Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Help Students Pop The Filter Bubble

     Recently I've begun reading what I have come to consider one of the most important books I've encountered for quite a while: Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. I'm about a third of the way through, and I see enormous implications for society and some clear directives for us to consider in education.
     I'll summarize the gist of the argument. So much of what the Internet has become, not surprisingly, is about monetization. More specifically, how much money can be made by using the incredible amounts of data that can be gathered by tracking one's clicks. As companies gather that data, they analyze it and deliver a more personalized on-line experience for each user. Think of it as Amazon's recommendations run amok. Pariser explains, "More and more, your computer monitor is a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click" (2). At first glance, this seems harmless enough, perhaps even desirable in some ways.
     But think again. What Pariser calls "the filter bubble" is "a unique universe of information for each of us...which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information" (9). The danger is that we are subject to "a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us obvious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown" (14). Since humans love confirmation of our own schemata, we welcome such a world, sort of like listening to media which only confirms our political beliefs. And, Pariser points out, "By definition, a world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there's nothing to learn" (14). 
     Furthermore, such a world essentially removes some of the basic elements that drive learning. In many ways learning is driven by our need to make sense of a degree of dissonance. It forces us to adapt, which necessitates learning. Piaget talks about our need to achieve balance in a constant process of assimilation and accommodation. In assimilation we fit everything into our sense of the world; in accommodation, we adjust our world view because of new information. Pariser cites psychologist George Lowenstein, who says "curiosity is aroused when we're presented with an 'information gap.' It's a sensation of deprivation" (90), comparable to the desire to tear open a present. Taking that idea a step further, Arthur Koestler "describes creativity as 'bisociation'--the intersection of two 'matrices' of thought" (93) in ways that "re-shuffles" already existing constructs.As we know from the work of Steven Johnson,  heavily cited in the book, creativity also depends heavily on serendipity (see How does that happen when "the filter bubble invisibly transforms the world we experience by controlling what we see and don't see" (82) and "dramatically amplif[ies] confirmation bias" (87)?
     This has large-scale consequences. Pariser writes, "Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another's point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we're offered parallel but separate universes" (4). Innovation and creativity lie at the heart of economic development, yet we're removing much of what can fuel them. Our diverse world is becoming more and more interconnected and inter-reliant; yet we dwell in a world that can foster narrow-mindedness.
     With our students growing up in such a world, schools have an even greater obligation to reconsider their large-picture mission. It's about how to live a meaningful life in such a world. That means awareness and critical thinking, not mere fact accumulation. That means helping students make connections, not keeping disciplines separate. That means learning to ask the right questions, not mere bubble coloring. That means grappling with relevant problems, not made-up examples. That means collaborating with diverse groups, not working in isolation. That means learning to use powerful technology, not letting it use us. That means helping them pop the filter bubble.

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