is conditioned to constant distraction and narrow novelty?
More importantly, are the grand edifices of big data and social media analysis in reality no more than juggernaut snapshots of an illusory world? The fact that so many of us share the illusion may cloak the problem for a while, but eventually the virtual world may drift so far away from reality, and take so many people with it, that we find ourselves lost in the ruins, unable to remember the way home.