The Ghetto for the Internet Age
Written by Bret Sanford-Chung
November 28, 2017
The concept of keeping oneself enclosed in a community of sameness is nothing new—the same ethnic group, the same religion, have formed communities for millennia. But ghettos are something different—human nature taking unhealthy turn. They create separation, alienation, economic hierarchy, a sense of implied inferiority. We’ve reviled them, created social programs aimed at annihilating them. Yet today, increasingly, we voluntarily put ourselves in them. These new ghettoes have no physical location, you can’t point to them on a map. They are ghettos of thought, aided and abetted by our digital connections. Popular culture has even given them a name: echo chambers. But they are ghettos nonetheless.
So, like an unhappy couple, or a confused David Byrne might ask—how did we get here?
This is the cautionary tale of human innovation and human nature forming a toxic alliance. Not all that long ago, we were informed by three news broadcasts and a handful of newspapers. Whether you voted for Nixon or McGovern, you got your news, and formed your views, from watching Walter Cronkite and reading the New York Times. It was very unifying—one set of facts, one source of “truth.” We could debate the war in Vietnam, but the fact that the war was real was never in question.
Today, “news” comes from a seemingly infinite number of sources. The proverbial butterfly flaps its wings, and someone’s tweeting a photo within seconds. Traditional newsrooms have been decimated as revenues have plummeted. Information comes at us from everywhere, unfettered by verification, through the portal of our screens. Consequently, we find ourselves mired in a morass of information overload. In that morass, as always, someone saw an opportunity to help people, and make money.
Facebook and Google command two thirds of ALL online advertising revenue. Two thirds. And of the digital ad growth in the first half of 2016, Google was responsible for 60 percent, Facebook for 40 percent. Yes, that adds up to 100%. All of the growth coming from two companies. But Google and Facebook do not make money by making content—in fact neither create any of their own. They make money by segmenting audiences more effectively than anything else, using proprietary and supremely powerful algorithms that serve us information based on our past behavior. More relevant information for consumers, more targeted audiences for advertisers, the ultimate win win. On paper.
It feels good because it’s convenient—I get served ads that are relevant for stuff I actually want to buy. It’s validating—I think something, and whammo! there on my feed is an “authority” with the same opinion. And my friend across town liked it! Obviously, I have the right opinion. It’s human nature to feel comfortable among likeminded people. And Google and Facebook know it. But their structure also relieves the burden of responsibility: according to Pew Research, 61 percent of Millennials use Facebook as their primary source for news about politics and government, but Facebook refuses to acknowledge its identity as a news source. So the source of the news isn't fact checking the news, and reality is crowdsourced. Truth becomes fungible, relative. Something to be debated. Like a latter-day Winston Smith, or a scene in the Matrix, we ask ourselves “what is truth?”
Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, knew this power early on: “On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable.” Unfortunately, this is where the promise of the internet has left us, for now. Algorithms segregate, social media amplifies and voila: Imprisoned in a ghetto of information that a couple of companies serve us on a platter.
Then, as hard-fought presidential primaries in both political parties dominated news cycles in 2016, we ended up with two of the most diametrically opposed candidates in modern memory. Not simply because they differed on issues, but because they represented 2 citadels of the internet age. And never the twain shall meet. That’s why the election of Trump was such a surprise to half the country. They didn't realize just how pissed off the other half of the country was. They’d never seen it in their feed.
So this is where we find ourselves. “Reality” has shifted, and we (as we humans are wont to do) reset the center of the universe around ourselves. Buddhist scholar Pema Chodron explains the peril of this by translating a Taoist saying: “As soon as you begin to believe in something, then you can no longer see anything else. The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”
But it is lazy, this staying in our lane. Most issues are more complicated than a quick reading of the clickbait will allow. Discussing matters with those who hold opposing views takes tolerance, patience, and restraint. It requires you to think in a new way, whether to present your view, or better understand theirs. It’s uncomfortable.However, as long as we stay in our separate walled cities, we will continue to ghettoize ourselves, and not move discourse forward.
When does this dynamic get shaken up and turned upside down? Just like real ghettos, it happens when neighborhoods start to mix—when Jews start eating Dominican food, and when Italians meet the new Indian neighbors on their way to the train. Those are episodes of transfer. When tastes, customs, and ideas start to cross pollinate. We need to create those episodes of transfer within ideas. Break the tyranny of the algorithm in order to change what Pema Chodron calls “the tragic yet comic drama we all buy into.” We must look beyond our walled cities and integrate— it’s just not sexy right now.
Other trends and societal shifts may help bridge the divide. The antidote to the social media economy may just be the sharing economy. As more and more people use services like AirBnB and Uber Pool (the ride sharing service) we will come in contact with many different kinds of people, in real life, uncurated by an algorithm. We will realize that our opponents don't eat babies, and they put their clothes on just like we do. What a concept.
Breaking out of the ghetto, out of the echo chamber, is HARD. It requires effort, digging, going beyond your news feed and seeking out a broader range of points of view. Curation by human intervention is by its nature flawed—algorithms are far more precise, far more accurate. But human intervention will have to be the antidote to the current situation, while we learn how to use our new toy, the internet, like adults. Berners Lee had it right: “What we believe, endorse, agree with, and depend on is representable and, increasingly, represented on the Web. We all have to ensure that the society we build with the Web is the sort we intend.”