Vivek Haldar

In Aggregate

It is safe to say Nicholos Negroponte’s prediction of the “Daily Me” has come to pass, possibly even beyond his wildest expectations. His original vision was of a “virtual daily newspaper customized for an individual’s tastes.” But, as Wikipedia puts it:

The term has also been associated with the phenomenon of individuals customizing and personalizing their news feeds, resulting in their being exposed only to content they are already inclined to agree with. The Daily Me can thus be a critical component of the “echo chamber” effect, defined in an article in Salon by David Weinberger as “those Internet spaces where like-minded people listen only to those people who already agree with them.”

It is a well-known fact in debating societies – and among political campaigners – that the best way strenghthen your position is to not focus on winning over people who don’t believe you, but give your believers even more reasons to believe. Iterate this over a few hundred years and you end up with cliques of people with strongly held and inflexible views.

And all they want to do when they reach for the newspaper, or the laptop, is reconfirm those views.

I don’t know anyone, including myself, who actively seeks out news sources outside their regular sources. Do you? Doesn’t Reddit, Hacker News, NYT and the blogroll of tech bloggers get old after a while?

We all get a majority of our news through aggregators where the top stories are the ones with most upvotes. In this sense, aggregators are nothing but machines for providing us a steady stream of agreement.

Cass Sunstein has written a critique of the Daily Me idea, arguing that being exposed to ideas one does not agree with is crucial for a healthy democracy. The central idea is that of group polarization:

The idea is that after deliberating with one another, people are likely to move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which they were previously inclined, as indicated by the median of their predeliberation judgments. With respect to the Internet, the implication is that groups of people, especially if they are like-minded, will end up thinking the same thing that they thought before—but in more extreme form.

Part of the problem is that the average modern urban human lives in an almost completely mediated world, where experiences and ideas come to him many times removed from their original source. Think of all the beliefs you hold, and then tally up how many of them you have arrived at through your own direct experience. For most people, that tally is vanishingly small. Of course, mediation – and shelter – from the harsh natural world is what technology is all about. The tension between the atavistic pull of the primordial and the natural curiousity of invention is at the heart of the value of technology. (Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” is by far the best exposition of this idea I’ve read).

Michael Crichton, in his autobiographical “Travels”, makes a deeper point about living in a mediated world for extended periods of time. It’s not just that one becomes used to seeing the same things all the time, but that it makes one incapable of perceiving things outside their tunnel-vision.

One of the most difficult features of direct experience is that it is unfiltered by any theories and expectations. It’s hard to observe without imposing a theory to explain what we’re seeing, but the trouble with theories, as Einstein said, is that they explain not only what is observed but what can be observed. We start to build expectations based on our theories. And often those expectations get in the way.

Is there a way out of the spiralling Daily-Me cycle? I can think of two ways: deep uninterrupted thinking, and direct unmediated experieces of the sort Crichton talks about in “Travels”. If you read the book, you’ll see how his contrarian views stem from his unmediated experieces.

On the rare occasions that I get an unbroken tract of time to just think and do nothing else, I’m surprised by how my thoughts wander into areas and conclusions that are contrary to the echo chamber I’m usually submerged in. Being unplugged and not deluged by the thoughts of others probably has something to do with it. Being plugged in certainly has its benefits, just not all the time.