James Moran, writing in the Inkling recently, asserts that Facebook, and potentially other social media, are actively curating readers’ newsfeeds in order to serve up content that matches their existing worldview. Not only matches, but reinforces, of course, because the passive consumption of information is anything but passive, we’re actively shaping ourselves while we do it.
The notion of echo chambers on the internet is nothing new, of course. What’s novel about what Facebook is doing though, is that the self-selection has slipped below the level of the individual actor. When we, as individuals, follow like-minded bloggers, tweeters etc., at least there’s an element of choice. Self-selection’s slipped below the plimsoll line here, into the plumbing (in a gloriously salty maritime/plumbing mixed metaphor! I’ll discuss the way in which party political thinking resembles a lobster pot with a broken ballcock next week.)
The jury’s still out, by the way, on how strong the echo chamber effect is, but for me, the interesting issue raised by Moran’s article is somewhat broader – that some of the core conduits of our interpersonal interactions are now interceptable, manipulable, measurable mechanically – and therefore on a grand scale. At which point, I’m swapping my sea captain/plumber’s hat for my futurologist’s goggles.
And what goggles they are! They look like something from an 80’s pop video, don’t fit my head properly, and have a range of about 15 minutes forward when they’re not obscuring my vision. But wow are they cool? (no, don’t answer that one!)
According to the script by which we’ve chosen to run our modern civilisation, the role of a publicly floated corporation is to maximise the value for it’s shareholders. Never mind that that’s a contradictory goal, if the shareholders include long-term investors backing the company for years and hyper-twitching robots exploiting sub-second noise on the line of the share prices – a very good way to achieve the goal is to identify the common denominator upon which a large part of the population depends, and erect a toll booth. Existing pathways are generally quite saturated, although biotech companies’ efforts to target foodstuffs that are ubiquitous in processed food, such as canola oil and soya, and to diversify into privatised water supplies in the developing world, illustrate that this strategy can be played out on a common denominator as old-fashioned as food. But the other smart tack is to create a new market, and preferably pull the door shut behind you. Microsoft employed this strategy in the 80’s and 90’s to create and dominate the nascent market in personal computers (and then landed on the wrong side of the tracks of the mobile device market). But it’s nothing new, the same patterns were playing out 150 years ago as the smart money moved from canals to railways.
Anyway, back to the Facebook news feed, and echo chambers and all that. We’ve been talking to each other for millenia, but the recent rise of social media, and the ability to intercept that conversation, allows for the possibility of our conversation being turned into a market (yep, yep, nothing new – the printing press did that too, in just as revolutionary a way in it’s time).
So, goggles down, it’s time to bang into a few current pre-conceptions and obsessions as we stumble into the jaws of the future!
Compared to ten years ago, we probably spend more of our conversation time online, mediated via social media. I “know” a lot more people on Twitter than I did 3 years ago, and many of them I haven’t even met face to face. In which direction is this trend likely to go? Hologram technologies are actively being developed, as are VR headsets like the Oculus Rift. Wearable computing is big, voice-controlled assistants are teetering on the edge of actually being useful. Our interactions via technology are becoming more immersive.
Come and take a walk with me, in the future. Nowadays, when I go for a walk with a friend or friends, we’re all subject to the same views, the same sights and sounds, and the same old conversations. It’s only the 20-30% of our interactions that take place via social media that can be distorted by the echo chamber.
In the future, though, immersive technology could change all of that. Prefer my old haircut to the new one? No problem. If you enjoy my conversation but wouldn’t be seen dead in my company because of my awful fashion sense, you could hologram me up in a different set of clothes, CGI out my bald patches, and maybe replace some of my jokes with ones that are actually funny and original. You like beaches, I like woodlands? No problem.
You’d rather take in a movie? I like slow cinematography and moral dilemmas, you like action? No problem. He likes rom-com with a slow fade, she likes something a bit more graphic? No problem. All the technologies required for interactive movies are rapidly evolving within the games industry.
Why stick to rigid categories of interaction like walks, movies, or meals? I want to discuss philosophy, you want to shoot mutants – no problem. A sophisticated enough translation engine could convert your backflips into insightful comments and my ripostes into deadly energy bolts in such a way that we both come away feeling that we’ve really connected in rather a meaningful way, and must get together again soon. And if I’m accidentally double-booked – a walk/meal with you and a meal/saving or blowing up the world with someone else – the immersive tech’s translation engine can probably take care of that too.
Hey, if I got run over by a bus tomorrow, and that might make you feel bad, would you even have to know? The possibilities are more endless than we are.
This is fiction, of course. Science fiction – possibly the only kind of fiction capable of expressing the conundrums and dilemmas that we face now, in the real world, in a meaningful way. As Caitlin Moran demonstrates, fiction is a powerful tool for getting at the truth (and so is humour).
What I’ve written just now is not about the future, it’s about our lives now, here on this Earth. We’re already pretty good at taking past each other. On the worldstage, uncomfortable views, people, ideologies, ideas, practices, are airbrushed out of the picture. Our reality is constructed. And on close inspection, my futurist’s googles are nothing more than a bit of cardboard egg box, gold effect paint and knicker elastic.
So, if what I said makes you feel nervous, then you’re probably a left-leaning liberal, slightly arty sort – welcome to my echo chamber! No doubt there are a thousand things that I
hate find interestingly challenging about you, but thanks to the self-correcting newsfeed, we need never know.
If it makes you salivate and rub your hands, you’re probably a VC or entrepreneur, or a lefty liberal’s caricature of one. You are no doubt savvy enough to understand the grey line between truth and fiction, and see the opportunities anyway. (Well done for making it through the “barrage balloon” layer of vaguely anti-GM, anti-capitalist sentiment, btw!)
And if it makes you salivate and wag your tail, you’re probably a dog, in which case, I look forward to the immersive translation engine reaching a level of sophistication where I can have a really good chat with you about shooting mutants in early 20th century French cinema.