Once again I thank a friend from graduate school for sharing a provocative video (link provided below). Her action spurred me to write this blog entry. It is actually two entries in one, but they are so intertwined that I could not see how to separate them, so bear with me. I hope they make you think and question. I know they reminded me how being complacent and accepting things as they are is not always the best pathway, even if it’s an easy one.
PART I: What Internet Searches Via Google & Facebook Are Hiding from Us
Internet search engines are pretty phenomenal. Type in a subject area and avenues of exploration open up almost instantaneously. It’s impressive. As I slogged through my doctoral research, the library search-engine processes were a blessing. I do have to admit, however, that I am more annoyed than pleased when Amazon.com sends me emails enticing me to buy some book or another because I looked at comparable titles at some point in the past. Or when my local food store targets me with ads to buy again an item I never really wanted in the first place but bought for a friend. Still, it is easy enough to push those occasional irritations aside, like a bothersome mosquito. The processes behind Internet searches have been invisible to me—and that has been okay. Until now.
When the actual processes are explained, what seems like innocent filtering of extensive amounts of information becomes a bit more complex, even taking on an ominous tone. And if things continue the way they have been going, things could become very dire indeed. No, I am not saying there is a conspiracy lurking behind the search engines, but their standard practices are changing our access to all the extensive information that is out there for us to explore. Basically, algorithms control how the information is filtered or personalized once someone initiates a search. The algorithms look at what has been looked at before by the specific person conducting the search to decide what to show this time around.
This process makes it quicker to get results and ensures that each person is more apt to “like” or “agree” with the information filtered through the search. But what the searcher is not being shown through the process is becoming greater and greater—and will typically include information that could expand the dialog, acknowledge other perspectives, introduce new ideas, or simply show something unexpected.
For a theoretical example, say I wanted to research Dog Training. Given my past searches would have looked at “Pets,” “The Dog Whisperer” and “Puppy Mills,” I would receive info that would take into account that slant or propensity of thought. I would probably not hear about Vick and dog fighting—giving the illusion that such news stories and activities do not exist. As I said in an earlier blog entry, I want to be aware of what I do not know, so I can choose my own routes of exploration. The current search practices on the Internet are taking that choice away from me, from all of us, based simply on how the algorithms work.
The video my friend sent that introduced me to this worry about the Internet is posted below. It is a clear, concise overview of the longer treatise presented in the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. Eli Pariser, the author/presenter, was a bit nervous about making his presentation because big names from Google and Facebook were in the audience, but he continued anyway. Along with his basic expose, he also suggests that the algorithms could be re-written. I hope so. Watch the video and see what you think. Maybe you’ll have an idea you can share on how to circumvent or undermine current search practices.
PART II: TEDTalks? Aren’t They Great!?
The message of the above video bothered me—and generated Part I of this blog entry. But the video itself, the availability of TEDTalk videos like this one, is amazing and gives me hope regarding access to ideas and information. Thus PART II of this blog entry. The world is alive with creativity, critical thought, hope, expectation and calls to action. It is clear there are ways to use the Internet effectively to broaden our world and expand our thinking.
I had not heard of TEDTalks before, so I explored a bit. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design and is a non-profit organization devoted to ideas worth spreading. Over the years, its scope has broadened to look at and share ideas from a fuller range of topics than the three elements of the TED acronym. The TED website gives a lot of information through various features (conversations, blog, talks). The ideas are shared through the website but also through three conferences each year, two in the spring in the United States and an international one in the summer. Pariser’s talk was presented at the March conference.
One of the best features of the website is the catalog of TEDTalks on a plethora of topics. The website’s talks search index lets you look for the most recently released topics or the ones with the most comments or that are translated into the most languages. The general subject headings include Technology, Entertainment and Design—of course!—but also Business, Science, and Global Issues. Some of the other headings are more intriguing: they include but are not limited to funny, outrageous, courageous, beautiful and inspiring.
The website also seeks volunteer translators, so many of the talk videos are available in several languages. And what is available on the website is copyrighted under a Creative Commons license, which basically means teachers can freely use these videos in class to generate discussion. All the teachers need to do is cite the source and not distort the message, two activities good teachers try to instill as habits of mind for their students anyway. I am thrilled that this website and all these videos exist, including the one above about internet search algorithms. Some other titles that caught my eye include “9/11 Healing: The Mothers Who Found Forgiveness, Friendship,” “The Hidden Beauty of Pollination,” and “A Light Switch for Neurons.”
A Concluding Paradox
Be wary of the Internet. Don’t be seduced by current search practices that give speedy access to a seemingly vast amount of information while simultaneously limiting access to differing ideas and perspectives. At the same time, embrace the Internet and explore such websites as Ted.com and its TEDTalks for a chance to discover a full range of views and ideas. Our thoughtful role in the search process is the crucial step that keeps the Internet a powerful tool that can help keep imagination and curiosity alive. Imagination and curiosity are the goals for a better future.
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“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.” Eleanor Roosevelt
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Albert Einstein