Re-reading George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) recently, I couldn't help but wonder how much easier Winston Smith's job might be if his employer, the Ministry of Truth, had computers. I doubt that many people would want Smith's job to be any easier, since it involves re-writing historical documents to reflect the current official view. But my engineering brain nonetheless realised that doing this would be so much cheaper and easier if the Ministry of Truth had only to change entries in a central database rather than destroy all of the existing physical copies of a document, then re-print new ones reflecting the new view.
I have no plans to build a system for the Ministry of Truth. In fact one might argue that I don't need to, because we already have tools that could be made to meet the Ministry's needs: Wikipedia and Google. Might Orwell's novel have uses other than as the go-to reference for fantasies of surveillance and totalitarianism?
There are important differences between the real Wikipedia and real Google and anything that the Ministry of Truth might like. For one, however well-known and influential they are, there are alternatives and there are people willing and able to point out their flaws. For another, Wikipedia's pages aren't controlled by a central authority, and there's a "view history" link on every page. So I'm not particularly worried by either.
Perhaps a better question to ask is: how often do people read the alternatives, or view the history of a page? How many people might instead be building filter bubbles ready for abuse by a twenty-first century Ministry of Truth?
Doing some research for an article this weekend, I was reminded of how frustrating searching the web for information can be. Not only are web pages frequently superficial and poorly maintained — Wikipedia included — but searching for information about a particular event or non-web document turns up a mountain of umpteenth-generation re-posts of information for which the original source is lost in time, or maybe just ranked very lowly by search engines. I can see the attractions of a Ministry of Truth.
Thanks to the efforts of teachers, librarians and others, perhaps people are more aware of the weaknesses of relying solely on Wikipedia and Google than they might have been a few years ago. Still, it takes a lot of effort to thoroughly research a topic — and, for casual purposes, you can get away with whatever Wikipedia and Google serve up. Let's just not get complacent.
I recently signed up for an on-line course in university teaching with Coursera, in part because I was curious to see how massive open on-line courses ("MOOCs") work and in part as a lower-committment alternative to studying for a full-scale graduate certificate in higher education that I decided I wasn't currently able to afford or commit to. I might write more about the MOOC experience when the course is over, but I was first inspired to make a few observations on very large communities.
Logging in to the course for the first time, I was immediately impressed by my own smallness. There's nothing like glancing over hundreds of posts from other learners introducing themselves to remind oneself of what a tiny part of the world one occupies, even the relatively elite world of university teachers. Having happened to re-read Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy recently, I readily identified with the Total Perspective Vortex used to torture prisoners by showing them just how insignificant they are compared to the universe in its entirety.
I quickly saw that I was only going to be able skim over the posts made by other learners, and that I couldn't expect other learners to spend any more time appreciating whatever I was going to contribute. I've come to similar realisations reading Usenet articles in the 1990s, and observing the comments sections of popular news web more recently: with so many articles and comments out there to read, and many of them being less than enlightening, reading all of them is a fool's task.
Here lies a problem for the idea that blogs and comments would radically democratise media and political discussion: it simply isn't feasible to hold a conversation with millions of participants. Matthew Hindman details the result for political blogs in The Myth of Digital Democracy (2008): only a tiny handful of blogs have a wide readership, and they're mostly written by the same kind of people who previously wrote widely-read newspaper columns.
Going back to my course, I came to see the main value of posting to the discussion board to be not in intimate conversation with hundreds of my fellow learners, but in working through my own thoughts and putting them into a form in which they might be digested should someone happen to read them. (I take much the same view of this blog.) When reading the discussion board, I can only hope to get an overview of what everyone else is talking about, with only the occassional pause to read an eye-catching item in more depth.
So I hope my classmates won't be too offended if I miss any posts that they've slaved over, only to have them drown in a sea of other posts. It'll take more than a nice web site to expand our brains to encompass conversations with a hundred other people.
Amanda Parks recently wrote for The Social Interface about the expectation that we share our experiences via social media, and wondered if becoming pre-occupied with our media activities sometimes gets in the way of the experience we're supposedly enjoying. A few days after reading Parks' article, I happened to be seated on a train carriage behind a couple busily photographing and filming a good part of a trip from New South Wales' Southern Highlands to Campbelltown.
Prior to owning a digital camera, I rarely took photographs at all because I found that the photographs rarely reproduced much of the experience that had inspired me to take them. This may say something about my ability as a photographer. Since purchasing a digital camera, I've been more inclined to take photographs while hiking or travelling alone, and I find that looking back over them does frequently evoke the memory or being in that place even if the photographs aren't going to win any awards.
I still almost never take photographs while socialising. Sometimes I think it might be nice to be able to look back over a record of a good time, and I do occasionally glance over photographs taken by friends. But while I'm actually engaged in the socialising, it seems awkward and artificial to dig out a camera. Watching the couple filming their train ride, I thought: why don't you stop fiddling with those awkward-looking tablet things and just enjoy the experience? And whatever happened to that advice to never look like a tourist?
Presumably Sydney's intercity rail network is less mundane to that couple than it is to me. And obviously plenty of people feel that they can pull out a camera with a lot more aplomb than me. But how much does anyone actually care about the results? Well before anyone coined the term "social media", I remember comedians getting plenty of laughs out of travellers boring their friends with post-holiday slide shows. Parks similarly concludes her article with an anecdote illustrating the disappointing result of sharing photographs that seem wondrous to the person who experienced the event, but are only cheap second-hand experiences for everyone else.
Perhaps being better photographers would improve our friends' experiences. After all, talented photographers, film-makers and writers can make a living out of travel books and documentaries. But, to go by my own experience of writing publishable papers, I doubt that even those talented folks publish everything they record. However the act of recording might affect the experience itself, perhaps we need to remember that frequent communication is not the same as good communication.
Last week, I happened across an essay collection by the name of What Is Your Dangerous Idea? (2007), edited by John Brockman. The eponymous question, originally asked by Steven Pinker, asked contributors to Edge for ideas that "are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age".
Many of the contributors discuss ideas that they themselves appear to be comfortable with, but might seem threatening to more traditional thinkers. Scientific materialists, for example, have long been used to the idea that there is no soul, however terrible this might seem to more spiritualist thinkers. So I got to wondering not just what ideas might seem dangerous to society at large, but also what ideas might seem dangerous to me.
I'm sure there are plenty of ideas that threaten both society and I — like, God exists and he's not very happy with what we're doing — but I'd like to stick to the topic of this blog. As it happens, I found myself in a discussion about social networks — primarily LinkedIn — with some work colleagues at around the same time I read the book.
My dangerous idea in this respect is that social networks support an illusion of connection representing nothing more than the mindless clicking of buttons. Facebook and LinkedIn build an audience based on our need to feel connected, and the feeling that it is rude to say "no" to connection requests. They sell this audience to their advertisers, and the advertisers to sell their products to us, all without actually connecting anyone.
The dangerous idea to me is the converse one that users of social networks are, in fact, using these tools to build significant relationships, and that I've cut myself off from society and opportunity by refusing them. One of my colleagues, for example, claimed that many jobs are advertised only on LinkedIn, and I've read elsewhere that (some) recruiters rely on LinkedIn to fill positions.
Probably — and possibly hopefully — the truth lies somewhere in between. Perhaps some people successfully create or maintain relationships using Facebook (probably in conjunction with other tools), and perhaps some people find jobs using LinkedIn. But not all on-line connections are equal, and some are surely so superficial as to be meaningless. Nor is Facebook the only way of maintaining a relationship, or LinkedIn of finding a job, allowing each of us at least some freedom to choose the tools that best suit our individual needs. If it were otherwise, I think the only people who wouldn't be endangered might be Facebook and LinkedIn.
I recently read Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble (2011), which discusses the potential for highly-personalised news feeds and search results to trap users in a "filter bubble" from which they can see only what news and results support their existing world-view. Cass Sunstein actually postulated that this might happen some time ago in Republic.com (2002), but Pariser updates the argument for ten years of advances in recommendation and personalisation technology.
By coincidence, my local university library happened to have Tim Dunlop's The New Front Page (2013) on its "new books" shelf around the same time. Dunlop's book is primarily a chronicle of his adventures in political blogging and the traditional media since the word "blog" was coined, but he does spend a little time discussing Sunstein's thesis. Dunlop points out that Sunstein's original analysis was conjectural, and that political bloggers since 2002 have, in fact, read and linked to the blogs of their political opponents.
To judge by the comments sections of opinion sites like The Drum and The Conversation, Dunlop is probably right as far as he goes: whatever the political alignment of an article, plenty of commenters of a competing alignment can always find time to criticise the article. That's not to say that the comments are necessarily insightful or constructive, or even that the commenters have actually read and understood the article: The Drum, especially, features plenty of mindless repetition of party lines and dogma. One is tempted to observe that, while Dunlop might be right about the motions, Sunstein was right about the end result.
Thinking about the news that arrives in my inbox, and some of the thoughts I've had about the computer industry in writing this blog, I wonder if politics is actually the least likely subject to end up in a filter bubble. Opposing political forces are at least aware of each other's existence, even if it's only to hold each other up as bogymen. But a computer scientist (for example) constantly surrounded by news about computers can easily forget that the computer industry is but one of numerous industries and agencies that contribute to modern society being what it is. Hence the mutual incomprehension that arises when one industry's orthodoxy conflicts with another industry's orthodoxy.
So I think there's an argument that we're as likely to build a filter bubble by ourselves as we are to have one built for us by technology. All that dogma on the The Drum is a case in point: the critics have the opportunity to engage with an article in a meaningful way, but many simply choose to re-state a party line. Even supposedly sophisticated communications theorists sometimes like to interpret the world through a one-dimensional lens, be it class or race or gender or sexuality or technology. I'm yet to meet a communications theorist offering an "industryist" analysis of the media, but many of us might be doing it in our own amateur way by being bound to the fate of the industry in which we work.