Like most people, I love reading things that tell me what I want to hear. I love blabbing to people about “this great article I just read” that bolsters what I already believe about politics, food, religion, or dog training. It’s obnoxious. But, simply, it’s gratifying to see someone else espouse your deeply held convictions out on the great plains of cyberspace. This is why I loved reading the hilarious memoir-like piece about a nightmarish trip to Disney World by John Jeremiah Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine last week, “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!” One of my principal beliefs is that Disney World is a materialistic swamp of America’s lowest common denominators and one of my top life goals is to never go there. Sullivan’s article simply reinforced this conviction.
As enjoyable as it was to read that essay and others like it, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not good for my brain–or my spirit–to read only things that I already believe. Sue Halpern’s article in the New York Review of Books, “Mind Control and the Internet,” helped bring me around to this moment of enlightenment. Halpern’s article is a terrifying one. In it, she explains how, right now, Google and Amazon are creating a detailed profile of you and figuring out just what it is that you want to hear, read, and buy. Through complex algorithms, which I do not understand, Google also tailors your search results and your e-mail ads to your interests, a fact which most people now recognize. As soon as you start telling your friends that you’re engaged via e-mail, you start seeing all of these weird “discount wedding jewelry” ads pop up.
We’ve come to placidly accept the fact that Google is watching us. While this Big Brother factor is creepy enough on its own, Halpern’s article posits that the more insidious consequence of being profiled by Google is the fact that we are sheltering ourselves from the marketplace of ideas. The Internet is becoming less democratic. Google figures out what you want to hear and it keeps telling you those things. As Halpern suggests,
a search for proof about climate change will turn up different results for an environmental activist than it would for an oil company executive and, one assumes, a different result for a person whom the algorithm understands to be a Democrat than for one it supposes to be a Republican. (One need not declare a party affiliation per se—the algorithm will prise this out.) In this way, the Internet, which isn’t the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say, the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.
This is scary to me. It is also scary for the American public sphere as a whole, which seems to get more polarized every day. FOX News is proof enough that we can no longer bear to listen to opinions that differ from our own. I think that’s a very dangerous state for any supposedly democratic nation to be in.
I think back to my mom and the free-spirited way in which she gave us kids access to information. She turned me loose in the library as soon as I could read. Unlike most of her conservative, homeschooling peers, she never censored my reading habits. She even taught us about evolution, God forbid! I read everything I could get my hands on. I will always remember my mom’s quiet and humble defense to the other moms who were appalled at what she was letting her innocent daughters read. “If we think we know the truth,” she would say, “why are we so afraid of untruth?”
Her defense is more applicable to those Christians who were afraid that their children would lose faith in God if they saw proof that seven-day creationism wasn’t true. And yet I think I see it in myself today. What am I so afraid of? It is far more fun to read things that tell me what I already believe. But it is better for me, as a thinking, developing human, to encounter some disagreement, some divergent opinions. To understand why, for instance, some people actually and sincerely love Disney World. I’ll never know unless I start reading.
This is a roundabout and self-important way to tell you that I’m trying to read more nonfiction. Courtney asked me about what nonfiction I was reading lately and I realized that I’d only been reading dog books. It’s time to challenge the brain, AFP. So I just started The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, in which Wright argues that God has been evolving with the human race and is only getting nicer over time. It’s interesting, for sure. I also write to ask you for nonfiction recommendations to add to my already burgeoning list. Anything important I should read that I also might fundamentally disagree with? And no, Twilight does not count.