5.28.2014

Change Your Filter

http://www.magicalexperiments.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/filter.jpgThanks to the wonders of Facebook and Twitter, we have unprecedented and unending access to countless snippets of information.  I could never so much as sniff a paper, news site, or TV and still know that Jill Abramson got canned from the Times, there was a mass murder in California, and Beyonce's sister got into a thing with Jay-Z.  This New York Times columnist calls it "Fake Cultural Literacy," but I call it a free and efficient curating of all the stuff out there in the world that I don't have time to digest directly on my own. 

But if there is a downside to this way of consuming information, it's not that we're being deceptive (unless, of course, we are lying, say by saying that we did read Piketty when we actually haven't) but that we've been deceived.  Let me explain.  When our opinions about something are formed not by actual sources but derivative ones, we are more apt to get half the story or less.  Which may seem obviously bad or worse, but most of us don't seem to mind and clearly seem to prefer it.

You see, our real sin when it comes to staying informed isn't that we're lying but that we're biased.  We all have a worldview, and everyone's entitled to one.  But we also have a filter, and that filter repels things that contradict our worldview and absorbs things that reinforce it.  I get that reasonable and intelligent people will have divergent takes on politics, religion, race, and economics.  What I don't like is when people are selective in their exposure to data points that inform those topics.

I'm probably more sensitive to this than most, since often my job involves debunking popular viewpoints that rest on two or three widely believed but often incorrect or incomplete arguments.  You can imagine that it's hard work to form a reasoned counter-argument when people have heard what they want to hear and can't fathom that the story unfolds any other way.  I take offering a different and fuller story seriously because that's often what I get paid to do. 

But I'd also like to think I care because I believe in keeping an open mind, in giving all sides a fair hearing, and in not jumping to conclusions.  The real story is often counter-intuitive, nuanced, and not completely in sync with our carefully constructed view of how the world works.  It takes time, humility, and openness to let the fullness of an issue envelop you, and to let new information and new perspectives fundamentally change your opinion on something, even and especially something that is really important to you, like how you think the world works economically, politically, and socially.

I don't mind if the way you keep up with things is your Facebook news feed or Jon Stewart or conservative blogs.  Just make sure you're not using the wrong filter, the one that screens out anything that you disagree with or rocks your worldview a little.  That filter is bad for public discourse, bad for giving you the real scoop on things, and bad for your soul.
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