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Global connectivity and personal disconnect: filter bubbles and the collapse of public discourse

The individualisation of our exposure to information through ‘filter bubbles’ facilitates the atomisation of society and pushes dissenting voices to the margins.

Francesco Fanti Rovetta Richard Raber
24 May 2017
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Bubbles. Kari Haley/Flickr. Some rights reserved.People you may know. Pages you may like. 

Our online lives may be more insular than we recognise, which negatively affects our civic life. The great amount of attention given to issues such as ‘fake news’ reflects a larger problem, the collapse of public discourse. We lack a common platform and understanding of what constitutes meaningful public discussion, which leaves public life on shaky grounds. Our current predicament is often framed as a function of the neoliberal age, resulting in increasingly atomised societies; loneliness is up while the emotional connections underpinning collectivist politics is down. Rapid technological advancement facilitates our increasing isolation from each other and the amorality of technology demands that instruments both reflect and further the user’s values – this is embodied by the rise of the so-called ‘bubble filter’ and its creation by neoliberal companies such as Amazon or Facebook.

Aptly named, the bubble filter is the effect created from tools, used by most major websites and social media platforms, to personalise the cyber experience. This effect is demonstrated, by users finding recommended resources and google results tailored to their previous activity. The ever-present barrage of personalised advertisements reflects capitalism’s tightening of the noose around the internet’s emancipatory potential; in a space where all information should be accessible, resources not deemed to match a user’s profile or previous activity are placed at the back of the proverbial line. The bubble filter both explains and creates a climate conducive to the rise of fake news. For the user, fake news is deemed trustworthy, as it is compatible with narratives and information previously presented to them within their insular online experience.

Amazon tells us what to buy, Facebook tells us who to befriend.

In showing us products or services that logarithmically match our listed preferences in terms of consumption as well as ideology, bubble filters sift through ideas that are determined to be incompatible with our desires and worldviews. In doing so, not only do bubble filters adhere to the neoliberal dictates of customer satisfaction but conveniently provide an informational escape from the contradictions of modern, capitalist life: Amazon tells us what to buy, Facebook tells us who to befriend. Without exposure to competing ideas and values, the neoliberal citizen lacks a platform for debate and remains in the shelter of his own personalised intellectual comfort zone.

The bubble filter is the logical extension of capitalism’s influence on the way we perceive the internet. Just as capital has created zones of comfort for consumption, reflected by malls and urban policies that relocate the homeless, the unpleasant or discomforting is made absent from daily experience online as well. Accordingly, just as homeless persons (as opposed to homelessness) have become conceived of as a solvable problem, so to have narratives that differ from our own understandings of the world. Material not personally tailored for us is pushed to the peripheries.

The bubble filter demonstrates the internet as shifting from a tool of global connectivity to individual disconnect; personal opinion becomes fossilised while public discourse withers away. Without meaningful public discourse, the internet exposes us to competing opinions only through (often anonymous) trolling. This is dangerous. With little to no space for productive debate, ideological conflicts are carried out institutionally – as evinced by the onslaught of fake news accusations that characterised the final American presidential debate.

When we live in bubbles, we forget how to engage and disagree in a civil manner.

As a product of the neoliberal project, the bubble filter caters to our perceived demands for constant personalised stimulation and to the commodification of the digital experience. We find ourselves further removed from neighbours to whom we occupy distant ideological worlds; we cease to understand each other as we increasingly lack basic exposure to each other. When we live in bubbles, we forget how to engage and disagree in a civil manner. This situation has the potential to normalise extreme polarity and reactionary populism. Left without public forums to negotiate competing worldviews and engage with each other, we should not be surprised if ideological conflicts start to increasingly escalate in violent ways.

The piece orginally appeared on the Daily Maverick.

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