Curating the Same Future

November 7, 2016 •  tech

Jon Ronson outlines the dangers of group-think in his latest book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.”[1] After running through several case studies of the immense emotional and social damage some people have undergone due to public shaming on the internet, he posits that group-thinking encourages us to behave unlike we would if we were alone. He asserts,

“We see ourselves as non-conformist. I think all of this has created a more conformist, conservative age. ‘Look,’ we’re saying, ‘We’re normal. This is the average.’ We’re defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.”

I’ve been in the process of thinking through a recommendation engine of some sorts within Shopify and I stopped to wonder about the implications of the curated worlds we’ve built. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have all pushed towards curated streams–you only see what you want to see (or, at least, what they think you want to see), and nothing else. Discovery is more related to what you currently like than sincere discovery of new subject matters or new viewpoints.

What we’ve created are echo-chambers that repeat back to our users what they already believe to be true. It has become more top-of-mind for me during this current election cycle; never before has American politics seemed so partisan and unwilling to listen. If you don’t want to hear why someone would vote for Trump,[2] you don’t have to, nor do you have to learn about Clinton’s career to date.[3]

Lack of diversity (not just racial or social-economic diversity, but diversity of thought) is as dangerous for society as it is for business. What we have in tech is a large percentage of one type of thinking informed by one world view. The effects of this in public shaming is pathetic enough, let alone how it impacts the world we build online (and now in VR). We don’t need to search that hard to see this singular world view affecting how and what we build.[4] We’re pushing the singular viewpoint to our users, negative biases included.

There are striking parallels between the development of television as described in David Foster Wallace’s 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”[5] and our world heading into VR now. Critics claimed that TV was responsible for lowering our aesthetic standards and some even went as far as treating it as a, “diabolical corrupter of personal agency and community gumption.”

The addiction of technology is strong, and just like T.V., more time spent at home alone in the internet is less time spent in the world of real human beings. I’m aware of the argument that we’re still interacting with people online but we do not yet have a substitute for IRL human interaction. We are still wired biologically to crave human touch. We consumption increases, will have commensurately less conscious incentive to even to try to connect with real 3-D persons, connections that seem pretty important to basic mental health.

Less interaction with humans breeds less compassion. Less compassion leads to one-world-view-egoism. One-world-view-egoism means a direct replication of the IRL issues into the online world. And what does that mean? We don’t know yet. We’re just moving problems from one medium to another.

↩︎ [1] I highly recommend this book in you're curious about how the online world affects us: Jon Ronson, So You've Been Publicly Shamed↗︎, 2015

↩︎ [2] Chris Arnade, Why someone would vote for Trump↗︎, 5/30/2016

↩︎ [3] Wikipedia, United States Senate career of Hilary Clinton ↗︎

↩︎ [4] May I present exhibits one ↗︎, two ↗︎, and three ↗︎. This sort of thing is getting awfully predictable and depressing.

↩︎ [5] David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction↗︎︎, 6/22/93


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