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Filter Bubbles

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Philipp Müller (31 Dec. 2018, within the course "Odyssey of Philosophy and Information", facilitated by J.M. Díaz at HM)

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Filter Bubbles as separating playgrounds for isolated thinking have always existed and have always been reason for unnecessary and avoidable intellectual disputes. The following text will deal with reasons for the emergence and ongoing persistence of filter bubbles in the age of collaborative information exchange. Through the internet, our capacity for creating content and communicating with each other has reached levels never before seen in human history. This new information network brings along great opportunity but also great risk. Filter Bubbles are just one of many dangerous aspects that go along with the absolute freedom of expression offered by the internet. As stated above, these problems are nothing new, the difference now is that they are being amplified by very unpredictable factors.

Natural Selection of Ideas

In order to understand how information spreads within an isolated group, we first must comprehend what kind of information is shared and why.

For this purpose the reader must understand the concept of the term "Meme". Encyclopaedia Brittanica defines meme as "Meme, unit of cultural information spread by imitation. The term meme (from the Greek mimema, meaning "imitated") was introduced in 1976 by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his work The Selfish Gene. Dawkins conceived of memes as the cultural parallel to biological genes and considered them, in a manner similar to "selfish" genes, as being in control of their own reproduction and thus serving their own ends. Understood in those terms, memes carry information, are replicated, and are transmitted from one person to another, and they have the ability to evolve, mutating at random and undergoing natural selection, with or without impacts on human fitness (reproduction and survival).(...)" (Rogers, 2018).

Basically what we can already say based on Dawkins' understanding of the concept of memes is that some ideas and ideologies will spread and some will die off due to a process akin to natural selection. Weak ideas that have little to no impact on humanity will be forgotten eventually while strong ideas will thrive and continue to exist for aeons. Examples for strong memes would be Capitalism and Communism as the two driving ideas in economics. Further prime examples would be all religious doctrines that are still being practiced today, contrary to some sects that died with their last remaining members.

Every single human being that has ever existed is a participant in the spread of memes. Memes are what define us and what we leave behind in this world. Every thought that we act out or express to other people, will influence their behaviour in one way or another. Our mere existence around others can be considered spreading of memes since being observed by others alone already fills their minds with information about us and our intentions. Even emotions can be viewed as memes and therefore can be passed along. Similar to genes, memes are self replicating since they spread immediately among humans upon being articulated. They are the DNA of culture, so to say.

Dawkins also wrote about being able to restrain the impacts of memes on one's own behaviour after having realised their influence on oneself. With an adequate amount of self-awareness one could therefore potentially be able to get rid of "bad" memes and retain "good" memes by whatever standard one might determine the value of a cultural phenomenon (Dawkins, 2016).

The Impact of the Internet on Memes

Our biggest means of spreading memes used to be construing dialogue with each other. Nowadays anyone can just go onto the internet and spread their own memes however they please. The internet therefore is the single most powerful tool for communication that has ever existed in human history. It enables each and everyone of us to share memories, ideas, culture and history with each other or just specific groups based on our personal reach of course. What kind of meme is being presented to us is either selected and filtered through other individuals or by companies and governments using AI-technology in order to supply us with memes that cater to our specific interests. Every entity spreading memes therefore also has its own goals in mind when doing so. A single person might just want to show you something, or spread an idea, while a company will give you information that might lead you to purchase from them immediately or in the future. A government might use similar methods to sway public opinion in their favor like that without the receiver of the meme even noticing.

Since anyone can participate, the only filter being applied to this enormous stream of information is the one chosen by the entity posting. A company might present their product in a better light as advertisement and hide flaws of their product. A government might do the same with their politics as we can clearly observe when taking a look at states like North Korea or China. Obviously the same goes for western states, something we might be less conscious about. An individual will act accordingly with each and every piece of information using their personal bias. The receiving person might also filters the received meme in a similiar fashion. This means they may exclude information that they deem uncomfortable to themselves or their world view. That is called "confirmation bias". Now, if Sturgeon's law, that "90% of everything is crap" (Gunn, 1995) holds any validity, then this means, that for the most part, the already obviously biased information that enters the web and is being perceived by others has already been "crap" to begin with. In other words, we are uploading "garbage information" into the internet which creates a cesspool of ideas that have hardly anything to do with their real world counterpart. Perception through the lens of the internet can therefore also be viewed as perception of an alternate reality, if you will.

Fake News

The term "Fake News" has become widely used within all groups of modern society, popularised by the current president of the United States, Donald J. Trump. While people may not realise it entirely, the term "Fake News" is just what the average person would describe this phenomenon of filter bubbles as. Ironically the term itself implies that there must be some kind of absolute truth, which can never be true when it comes to socio-political structures since there is just too much entropy for anyone to grasp entirely.

The phenomenon itself has probably always existed in one form or another. Now it became more relevant to us since anyone can now engage thoroughly in public discourse. Earlier in human history, there were clear leaders of thought, mostly scholars, that were generally trusted because people relied on them to a huge extent.
Anyone being able to participate leads to about infinite amounts of largely unverified garbage information entering public discourse that is not only produced by entities plagued by confirmation bias but also consumed and shared by the same entities, be it human or AI. 

In practice these "Fake News" show up in public discourse as slander, rumours and misinterpretations about the real world. The data might rarely be wrong entirely but it is never entirely true either.

Filter Bubbles and Big Data

One of the biggest problems that arises from this phenomenon of filtered perception is the interpretation of "Big Data". It is absolutely impossible for individual human beings to interpret such enormous amounts of data as are being uploaded to the internet by the second. The only way to make sense of all this entropy is by using "cybernetic enhancements" like computers. Especially AI and machine learning play a very big role in such tasks.

Creating Context

The only role individual people can play in making sense of all the garbage data being uploaded is "creating context" for it. It is not possible to create context for all data being uploaded because the sheer amount grows indefinitely by the second. Context is created anytime somebody likes or dislikes something, shares something, responds to something and so on. Anyone can participate in creating that context and making the raw data digestible in such manner. The problem with creating context is that again every entity participating has their own bias, with the intention of validating their own believes and ideologies. That means that information is only shared between entities that already have the same kind of ideological direction of thinking, therefore everybody is validated without any proof of validity by themselves and others that just assume that information that fits their worldview is correct. That information therefore also does not leave a specific group of people which leads to the emergence of filter bubbles.

Convenient half-truths are accepted as fact, nobody can truly be right but nobody is proven wrong because the target audience already agrees with the contributor of information since they both emerge from the same group of people. It's a never ending vicious cycle. Due to this concept, cyberspace is the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of conflicting ideologies. Therefore it is not only a naturally occurring phenomenon that information is not scrutinized but it is also highly desirable by the biased participants of the information exchange. Nobody truly desires to be proven wrong aside from a very small minority of people with highly scientific mindsets that hold truth as the highest possible value. But in order to be able to truly desire truth, one must be able to let go of his ego. This is not realistic for the average person. 

Since the average person is not capable of thinking like this. it is not the information that is objectively the most truthful that emerges but the one that caters to the biggest audiences. A great example of this is politics. If you ask a Democrat and a Republican if the Trump administration had a positive impact on American economics, they would both answer with a simple yes or no answer. The Democrat would say no and point to the growing number of aggravated US trade partners. The Republican would say yes and point to the shrinking number of unemployment within the US. 
While both of these view points might have some truth and validity to them, the entire truth is way too complicated to be answered by a simple yes or no response. It is highly unlikely that an individual who understands world politics entirely could even exist, therefore it is foolish in itself to even attempt to answer a question like that. People are not aware of their own ignorance even though there is nothing reprehensible about accepting that every human being is ignorant to some extent.

Solving the Problem of Filter Bubbles

There is one proven concept for solving the underlying issue of filter bubbles, Dialectic. Aristotle knew that you cannot convince other people by simply arguing your viewpoints and trying to "win" a debate. If you just humiliate the other person by trying to make them seem less knowledgeable than yourself, you both do not achieve wisdom from the information exchange but further entropy. That's why the best way to enter a conversation is by assuming that the other person knows something that you do not. This concept has also been promoted recently by the Canadian clinical psychologist and university professor Dr. Jordan B. Peterson in his book "12 Rules for life, an antidote to chaos" which contains an entire chapter about this subject. It is ancient knowledge that still finds its application in modern day communication.

To properly make the dialectic method work, all participants should at least try to let go of their personal ego and instead try to participate in an open discussion with the ultimate goal of arriving at truth as the highest possible value. This is possible through everybody presenting the information they think of as true and then evaluating together which statements factually are based on reality in the most accurate way that we are able to perceive it. Practically this does not work as good as usually intended because human beings are ego driven by nature. That's why even though most people hold similar goals dear, instead of talk we see conflict, chaos and apathy towards dialogue. While for Aristotle truth was the ultimate desirable value to arrive at by assuming other people might know something that he might not and then talking to them, nowadays it seems for most people it does not matter what is being said, but who the person is who is saying it. That's why rational arguments are often thrown aside for defamation of character and similar non-argumentative talking points.

Sometimes the mere threat of conflict arising can lead to further separation into filter bubbles which is the root of the problem. So you see, this problem has long since spiralled out of control. The longer it takes us to solve this problem, the more data will accumulate and the ideological filter will only get stronger. Not even natural selection of memes as envisioned by Richard Dawkins can exist in such a toxic ecosystem. Therefore cultural evolution will cease to progress if this problem is not solved.


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