Sunday, August 16, 2015

We're not the consumers, we're the product.

As an argument and debate enthusiast, I've been complaining for years about the increasingly impenetrable political polarization that has been sweeping across our country and the world. People have become so encapsulated in their ideologies that anything less than hearing their own beliefs echoed back to them is like nails on a chalkboard.

It's not a new phenomenon, this hostility toward having one's beliefs challenged. It's a crime Socrates paid for with his life. Indeed, to enjoy argument requires a certain comfort level with the hostility of others; a comfort level that borders on the antisocial.

Although having an antisocial streak seems like a personality trait that is destructive to social bonds (and it certainly can be), it can also be a powerful tool for encouraging societies to advance, much like the way forest growth depends on forest fires to clear out the dead and dried underbrush and transform it into fresh, fertile soil.

But there has been a recent and drastic shift whereby Liberals and Conservatives have moved so far into their respective camps, so isolated within their own ideologies, that a call to the table is heard as a call to arms.

2014 Pew Research study showed that in the last 10 years, politically active citizens have moved further away from the isle,
and exhibit more animosity for their counterparts on the other side, than ever before. Here is a fun interactive illustration of political polarity in America over the course of the last decade. The article itself is long, and definitely worth reading.

But I have a theory about why this is happening, and you're probably holding it in your hand right now.

*   *   *   *   *   *

The internet connects us to one another in ways that have never before been possible. Finding like-minded folks in spite of vast demographical differences is one of the many blessings of modern technology, and it's tempting to think that connecting with people who are similar to ourselves is the reason that we have become isolated in our own echo chambers, but that's only one small piece of the puzzle.

I would argue that these internet enabled social groups are additive rather than subtractive because there have been so many significant cultural shifts in the last couple of decades, from gay rights to legalizing marijuana. Changes like these, not just in our laws but in our cultural conscience, cannot happen when large groups of people are isolated from other groups. Such fundamental cultural shifts in such a small period of time require exposure to the people we consider "other;" so much exposure that we eventually come to understand that "those people" are not very different from ourselves after all.

In one of the best Ted Talks ever given, Andrew Solomon talks about "vertical identities," which he says are passed from one generation to the next (like religion or nationality), and "horizontal identities," which we find in our peer groups (deaf culture, gay culture). He talks about how the Internet has fostered the ability of disparate individuals to find others like themselves and form communities and cultures, and has allowed the opportunity for those within their vertical identity groups to be more exposed to, and gain a better understanding of, the horizontal identities that used to remain foreign and misunderstood. That understanding leads to acceptance, first within families, then within social groups, and then attitudes ultimately begin to shift within the culture itself.

Still, these forward leaning cultural shifts, accelerated by the Internet, have happened in parallel with the deepening ideological divisions that have polarized our politics. So it does stand to reason that the Internet must somehow be playing a role in our divisions as well as our connections.

I had a eureka moment on this issue while reading a passage in Future Crimes by Mark Goodman. The passage was about all the free apps and services we all use every day. Google Docs, Gmail, Google Calender, Google Maps, this blog! All for free? Free. Seriously?

And we think we have it all figured out, of course. We wade through tons of distracting ads popping up in our faces in exchange for using all these free services, right?

"No," in the immortal words of Ford Prefect, "nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward."

As Goodman explains, if you're not paying for something, then you're not the consumer; you are the product. Your data is the product, more specifically. Where you live, where you'd like to live, where you work, what stores you shop at, do you have kids? Breast or bottle? And, most importantly, your GPS coordinates.

All of this personalized information shapes every facet of your online experience. So if you and I were to both do a Google search for, let's say, "doors," you might get a list of home furnishing DIY stores, and I might get a list of articles on Rock and Roll and Jim Morrison.

Apps like Angry Birds are quietly collecting data from your phone and selling it to people who want to sell you stuff. Furthermore, internet advertising is so cheap that even a small business, or single individual can buy ad space that only appears on a site when specific keywords are used. It's much more effective than filling the mailboxes of random individuals with coupons to your store, and it's much more targeted than a billboard on the side of a highway.

One example of this sort of advertising that most of us can relate to is when I was recently looking for glider brackets (essential hardware for turning a chair into a glider). I went to a few local hardware stores with no luck, and I was also looking for them online. Immediately, and for about the next week, every site I visited from Facebook to CNN had ads for glider brackets. It's the kind of thing that normally wouldn't have grabbed my attention, except that glider brackets are a very specialized and uncommon bit of hardware; not something that would be randomly advertised to the general consumer reading news articles on CNN.

Since most people in the US get a significant portion of their information online, what are the implications of getting our news and current events presented in a format that is based on algorithms designed to give us the information we already want to see? What are the political implications of ideological commentary and current events that is custom filtered for each individual?

Let's take that same customized advertising phenomenon and apply it to a topical hot-button issue like the Confederate flag. If you post favorable opinions about the Confederate flag online and search for images of the flag, your personal corner of the Internet is going to fill up with ads, news articles, and links to sites that promote "Southern" pride and related material. Now, when a Neo Nazi site uses Google Ad Words, they are going to concentrate their advertisements on sites that are frequented by their target audience: young, underemployed, frustrated people who may already have an attitude of racial resentment and entitlement (an attitude the group can cultivate into full-blown hate and terrorist activities). From the target's perspective, the more these images and ideas populate that individual's search results and Facebook page, the more these ideas will appear to be valid and acceptable.

In their less severe form, these custom filters inhibit the kind of personal growth that comes from argument and debate; growth that comes from having to defend your ideas and learning how to express them in different ways to different individuals; and most importantly, the kind of growth that comes from listening to the ideas of people who disagree with you.

So, whether you've strayed from your comfort zone to read this or not, I would love to hear your opinion, especially if you disagree with me. 

No comments: