On The Filter Bubble and Our Tribal Nature

 

(Originally published at AlternativeRight.com, June 2011.)


We cannot really love ‘in the abstract;’ we can love only those whom we know. Thus the appeal even to our best emotions, love and compassion, can only tend to divide mankind into different categories. And this will be more true if the appeal is made to lesser emotions and passions. Our ‘natural’ reaction will be to divide mankind into friend and foe; into those who belong to our tribe, to our emotional community, and those who stand outside it; into believers and unbelievers; into compatriots and aliens; into class comrades and class enemies; and into leaders and led.
Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945)

 

MoveOn.org President Eli Pariser recently gave a TED talk based on his book, The Filter Bubble.

Pariser has discovered that search engines, social networks and various content providers are filtering out news and ideas that may not appeal to us, based on our individual search histories. This is happening and it is not making us more “well rounded.”

Interestingly, Pariser is concerned that partly because we are becoming more isolated within these “filter bubbles” of friendly data, we are losing our sense of national identity, our sense of civic responsibility and our connection to each other. We only see the kind of information we “like,” and we aren’t likely to be challenged. He says we’re back in the early 20th century again, back when newspapers were the gatekeepers of information and they slanted the news as they saw fit.

For a moment, somewhere in the mid-20th, journalists appointed themselves as guardians of Truth and Objectivity—but they were never truly objective. Who ever is?

Pariser appeals naively to Google and other companies to engineer a new kind of “journalistic integrity” into their search engines, for the national good. The problem is that these massive companies have a global clientele, with global interests. They are not rooted in blood or soil or culture. Globocorp’s sole responsibility is to its bottom line, and it must follow profit wherever it may lead. A company like IKEA, Panasonic, or Coca-Cola takes an interest in many, many nations, and is loyal to no people or place. Corporations make calculated gestures when necessary, but Pariser is not appealing to a Hearst, he’s appealing to an international legal machine.

In lieu of corporate benevolence, Pariser offers 10 ways for concerned readers to control their filter bubbles. Most people won’t bother. Most people simply don’t care. As Mark Zuckerberg said, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

Pariser mentioned in passing that the Internet’s “founding mythology” promised a world of people who were more connected to one another, but he complained that this hasn’t actually happened.  It hasn’t happened because that’s only what people publicly say they want. What they privately, or subconsciously, desire is what these companies are giving them: new ways to separate themselves from others and form competing identity groups. Marketing people are better psychologists than psychologists.

Like Patrick Bateman, people say they care about “ending hunger” and genocide and so forth, but they don’t really care about people dying in Africa. Not in any personal, emotionally connected way. The concern they express is a social affectation. If Robin Dunbar is to be believed, we can’t care about people in Africa. Not really. It’s been found that, even on Facebook, most of us can only maintain a meaningful friendship with 150 or so people. Everyone else is a virtual friend—or a virtual stranger. Our brains are wired for small communities, not “one world tribe.”

We seek out ways to create in-groups and out-groups. Sometimes we do this playfully, as with sporting rivalries, though it is not unusual for sports fans to become violent or angry on behalf of their teams. Often we do it politically, ideologically, socially, racially, nationally. We form philosophical cliques and movements. East coast vs. West coast, South side vs. North side, Greeks vs.Trojans, boys against the girls, Democrats vs. Republicans, MoveOn vs. The Tea Party, Christians vs. Muslims vs. Jews, hip-hop vs. punk rock vs. emo, dog lovers vs. cat lovers, Ford vs. Chevy, and Mac vs. PC.

Online social networks have also created a pathway for otherwise average people to separate themselves from the social norms of their geographical location. The chubby check-out girl with the dark eyeliner at a Midwestern Wal-Mart is a Wiccan priestess by night. The guy stocking shoes is “kind of a big deal” on a video game message board. The Mexican buying wife-beaters is an illegal immigrant who “likes” La Raza on Facebook. The guy buying bullets is in a militia, or at least he wants to be. The couple buying soda might be furries.

The growth of the Internet has given heterodox ideologies a far bigger platform than a soap box, and it has spared the haranguing man a face full of rotten tomatoes—and a punch in the nose.

People want to feel different and special, but they also want to feel embattled. They want a compelling conflict narrative that gives their lives meaning, whether they are standing up for the “oppressed” or standing against the tide of unwanted change. Few want what Pariser called a “balanced diet” of information. They may not want junk food, but they know what they “like.” And they know what they “dislike.” They know who and what they want to “hide.”

It’s not just companies who create filter bubbles. We create them ourselves. We pick sides, we exclude, and we do it on purpose.

We choose to read news that appeals to our interests, caters to our biases and reaffirms our sense of group belonging. The carefully pruned newsfeed can become a self-reinforcing reality. A recent Fast Company article called it the “Balkanization of information.” Most of us want to hear voices that “sound very much like our own.” We want to hear the refrains, we want to recite The Law. (Are we not men?) When we venture outside our tribal bubbles on patrol, we don’t go to learn—like chimpanzees, we look for weak, easy targets to pick off. No one on the far right reads The Huffington Post to learn. People on the far left don’t read Alternative Right to understand.

The “uniters” of the world wring their hands because they think this divisiveness is dangerous. They’re right. It is dangerous. They think it robs us of our “humanity.” I disagree. I say it reveals our humanity. It reveals what we are and what we have always been—competing contingents of naked apes with interests of our own.

The mechanized slaughter of the world wars and the advent of the atomic age inspired the hymns of multiculturalists who believed that we could all live together as noble savages in peace and harmony.We sung the hymns, but nothing happened. It’s the same as it ever was. Multiculturalism has failed.

The future is tribal. The time has come to start choosing sides again. And with our allies, far and wide, we will live in our information bubbles, and we will bump against others who are living in theirs.

What is culture, anyway, if not a tribal bubble?

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