Last year at TED, Eli Pariser gave a talk on how Google, Facebook, and other internet-based services are increasingly filtering the web to only show up things that we generally agree with and are interested in.
In a world increasingly concerned with happiness and relevancy and speed, how do you learn something new if information is constantly being filtered for you?
You look like the sum of your actions.
I’m a married, middle class, liberal, educated, white guy, marketer that runs, rides bikes, and plays guitar now and then, so what types of things do you think I Google? Here are a few examples from the last few months:
- Change a rear derailleur cable
- New Balance Minimus
- Stratocaster history
- Obama’s staff
- Average MBA age
- Twitter press releases
- etc etc etc
And, what kind of people do you think I friend on Facebook and what type of statuses do I tend to like, share, or comment on more than others?
So, you can see that, even if I wanted information outside of my comfort zone, Google and Facebook would be unlikely to give it to me because they want to keep me happy with their services and therefore try to keep them as relevant as possible by showing me what they think makes me happy. Let’s say that my colleague implores me to learn more about the Republican presidential candidates because he believes I should be more open minded, so I google them. More than likely, Daily Kos will outrank Fox News in my search results even if Fox News has the overall better page for my search. Why? Because, Google thinks I’d be happier with their service if I get a search result that suits my interests.
So, maybe I avoid Google and post a Facebook status, “Can someone please tell me about some good ideas the Republican presidential candidates have?” Which of my friends are more likely to see my status and even be able to respond? The ones that have the most in common with me, which Facebook judges based on whom I interact with most frequently, and if my conservative friends aren’t as likely to see my question, I’m not likely to get the best possible answer, but I’ll never know that because I don’t know what I don’t know. I can’t see the missing information. I only know that, when I get an answer, I get an answer – not whether or not it is THE BEST answer.
Let your thoughts be your actions.
Most of us spend 8+ hours every day in front of a computer screen. If we sleep an average of 8 hours every night, that leaves at most 8 hours for commuting, eating, exercising, spending time with family, and everything else, so if we’re really lucky, we might get one or two hours every day where our information sources are not being actively filtered – one or two hours every day when we can see billboards, commercials, magazine articles, friends, and more that bring us new or conflicting ideas. But, do we go out of our way to find competing opinions and ideas, to introduce ourselves to something outside of our comfort zone? No.
Yet, we ask ourselves questions about other’s politics, their religious beliefs, their sexuality, their cultures, and more. We’re just too busy and not really interested enough in spending the time to learn about them, and this leads our information gateways – Google and Facebook – to increasingly believe that we are what we do and not what we think, but we can change that.
Try this exercise for one day – just one day.
Whenever you think about anything around which you have an opinion, write in a notebook, make an evernote, send yourself a text, or somehow otherwise make note of it. Later in the day, do both of these things. Go to a search engine you never use – Bing, DuckDuckGo, Blekko, etc – and learn about an opposing opinion AND ask the most informed person you know for a 2 minute CliffsNotes version of the other side of the story.
That day won’t be too extremely shocking. It’s the next day or week that really starts to open your eyes.
The next day, skip reading your normal news or listening to your normal radio station and go back to those websites and friends that gave you answers and now read about and ask about more and different topics. Even if you don’t agree with the viewpoints you’re given, you’ll find yourself more informed and less filtered by what a machine thinks you want.
I tried this while living overseas in 2004 – though I’ll admit that personalization at that point was very minimal – and I’ve never gone back. Sure, I use Google while logged in without being too concerned, and I have largely friends like me on Facebook, but I no longer rely on the filters to bring me the best information. I now have a habit of going to websites I don’t agree with to get their point of view and asking friends I might have otherwise just dismissed or argued with to help me understand the full picture better.
Be deliberate and diligent.
In Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, both authors discuss that deliberate practice – and lots of it – is often one of the largest contributing factors to world class achievement. Much the same, the development of your mind and life – such that you are not a filtered, sheltered, and biased human being – depends on you taking the approach above and applying it every day.
Don’t like bleeding heart liberals? Fine, but how will you ever know why if you don’t stay informed (outside of your bubble) about them. Hate the Defense of Marriage movement? Fine, but have you gone outside your liberal village to find out what really drives those people? If you don’t ever do that, how can you make an informed decision about why and whether or not to hate?
This goes beyond politics.
Politics is obviously an easy example, but progressing in music, sports, your career, and other things hinges on two things:
- Your ability to go outside your comfort zone.
- Your ability to stick to it when everyone else gives up.
Nothing more and nothing less will ensure that you learn something new better, faster, and more effectively than anyone else around.