Filtering Ourselves Away from the World

Eli Pariser's TED talk on "Filterbubbles" is probably one of the most shocking TED talks I have ever seen, and a must see if you have 10 minutes of free time. He starts by asking two colleagues to search for "Egypt" and take a screenshot of their results. The results were very different. They were different because Google's algorithm will collect results based on the two different search histories of the users. One had been keeping up with the Arab uprising and the other more on travel to the region. Thus, Google has provided search results that they think are better tailored to the interests of each user, and thus keep coming back to Google.    


Searches Tailored to Our Web Experience
This should come as no surprise. A repeat customer to Amazon.com will be bombarded with new products to buy as they are related to previously purchased items. Or they will be told "customers that bought ________, may also like _________". While this trend has a statistical advantage in marketing dollars, I too believe that this will have a negative impact on our ability to learn new things, as opposing viewpoints are filtered from our view.

To put this into perspective, a few years ago, a workshop presenter enlightened me to the term "ego casting" which is that people tend to surround themselves with opinions and attitudes that mirror their own. Doing so helps confirm our biases and reinforce our own stereotypes and in turn make us feel like "we're doing the right thing". We must be right if Rush Limbaugh believes the same thing as us?

Image courtesy of skeptics.stackexchange.com


I don't think so. Increasingly, news, political and religious organizations are appealing to an increasingly polarized audience, and this polarization is cutting the viewers off from opposing necessary points of view that make it necessary to understand an issue from multiple perspectives. Fox News has cajoled to the forefront of right leaning new organizations and MSNBC to the Left. CNN, with all it's moderation (maybe left center leanings) has withered. Maybe it's CNN's failure to market to a target audience. Maybe it's that people don't want to think. Maybe people don't know the difference. In any event, studies now show that some news organizations have morphed into propaganda and political machines with their talking heads and supporting sound bites. They get people riled up, and let's face it, truth is now a commodity, and with information overload, people are getting tired of fact checking. They just want to be told what to believe.


Rise of a Polarized World
What does this mean for education? Barry Ritholtz on his blog "The Big Picture" has recently written recently about a decision to get rid of comments. His reasoning is that his ideas were ideas were initially shared to make people think and the comments a method of 2.0 interface. The problem is that the polarization of some of his readers have recently made it unbearable to have a civilized discourse. As adults are now the digital immigrants, they have not been taught the basics of digital citizenry and have skipped straight to using 2.0 to confirm their own biases and crucify dissenting points of view.

These internet "Trolls" are a new demographic. They are readers who move and mobilize against any hot issue. Abortion, creationism, welfare, politics, religion, all have their share of faceless or disguised avatars who are now quick to swoop in, read a headline and skip straight to leaving a comment in the hopes their righteousness will convert others. These people never ask questions, or thank the authors, or ever ask for opinions. They may even link "truths" that support their position. Never mind if it's peer reviewed.    


Implications for Educators
The onus of creating "Digital Citizens" is a new lexicon for the 21st century educator. Where we are all trying to explore new ways to make learning more efficient, creating quality content, and use creative commons licensing, I believe a new challenge will be to create students who are open-minded and willing to listen to, and evaluate other points of view in a way that is respectful and in line with how the internet was originally designed by university researchers: a forum to share ideas and collectively learn.

Image courtesy of CC and San Diego Air and Space Museum

As a science teacher who teaches the history of the world and evolution, this has got me thinking about my role a facilitator and teacher of such contentious topics. A teacher must shelter their students from their own biases, but can this really be done? Just yesterday, I learned of a teacher that was facing dismissal after it came out that they urged their students to vote for one presidential candidate over another. Misuse of power, or freedom of speech?    


What We Can Teach
 I believe we can do a lot to bring a fair and balanced education. There are now a number of interesting search engines that are not tailored to algorithmic history. I think search engines like instagrok and Spezify will be explored more and more as they do not require a username. I think that blogs (students and a classroom blog) will serve as very powerful forums for students to reflect on viewpoints, give credence, evaluate arguments and do so in a balanced and respectful way before they set out into the world. I believe that teaching a student to be open-minded and susceptible to new ideas is the most beautiful accomplishment of any teacher. Consider doing so as you explore topics with your class. Offer debates. Review sources. Only then will our students start to be open-minded, which is what any education wants a child to be.

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