It’s easy to become distracted by information junk food at work – especially when your work is the Internet. Last Friday I found myself passing the time at ActivEngage by watching an endless Youtube stream of “Call Me Maybe” mashups. My eyes glazed over as I counted down the minutes until I was free for the weekend. Suddenly I felt my headphones snap off. ActivEngage CEO Todd Smith was standing next to me, looking down with scorn at the singing animals on my computer screen.
Todd told me he had something better for me to watch. He directed me to a TED talk by Eli Pariser and said with a smile, “If you have 9 minutes to waste, waste it on that.” I sighed – couldn’t it be the weekend already? But when I started watching this video, I forgot about my weekend freedom and started thinking about our collective online freedom.
Here, I’ll even link it again for you guys: WATCH THIS NOW. It’s completely fascinating.
Basically, Pariser says that where the Internet was supposed to provide complete informational freedom, search engine algorithms actually limit your access. We know that Google tailors your search results to your own preferences, right? So if all you ever click is funny Youtube videos about cats, then that’s all you’ll ever see. The information we seek is actually run through several filters, and what we get at the end is merely what the internet thinks we want.
So now that you’ve seen the video (here it is again, just in case you missed it the first two times), how can we fix this problem? Maybe search engines like Google could offer an unfiltered search – one button to search and one button to validate your mentality. But even that offers no guarantee that people will ever seek new and challenging information or leave their comfort zone.
So it seems to me that the real thrust of Pariser’s speech is that the only way to grow as a person is to challenge yourself. If you think of yourself as politically liberal, force yourself to hear dissenting opinions by listening to a conservative talk show. Read newspapers from another country. Don’t be afraid of debate or disagreement; share your opinions socially and respectfully to stimulate your own online community.
The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche advocated that we think “with a hammer.” He meant that we should continually test the strength our own convictions by forcing them to clash with opposing viewpoints. Don’t spoil yourself on a diet of information junk food. Test your ideas. Challenge yourself.