Pope Francis recognizes the problem of the filter bubble
The current spiritual leader of the Catholic Church is aware of the Internet, at least he does not sound as if he considers it to be ‘a series of tubes.’ He recently called for a “culture of encounter” which would be facilitated by the Internet. In his view, the opportunities for communication on the Internet are “something truly good, a gift from God.”
More worldly scholars of Internet history would surely add that engineers and scientists had a bit of a hand in this, too. But he’s the Pope, so I should probably not be too nitpicky, after all. I agree that the Internet has that positive potential.
But he also recognizes to important problems or challenges of the flow of information as we know it online.
Real-time news makes reflection more difficult
First, a flood of information is rushing at us so quickly that it is difficult to pause and reflect on a complex topic. Twitter, so to speak, is the anti-book. There is something to that, I believe. The experience of picking up a monograph at a university library and taking meticulous notes is very different from the constant flows of information we expose ourselves to on social networking sites. One mode of information consumption is for gaining a deeper understanding, the other is rather a way to keep up-to-date with current events.
Filter bubbles narrow our thought
Second, the Pope recognizes what Eli Pariser has described at length in his book by the same name as the “filter bubble.”
“The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests [emphasis mine].”
I think that he is right there, too. Everyone taking in a lot of information has to filter sources to some degree. You can never read the whole Internet. Not even on one single day. Because the next day, there are a gazillion new articles to read and updates to check. It is just impossible.
But of course there is also the phenomenon he is talking about. People tend to screen out opinions which they disagree with quite often. And except for professional news and politics junkies, we are probably all more or less guilty of this.
If, in the American context, you are a person who agrees with the outlook on the world put forward by the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Fox News as a whole, you are unlikely to be also an avid follower of commentators who tend to disagree strongly with almost anything they say.
And this is understandable to some degree. On the one hand, dispute and disagreement can be fun. On the other hand, being outraged all day long can also be quite exhausting.
On the Internet, you can often just delete people or websites from your news feeds and they seem to magically disappear.
This is all fair and well to get rid of people who are verbally abusive online. There is not exactly a scarcity of those on the Internet. But regarding discourse on any number of subjects, just having one (fact-based) opinion to draw conclusions from, is really risking intellectual poverty.
On the positive potential of the Internet and the challenge of filter bubbles, I find myself agreeing with the Pope for once.
“Pope Francis tells the Internet to chill out.” (Audra Schroeder, The Daily Dot, 2014/01/23)