The Anti-Filter Bubble

A couple weeks ago, I was walking through Reservoir Hill en route to the light rail station.  I was on my way to BWI to catch a flight to Michigan where I would join Miriam, the kids and my in-laws for a much-needed vacation.  It was a hot day (what else is new?).  I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and schlepping my roller-bag and Martin “Back-Packer” guitar down an old cobblestone alley near my house.   A middle-aged African-American woman, well dressed and driving a shiny black sedan, pulled up along side and rolled down her window.  “You know, you should be careful in this neighborhood,” she warned.  I paused for a moment and then replied, “I live in this neighborhood.”  “Oh, okay,” she said clearly surprised.  And then she drove off.  


A new book by Eli Pariser, president of MoveOn.org, is entitled The Filter Bubble.  It details how the hidden rise of personalization on the Internet is controlling and limiting the information we consume. You might think this is a good thing.  If you are interested in conservative or progressive causes, shopping for particular items, or like a particular style of writing, isn’t filtering an asset?  Why shouldn’t our computers help us sift through the white noise and informational overload of the web to spend our time on issues and ideas that matter to us?  The problem, according to Pariser, is that we are becoming an increasingly isolated and bifurcated society partly because sites like Facebook and Google are shielding us from the “views and voices that challenge our own thinking.” 


It seems to me, though, that the challenge of the “filter bubble” applies not just to the virtual world but to the actual one as well.  Five minutes of the evening news reveals that the political wranglings on Capitol Hill are mitigated only slightly by the fact that Democrats and Republicans are sitting in the same room together.  They hear each other’s arguments.  The problem is that a particular line of thinking can become so habitual, so addictive that, like any addiction, it is extremely difficult to quit.  Think of the well-meaning lady in the black sedan who saw a young white man (dressed admittedly a bit like a tourist) in a primarily black neighborhood and reacted as if he didn’t belong.  I have no doubt that she fully intended to protect me – but she didn’t know me… nor does she know my neighborhood which has seen a sharp decline in crime over several years.  


We make assumptions every day. Hillel the Elder taught (Pirkei Avot 2:5): “Do not separate yourself from the community…. Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.”  The only way to pop the filter bubble of daily living is not simply to listen to one another (though, of course, this is important).  We must also endeavor to know our fellow human beings.  Intellectual integrity requires us to be informationally serpentine.  Moral growth demands a real (and not a virtual) “search” of the other.  

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