Eli Pariser’s TED talk on the dangers of allowing someone else to choose what you see/hear/feel

If I were a weaker man, I’d just fold up my tent and move on.

However, upon closer inspection, I find myself saying “Yahbut …” a lot throughout this FUD screed.

Pariser has an entire web site devoted to this concept, called, The Filter Bubble. 

To all this sturm und drang, I can only respond by calling upon the wisdom of the Great Philosopher, Sgt. Hulka:

Lighten up, Francis.

There are some very large issues here, ones with deep roots, that I fear that Eli doesn’t really grasp. As I’ve written before, I started working in newsrooms back in the early 80s, when the decisions as to what went on the front page, what went in the “A” section, and what got left as lonely curled-up fragments of waxed paper on the layout room floor, was all up to a human editor. I’ve worked for some great editors. I’ve worked for some really batty editors.

And I’ve been at the mercy of editors and publishers who, after receiving a fat envelope on the first of every month from the ruling party in Venezuela, called me into the office and told me that the stories were to be positive and happy, optimistic about all the great changes the Adecos were bringing. So excuse me if I don’t buy into the concept that The Machine Is Scary. Particularly when no matter how you slice it, the Machine is Still Us. 

The reader surveys told us that fewer than 50% of the viewers even LOOKED at the front page anyway – most of them were on their way to the back of the paper, to read the late-breaking box scores from baseball games, and the rest were flipping to the gossip columns in the Lifestyle section, to see who had been spotted out with whom at the big Maraven barbecue.

So even back in the heydey of human intervention in trying to place information in front of the public based on the concept that “Starving children in Africa should be at least as important to you as a squirrel dying in your front yard” … even then, the whole horse-to-water problem arises. Yeah, sure, you can argue that someone will at least glance at the information on the front page on their way back to see whether Andres Gallaraga struck out again … but then again, maybe not. And even if they do, what does it matter if they’re not paying attention?

Or, to use the Web 2.0 construction, if you put the information in front of them and they’re not engaging with it anyway? How much do we want to force-stuff the information equivalent of Cod Liver Oil down the intellectual gullets of our readers?

I think that the entire problem, as laid out here, is the kind of thing that Old Media types find really comforting, because it provides them with a club with which to revisit arguments that anyone working in New Media was sick to death of chewing over back in, oh, say, 2003. The web is deceptive. The web is EEEE-bil! Come on back to the old dead-tree walled gardens.

Sorry, but that ain’t gonna cut it.

The digital universe is evolving so that we do not just depend on what Google shows us … but on what we get from the people in our social graph. Or have you been one of the lucky ones that doesn’t have a cranky uncle sending them conspiracy theories about Tower 5 on 9/11, or Obama’s birth certificate, or Vince Foster, or … ?

OK, sure, it’s a bummer that Facebook is removing a lot of the contradictory voices from your News Feed. But there are still a million, million ways that the things that they say come into your world – not least because ON BOTH SIDES OF THE SPECTRUM – both with Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert/Rachel Madow and Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh/Fox & Friends – there are legions of researchers culling & curating the digital firehose, on the look out for the bit of info that can be spun into something to make you do the “Holy shit, Martha!” in front of the boob tube.


The contradictory voices are there. They are presented by voices that mock & disagree with them – in much the same way that newspaper editors, radio hosts and TV anchors did back in the pure human filtration days – but the voices and bits of information are there.

I do agree that there is a serious problem in our society today that a large segment is seemingly living in its own reality, with its own set of facts an interpretations. But this has been true before in our history as well (See: Davis, Jefferson et al.).  But this problem predates the web, and is attributable more to talk radio and the removal of the Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time than anything else … and to the failure of the American educational system to produce large swathes of the citizenry capable of critical thinking.