Ethical Technology, 2

So, picking up on Part 1.

The next thing that came to mind as far as ethics and technology are concerned is the filter bubble (as coined by Eli Pariser, author of the book of the same name).

Whether done algorithmically or not, the filter bubble is the result of the intentional routing of relationships through conceptual filters, rather than real-world situations. This is another one of those counterintuitive truths of the internet: by ignoring geographic boundaries, we thought it would enable a greater diversity and elevate humanity above the usual demography. But the way the internet works is to foster the exact opposite; to enable people to cluster ideologically, or, more pervasively, around commonalities of consumption (I wear Levi’s jeans/I like Coke vs. Pepsi/I use a Mac/PC). While these seem, in the short term, to empower the consumer (a mob associated with Mac seems to have leverage over Mac’s decisions, no?), brand allegiance is a false dichotomy. Why is it Mac vs. PC? Why does that not include “I made my own computer”? Sadly, it seems that there are far less people with the requisite knowledge and skills to build their own computer today than in previous decades. Hence Doug Rushkoff’s latest book.

If you’re willing to push a bit further, brand allegiance is also not exactly a giant leap from a Matrix-style, battery-people kind of dehumanization. The more we define ourselves based upon what we consume, the more we become little more than walking advertisements. I took the image below while in New York City for conference over a year ago. I knew it would eventually come up in some rant or another ;-) If you’re not disgusted/angered/saddened by what you see here, you need to open your eyes to what’s around you. Here are two adults who, at some level, believe that they have nothing better to offer the world than their own backs as beasts of burden to advertising. However distorted their depleted sense of self-esteem and value, it is only reinforced by the willingness of someone else out there to craft backpack billboards and employ these men to wander the streets wearing them. I’m picturing a Mr. Potter or someone of that ilk. That such an inherently humiliating job even exists is disgusting and depressing.


Oh, and don’t even get me started on the irony of the particular company these two are advertising.

You really can’t make this stuff up.

Back to the original thought: The filtration of social networks on the basis of products and even ideas is always going to be reduced down to one versus another, rather than a more distributed field of options. By doing this, the power rests not in one side over another, but in the hands of whomever decides which the two options will be. Who, exactly, are those people?

Just the other day, I read a powerful piece by Charles Taylor in Dissent Magazine on the problem with film criticism in which he held the internet accountable for this sort of polarization—and probably for far more than could easily be defended. Here are some of his ideas consolidated, though if you’re interested in this issue in general (or film criticism specifically), I encourage you to read the entire thing:

“In its contribution to the ongoing disposability of our cultural, political, and social life, in encouraging the cultural segregation that currently disfigures democracy, the Internet has to bear a great deal of responsibility for the present derangement of American life…The probable death of movies as popular art, and the retreat of serious critics into contemplation cells, points up a larger problem: the falseness of the claims made for the Web as a new beacon of democracy. In many ways, the Web has been a disaster for democracy…The rigorous division of websites into narrow interests, the attempts of Amazon and Netflix to steer your next purchase based on what you’ve already bought, the ability of Web users to never encounter anything outside of their established political or cultural preferences, and the way technology enables advertisers to identify each potential market and direct advertising to it, all represent the triumph of cultural segregation that is the negation of democracy. It’s the reassurance of never having to face anyone different from ourselves. I don’t believe it’s an accident that this segregation has become our cultural norm at a time when America is as politically polarized as it’s ever been. The hard fact of democracy, which is always a crapshoot, is that for it to work we can’t shut out who or what we don’t like, who or what we have not bothered to encounter. Popular art, which depends on crossing barriers, can’t exist in such confines. And criticism—which is meant to help people make sense of work they don’t know or assume they won’t like, or work that they know but haven’t really thought about—becomes something like samizdat in a culture set up to enforce the boundaries that art and criticism must transverse. The snarkiness of the film writers who tell us nothing is to be taken seriously, as well as the dourness of the film writers who wear seriousness as a hair shirt (and who may yet succeed in making movie watching as joyless as academics have made reading novels), play into that divisiveness, telling their followers they’re not missing anything by ignoring everything beyond their own self-proscribed compound. It’s not movies and movie criticism that are drowning in the tyranny of the “like” button. It’s democracy.”

Chesterton said something (oh, right, it was in Heretics—thank you, internet!) about how civilization has been built upon the tendency in human beings to seek out ideological relationships even if they are geographically inconvenient rather than accept the challenge of being in relationship with their neighbor. Think of the people on your street, or in your apartment building, or in your school or town—there’s ideological diversity there, as well as economic diversity, that is likely far broader than that of your online relationships in many cases. Add to that the idea that you may just not like the people nearest to you, and that today’s technology enables you to spend time—albeit virtually—with people you like. Beforehand, you would have had to choose between loneliness and your irritating neighbor. But choosing your irritating neighbor reinforced all kinds of good things: tolerance, grace for others, patience, humility, etc.

As I write this I realize that in the past week alone, I have spent hours communing with friends from afar over Skype—one of whom I still have never met in person—yet have only had one very brief interaction with my neighbor who’s front door is only a matter of yards from mine. So, yes, there is some hypocrisy in my rant, but does that make it any less true?

I thought not.

P.S. I should mention that, thanks to Warren Ellis, I’ve been listening to this fantastically strange radio program—The Time Attended To—as I wrote this, which must have (in some way) contributed my mood.

Written by Christopher Butler on December 12, 2011,   In Essays

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