Are we redacting our worlds?

by Kristin on July 19, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Image by //sugar

Do you ever love a new technology or product that enters the scene, but at the same time feel a nagging sense of worry or dread about that new thing, and how quickly you’ve embraced it? It’s like you’re all caught up in the cool, fun excitement of it all, and then suddenly you catch a glimpse at how our adoption of that thing might irrevocably be changing the world as we know it.

That sense of dread recently hit my husband Jason and I, as we were talking about our love for Zite, an iPad app that creates a custom magazine for you. To help Zite get started on your tailor-made publication, you can either check all of the topics that are of interest to you—from politics and architecture to DIY ideas, food, and parenting—or you can simply let Zite take a look at your Twitter feed and base your magazine content on key words and links found there.

Once your magazine is created, you have the option to give each article you read a thumbs up or down in terms of topic and the source. For instance, today I said I liked the article “Can Playgrounds Be Too Safe?” and I wanted to see more articles like that, and more articles from that particular source, The New York Times. Zite did whatever it does to take note of my preferences, shifting and narrowing in on who I am and what I like.

Cool, huh? And definitely time-saving. Zite combines all of my favorite blogs and news sources into one neat and tidy format. Why waste my limited time sorting through stuff I’m not interested in, or viewpoints I clearly don’t (and won’t) agree with?

What does discovery and surprise have to do with polarization?

Well, because our world is becoming rapidly, drastically polarized, and it’s scaring me more than just about anything else. This polarization is impacting every part of our lives, and it’s very possible that our ability to custom-curate and tailor our very worlds is contributing to this problem.

As Jason put it, we’re in danger of losing “the joy of discovery.” True discovery usually involves something new and unexpected—something that takes you by surprise. A discovery makes you step back, pause and consider how to process and maybe even incorporate that new thing, whether it be a new flavor of food, an unfamiliar culture, or a different way of organizing and running a business.

But when we are able to curate the world around us, we have the power to block or redact the sources and opportunities of true discovery. We decide what we want to see, and then take a thick marker to everything else, blacking it out to preserve our take on the world. We control the conversation.

“If everything you read reinforces your preconceived notions of the world, then everyone is just going to continue to narrow their perceptions,” Jason said.

Enter the pit of dread in my stomach

People who aren’t worried about this sort of thing will say “Oh, we’ve been doing that forever, just in different ways.” To some extent, it’s true. We tend to choose neighborhoods and churches filled with people mostly like us, and we almost always choose our friends according to common interests and viewpoints. We go to restaurants that serve the type of food we like, and listen to radio stations (if anyone does that any more) that play the style of music we like.

All of that “curation” was going on long before Web 2.0 became a “thing.” Now, Pandora custom-creates our playlists, Amazon tells us what we should buy, and Google custom-places the ads we see. On Twitter and Facebook, we choose who to follow or friend according to shared interests, and we can easily block or unfollow those who stray annoyingly far from our take on the world.

So we’re going to edit our worlds, and to a certain extent we should. But where and how to we draw the line? It seems like we should be especially aware of this in terms of our news and information sources, but also in respect to the people we know and converse with. (Just a glance at the posts I’ve written and tagged with “difference” makes it pretty clear that this subject has long been on my mind.)

Jason, being who he is, actually wrote a brief email to Zite’s CEO, Mark Johnson, who wrote back, saying that “serendipity” is one of the things they “care about deeply” at Zite. They’re working to make sure the unexpected remains a part of the equation. What steps can we take in our day-to-day lives?

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  • gina b

    I heard on one of the videos from this year’s TED conference that Google is now choosing WHAT search engine results you get based on your preferences too. (Speaker challenged Google and Facebook to change that!) So it’s not just that ads are catering, information is catering and worldviews are getting slimmer, and less tolerant. After all, if everything you see is backed up and supported by everything else you see, you must be right, no? It’s scary to me.

  • Paul Merrill

    As I have been exploring Google+, I struggled to find “Sparks” areas. But if I could find things I truly enjoy and resonate with, I’d love to go deeper.

  • HopefulLeigh

    Very interesting topic, Kristin. This may be why I still like to read the print newspaper every day. No, I don’t read every article but I like having it spread out before me, taking in the headlines, skimming when necessary, and giving undivided attention to other articles. This is why I fear the rise of e-newspapers. I love my computer but I don’t want all of my information on here! I tend to skip over more things on the Internet than I do while reading a book, magazine, or the paper. Maybe because of the sheer amount of information that’s available to us online?

    In terms of the differing opinions and backgrounds of people around us, it is entirely too easy to sort people into categories and circles. But we’re all bigger than that! Some categorization is good, as is blocking those that are most contentious. When I find myself itching to unfriend or hide people from my feed because of an opposing belief, that’s when I need to look inside and figure out why I’m not OK with the tension of difference. It’s not them, it’s me.

  • Kristin T.

    gina b, wow, I didn’t realize that about Google, but I’m not surprised. And you are right on with this: “After all, if everything you see is backed up and supported by everything else you see, you must be right, no?” Scary, indeed. I think challenging these developments—on a corporate/public level and on a personal level—is really important.

    Paul, I just responded to a Google+ invite today, and haven’t even taken the time to explore it yet. This world we live in gets complex so quickly, doesn’t it?

    HopefulLeigh, it’s interesting—we do skim and read various parts of the print newspaper, just as you pointed out, but it’s a different sort of editing/curating. With a newspaper, the stories we choose not to read are still there, and we have to read enough (even just the headline) to make the choice to not keep reading. That’s at least some exposure. Thanks, too, for this wisdom regarding our reactions to people with differing opinions: “…I need to look inside and figure out why I’m not OK with the tension of difference.”

  • Meredith

    In grad school, I studied communication theory and there’s a whole realm of communication theory that deals with selectivity, or – as you’ve demonstrated – the idea that we pick things (information, articles, churches, neighborhoods, etc) based on what we already know we like. The basic idea behind is is that editing or curating allows us to feel positive about the situation by reducing the occurrences of cognitive dissonance.

    There’s a lot more to the theory – I’m definitely oversimplifying – but you’re alone in wondering about the effects of editing or curating. And the fact that you’re aware that you do it (that we all do it) is helpful. Once you understand what you do and maybe even why, you can take steps to continue doing it or try to expand your world instead.

  • Genevieve

    In some ways, we’re exposed to more different viewpoints and opinions and experiences than EVER thanks to evolving technology. Sometimes I think with apps like these, people are just trying to create that safe world for themselves (the safe place we all need) where they can feel comfortable and unjudged and vulnerable.

    That being said, I make my most conscious effort to be spontaneous in my “real world” life. Doing a three-point-turn in the car to visit that random, tiny Mexican joint that looks so cute, even though I haven’t checked it out with Yelp (and deciding against the place we were going to hit). Ditching my early bus home to duck into a neat Irish pub for a drink, even though I’m alone. Talking to the stranger who looks lonely. Picking up the phone to call a friend I would have just texted back. Saying the thing that everybody’s thinking but no one wants to say, and supporting others when they do the same. Running with the flippant “Too bad we can’t…” remarks and taking the opportunity to do something crazy and unexpected and very “oh, yes, we can!”

  • Jen

    Another side to this is that if everything is customized to the individual, then what happens to the communal experience? Working in radio makes me think about this a lot. I love Pandora (shh, don’t tell my boss! ;)) because I love to discover new, niche music similar to what I already love, but I also think it’s amazing that when we’re playing a song or telling a story on the radio there are literally thousands of people hearing it together. Ah, but even that is catered to a narrow target….

    A random thought. I too love/hate this “all about me” curation and customization world of the Internet.

    Zite does sound super cool though. :)

  • Roxanne

    My life is a function of all the differences I encounter on a daily basis. I think I would be quite a close-minded, intolerant person if I curated my entire world. I like to use technology to expand my world, not make it smaller. This was an interesting post; thanx.

  • Randy

    I have to keep remembering that the accidental find, the serendipity (and possibly synchronicity) of the unexpected and being stretched by viewpoints other than my own make my life richer. It exposes me to the magic (not in the Harry Potter sense, except as it opens minds to consider frindship and the fantastic) available to me in this most excellent place.

  • Kristin T.

    Meredith, I’m so glad you have some “real” knowledge to bring to the conversation! I’ve read about “cognitive dissonance” before, but it didn’t come to mind as I was writing this. That’s a big part of what’s going on here, I think! I love the idea of making a plan for how, as individuals, we can be intentional about expanding, rather narrowing, our worlds.

    Genevieve, yes, I’ve always thought social media and our ability to access information has expanded my world much more than it has narrowed it, but it does seem like maybe we’re turning a corner with new apps and programs. Maybe the first wave of the web was all about opening up the world, exposing ourselves to as much as we could handle, but then we started feeling overwhelmed and numb, so now we’re in curating/editing mode, blocking out everything we can? And we need to find a middle ground? (Btw, I LOVE your examples of spontaneity in your “real world.”)

    Jen, communal experience is such an important thing to consider. The experience of going to a live show is partly about the musicians interacting with the audience and maybe being more experimental and free in their arrangements, but for me it’s even more about the communal experience—enjoying the music surrounded by others who are enjoying it, too. We all have something in common, but there’s often lots of variety in the crowd, too. It’s no longer just about me and my experience.

    Roxanne, I know this is true for me: “I would be quite a close-minded, intolerant person if I curated my entire world.” The situations in my life that I have the least control over tend to be the ones that stretch me and teach me the most.

    Randy, I love how you put this: “…the accidental find, the serendipity (and possibly synchronicity) of the unexpected…” You’re right—we need to keep reminding ourselves of the power of those moments, because it’s so easy to otherwise slip into comfortable-and-safe mode.

  • Beyondmany

    You always seem to offer interesting ideas and concepts in your writing!
    I was about to mention the TED presentation, but it looks like Jen has that nicely covered. :)

    It was a pleasure to read some statements from Jason and I like the way in which you injected them into the article– almost as two unique voices spoke in harmony.

  • The Modern Gal

    I agree with you that we do tend to select voices and views that we WANT to hear and read, and that’s helped contribute to our polarization. But I also think anyone who WANTS to discover things outside their comfort zone has an easier way of doing it. For one example, I’ve discovered far different music thanks to the Internet than I ever did before I used it.

    Still, extreme polarization seems to be a growing problem. I’ve tended to think it was related to the fact that people with extreme views had more of a platform to voice their opinions, and those who shared their views could access them and connect with them more, whereas in the past maybe those with extreme opinions were more isolated. I want to think isolation is always bad, but the extremes we seem to be facing these days scares me.