Beware of cognitive malware

A Nov. 2 article in the Manitoban, “The Price of Openness,” written by editor-in-chief Leif Larsen, was an interesting read, not strictly for content but also for the background reasons that seem to stand behind its writing: as a result of an unbiased and open publishing policy, articles are occasionally printed in this Comment section that may rub the public the wrong way.

Since the Manitoban adheres to no stylebook of political, religious or conceptual content, and refuses to censor articles unless they’re patently discriminatory or inflammatory — even when they’re poorly written, I might argue in a couple cases — an article here and there is bound to get somebody all tied up into knots. Frankly, it’s a rather curious condition, especially when you consider the state of modern media and the fervent debate over bias amongst Western broadcasters currently taking place. Should we not all be glad to see an open forum for rational discourse that does not, for once, gently knead its information until every piece of news and opinion fits a profile suitably tailored either to sate one audience’s lust for affirmation or convince the other audience that they’re a bunch of loonies who need to do some rethinking?

No, of course not. Rational discourse is for the stupid.

The impression I get is that today many of us actually seem to automatically expect our media outlets to have a bias of one sort or another, and attack those that do not as indecisive, rather than laud them as bravely impartial. It’s a strange departure from the quest for journalistic objectivity that engrossed the early portion of the 20th century when, instead of having people demand nonpartisanship and a “right to know,” the people of today demand for more bias and a “right to believe.”

In May 2011, Internet activist Eli Pariser spoke at a renowned idea-conference called TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). Setting his sights on the personalization algorithms of information savvy websites such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook — which look at the information you seek out, remember it in a database and then use that database to refine personalized results specifically for you — he presents a new look at what these sort of algorithms mean for us:
“Yahoo News, the biggest news site on the Internet, is now personalized — different people get different things. Huffington Post, the Washington Post, the New York Times — all flirting with personalization in various ways. And this moves us very quickly toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see but not necessarily what we need to see.”

He refers to this condition as a “filter bubble,” essentially a little world of personalized information that is created based on what you want to hear and excludes everything you don’t, whether you ought to or not — a shell of beliefs that holds a monopoly on your mind, maintained by a digital overlord and stands up to no outside scrutiny. His concerns are valid; in eliminating everything you don’t wish to see, personalization and search refinement affirms us with everything we want to believe, and with time, further ensures that those beliefs are never challenged by other pesky points of view.

But Pariser’s work only covers a small part of the bigger problem: our fragile little worlds are coddled not by the Internet alone. As political, religious and conceptual biases creep further and further into our ever-growing pantheon of media distributors, it becomes easier to simply avoid any and all opinions that don’t mesh with our own. As a result, it is much harder to deal with scary new ideas rationally when we’re confronted with them. Why should any of us challenge ourselves to change the way we think when it’s so easy to avoid genuine scrutiny altogether and believe that we’ve single-handedly solved all of the world’s issues on our first try? Is it any wonder people are so easily offended these days?
Perhaps you have heard of a “zombie computer.” It’s a rather common hacker term that refers to a situation wherein the invisible Legions of Doom use their evil genius to crawl into your PC without your ever knowing, install malware and command it to do their nefarious bidding — usually involving the transmission of undesired information to most everyone you know.

In a lot of ways that’s how I see some people today: they plug in to their preferred form of media, get their daily download of data and then rebroadcast it for everyone to hear — much to everyone else’s annoyance. They regurgitate third-party hand-fed information without questioning their own thought process, never realizing their brains have been infected by cultural malware that says it’s OK to have a half-matured opinion and never question yourself.

Without looking hard at the means by which our information is doled out to us, we all run the risk of becoming shambling pawns in someone else’s bigger game. We have allowed ourselves to be divided up into camps, in a great campaign of polarization. As we breed out self-reflection and critical thought, and allow ourselves to slink into a dark hole of partisan information without healthy discourse and debate, what we’re left with is undeservingly strong opinions and feckless animosity.

Next time you read an opinion piece that violently offends you, before rebroadcasting all of the things you’ve been programmed to say, try asking yourself why you’re offended in the first place. It just might make you a better person.

Gerald R. Jacobs wants their fingers out of his head.