I’m jet-lagged, having just got back from a week in California, where I was also jet-lagged. When in the States, I tend to watch (amongst other things) Fox News on telly. This appalled some friends that I mentioned it too, but I have my reasons. Fox News adds piquancy to any visit. It’s genuinely weird to me, but it’s also mainstream. I would probably find it upsetting if I lived in the US. But as someone who just passes through from time-to-time, it adds a keenness to the experience. I don’t say all this to sneer: but rather, when visiting somewhere that seems so easy to relate to in so many ways, it’s perhaps more interesting to see that which you don’t understand, like say, Mr Ted Nugent’s views on US foreign policy as expressed to Governor Mike Huckabee.
On my way home, I read about Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, an investigation of the notion that various Web phenomena (in particular, Google’s personalised search and the goldfish bowls of social networks) mean that we will increasingly only hear our own views reflected back at us.
It’s an interesting thought. And one that it’s hard to latch on to a counter argument for – presumably any source I could lay my hands on is part of my own echo-chamber. But still, I was delighted that This Week in Google addressed the topic. As Gina Trapani pointed out, seeking out contrary viewpoints is simply part of being a developed person: and of course, your online habits will reflect the extent to which you exhibit this behaviour. For example, my favourite newspaper columnist is Howard Jacobson, which is not to say that I agree with him all the time, but rather, I frequently find myself instinctively disagreeing even as I am swayed by the man’s clever and humane prose. I am probably far more closely aligned with the unreadable Johann Hari whose only mode of expression seems to be the self-righteous indignation of the politics undergraduate and whose column I would only read out of condescension.
But then, I suppose there is still rather a lot to be indignant about. And perhaps there are few books to be sold in writing about as well diagnosed a problem as the global digital divide, but it’s that, rather than people’s natural inclination to associate with those with whom they agree, that’s more worrying. To take a rather gloomy example: the Faces of the Fallen website places an exact figure on American service personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002: it’s 5,885 at time of writing. But meanwhile, there seems to be no general consensus even to the nearest half million how many Iraqis have died since the invasion of 2003. Estimates range from under 100,000 to over 1 million. Obviously, there is no equivalent online epitaph to these people.
We aren’t in a filter bubble to my mind, or at least, if we are, it’s a trivial problem. The issue is how much digital naval-gazing we’re able to do at the expense of our consideration of that part of the world that still remains predominantly analogue. Only Ted Nugent would disagree.