Can Tech Break Us Out of Our Bubbles?
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The internet has created a wealth of information and entertainment, and it’s great.
However, we still don’t have the perfect ways to find movies, books, music, information, and activities that we might like – and especially those that push us out of our comfort zones.
Finding the best ways to discover new things in our abundance online is a technological challenge – but also a human one. We have to want to expose ourselves to ideas and entertainment that don’t necessarily fit our status quo.
I hope we can. It’s a way to make our life fuller.
Call me cheesy, but I still marvel at the wonder the online world is bringing to our doorstep. We can visit top chess players on Twitch, discover black-owned products, listen to people discuss nuclear power in the clubhouse, or play around with a Polaroid-style photo app.
It is wonderful. But we can only experience it when we know it exists and feel compelled to seek it. Enter the computers.
Online services like YouTube, Netflix, and TikTok process what you’ve already seen, or its computer systems infer your tastes and then suggest more of it. Sites like Facebook and Twitter expose you to what your friends like or to material that many other people already find interesting.
These approaches have drawbacks. A big problem is that they encourage us to stay in our bladders. We follow and observe what we already know and like, either through our own inclination or through the design of the Internet pages. (Counterpoint: some research has found that social media exposes people to broader perspectives.)
More ideas, more things to keep us entertained – and more ways to validate what we already believe or to be controlled by people playing the algorithm machines. This was a pre-internet reality, but it is now amplified.
What is the solution? I’m not sure. My colleague Kevin Roose told me last year that it is important to understand how the internet masses or computer systems can influence our decisions. Rather than relying on computerized suggestions, Kevin turned off the autoplay option in YouTube’s video settings and created his own music playlists on Spotify.
I also appreciate ideas for combining computational discovery with experts who may guide you in a new direction. Spotify has song playlists created by experts. Apple editors pop up in news articles suggesting apps for users to try. I want a lot more experiments like this one.
News organizations like BuzzFeed News and The New York Times have attempted projects to expose readers to conflicting viewpoints. Facebook battled a similar idea to recommend online forums that people don’t normally encounter, the Wall Street Journal reported last year.
To find things that are different from what we normally like, we also need to be open to ideas, culture, and distractions that challenge and surprise us. I wonder if most people have the willingness or time to do this.
In the sea of abundance on the Internet, I often fall back on the tried and tested: word of mouth recommendations from people I know and from experts. Whenever I’m looking for a new book, I ask bookworm friends or read professional reviewers.
I don’t think I trust the online masses or algorithms, but I am missing out. It feels like the miracle is right at my fingertips and I can’t quite reach it.
We want to hear about it from the readers! How do you discover new books, music, information, and activities? Tell us what you like about digital modes for finding new content and what you think are missing. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your head start
Net neutrality, part II
Some On Tech readers told us they were upset with Thursday’s newsletter on its way to proposed regulations that would force ISPs to treat all online content on the same basis.
I have described the fight for rules to anchor this net neutrality principle as “pointless,” and I understand why people who advocated net neutrality thought I was slippery.
It was a fair review. What I was trying to express was exhaustion. The current struggles to regulate net neutrality go back to at least 2008. The protracted efforts in this area make me pessimistic about the possibility of new rules or restrictions that could tame the disadvantages of our digital world.
My colleague Cecilia Kang and I also discussed the relative importance of net neutrality compared to other technical guidelines, including effective rules for online expression and the influence of tech superpowers.
One valid setback from Evan Greer, an associate director of the Digital Rights Group Fight for the Future, is that anchoring net neutrality into law is essential to curtail its power when people are worried about big tech.
I will also say something about internet regulation. I am angry every day that so many Americans – especially blacks and Latinos and rural households – cannot access or afford the internet. (Cecilia has a new article on an emergency government subsidy for home internet access.)
I’m also mad that Americans (and Canadians!) Are paying more for inferior internet and cellphone services than people in most other rich countries.
These are complex problems that are not easy to fix. In my view, however, they are in part a symptom of America’s failure to establish effective telecommunications policies and of holding internet and telephone providers accountable for their promises for many decades. And these companies deserve a great deal of blame for covering up the issues and seeking any regulation.
Before we go …
To be cheesy again: I make fun of internet companies for just stealing other people’s ideas or doing trivial things. But my colleagues Kate Conger and Taylor Lorenz wrote about really fresh concepts from Twitter and a photo app start-up called Dispo.
The military were the original customers for Silicon Valley: Some large American tech companies have recently shied away from partnering with the US military, in part due to employee complaints. My colleague, Cade Metz, reported on smaller companies that advertise government and Pentagon businesses with technology, like a self-steering drone.
The Roombas act “drunk”: A software update for some models of robotic vacuums made them do weird things, like banging against walls repeatedly.
Chicago school teacher, writer, and rapper Dwayne Reed made a music video to encourage children to wear face masks. It’s extremely catchy. (Thanks to my colleague Natasha Singer for sharing.)
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