My Dear Students | What we lose in an algorithm-mediated world of social media echo chambers
(‘My dear students’, a fortnightly column that is a conversation with young minds about current events, books, popular culture – just about anything worth talking about over a cup of coffee.)
Today I want to talk to you about technology and personal social media. Oddly enough, I was led to this topic when I was looking through the weekend papers the previous Sunday morning. To avoid confusion, when I said I was looking through newspapers, I meant that I was actually looking, not browsing online.
Like you, I also get my fair share of news through Twitter and YouTube every day. I like Twitter and YouTube because I often get quirky humor, memes and if I’m lucky, some blunt facts. I am aware that the news feed is personalized according to my tastes and interests.
YouTube is particularly mischievous in this regard. Sometimes I feel YouTube knows me better than I know myself. I also look forward to the Sunday edition of newspapers where I receive news that is not specially compiled for me. I like the feeling of reading something that an algorithm didn’t pick for me. I read in the papers about Salman Rushdie’s latest book and about Mithila paintings. For some reason unknown to me, online algorithms have decided that Rushdie and Mithila paintings are not for me.
My experience with weekend papers brings home the radical way technology has affected our reading habits and personalities. I read a book on the philosophy of technology by Langdon Winner.
Wenner’s book, entitled “The Whale and the Reactor” deals with the myriad ways in which politics, personality and technology interact with each other. Langdon makes the point that the curation of digital news content has deepened the narcissistic instincts in us.
Digital media not only focuses on our likes and dislikes, but also offers opportunities to broadcast your own wonderful personality and to seek out spaces in which the strengthening of the “I” finally becomes a readily available project, one that is potentially available is for anyone who is active online. ‘
Social media has made us focus more on ourselves, putting us in echo chambers and emphasizing how we can make ourselves more attractive to others. There is no stronger antidote to living empathetic lives with an emphasis on one’s role in one’s community. We are now emphatically the center of our lives.
Of course, I was also struck by the fact that technology deepens our personalities. Let’s say you are interested in political philosophy. Social media connects you with a community of like-minded philosophers, connects you to valuable resources, and introduces you to events and conversations that you would rarely have thought of on your own.
This can be a good thing and a bad thing. This is a good thing because for the first time we don’t have to depend on other people, we have machines to develop our hobbies, our interests and our talents. But we are also enabled to eventually become more self-centered and there is every possibility that we become less aware of other people’s needs and interests. Even the community we interact with is one with which we primarily have a transactional relationship. We are more interested in what we can get out of our online connections, rather than contributing to other people’s lives.
I will finish by telling you about two further problems with technology and its effect on our personalities. I’ll start with the lesser but more well-known problem first. The way social media obtains information about our revealed preferences, it is entirely possible that we can cede control of our personalities to the gatekeepers of social media.
We will not only be narcissists, but pseudo-narcissists, obsessed not with ourselves but with a version of ourselves that algorithms have made possible.
The bigger problem is that technology could have permanently changed the way we analyze the world around us. There is a story from the recently released memoirs of Prince Harry that struck me as particularly poignant.
Prince Harry, when he was barely in his teens, accompanied his father on a trip to South Africa. As Royals tend to do, they enlisted a well-known historian, David Rattray, to tell Prince Harry and his family about the battle between the Redcoats and Zulu warriors at KwaZulu-Natal. Rattray was not a mere reciter of imperial facts.
He criticized the British for their role in African history. The historian’s criticism washed over Prince Harry like water off a duck’s back. All he heard were the stories of British bravery in their fight against the Zulus. It’s like he has a mental filter built in that only sees what he’s most interested in. Prince
Harry writes ‘I had a view of the battle, of Britain, which did not admit of new facts. So I zoomed in on the bits about manly courage and British power, and when I should have been horrified, I was inspired. We’re all a little like little Prince Harry these days. We read what we want to read, even if it is presented with a complex set of facts.
After being the center of attention online, with our interests and desires indulged all the time, we seem to have lost the ability to analyze facts in a deep and thoughtful way. Our brains are now hardwired to sift through material to find what is relevant to us and only us.
We must go to the world, rather than expecting the world to come to us. My dear students, it may already be too late to enter into conversation with the world on a blank page. But maybe you could start with the Sunday papers. Go read about Rushdie and about Mithila paintings, even if your algorithm tells you otherwise.