I was trained as a journalist, so you’d think I follow the news daily, but I just can’t. Really, I won’t. The glut of information (and increasingly, disinformation) online makes me want to dig my head in the sand, but mostly because it’s quiet there. I need silence to think.
The beauty of having a world of information at your fingertips 24/7 is just that: you can access it within seconds, from urban centers to the sweeping sands of the Sahara. Yet constantly filling the gaps leads to overwhelm. To be meaningful, information needs context; these days, context is quickly drowned out in a sea of data, leaving little time to think before the next wave hits.
Or as University of Texas psychologist Dan Gilbert puts it in an article on Data Smog, “We tend to make very unsophisticated inferences when we’re under cognitive load. Thinking deeply cannot be done.”
Increased access to information makes us think we are better informed, but I'd argue we’re not. Gathering information online locks us into ‘filter bubbles,” which means that algorithms dictate what we see, creating a “unique universe of information for each of us.” Off line, we also filter information due to personal preferences and biases—you could never convince me that pineapple on pizza is a good idea—but that doesn’t mean I want to avoid all pineapples. The negative consequence of algorithms is they make sure that whatever we see online aligns with our worldview, and it ditches the rest.
Internet activist Eli Pariser writes, “Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.”
We’ve grown used to seeing ourselves and the world reflected through algorithms and in such stressful times, it’s no surprise there is growing polarization and divisiveness based on what we consume online. As social animals, we often seek solace in groups (or "our tribe") for our perceived hurts, only group thinking itself is dangerous. It pressures people to conform and suppresses conflicting ideas, seeing them as a threat. From history, we know this leads to violence.
My main point here is that opposing viewpoints are healthy. Life is not conflict free, nor should it be. Conflict helps us weigh in on diverse perspectives and find solutions that are well-thought out (because people have taken the time to digest the differences). It’s normal for people to disagree, debate and express different opinions, just think of any family dinner table. I often invite my university students to disagree with me because their ideas matter as much as mine. But I also emphasize they should be prepared to listen to my opinions--especially when they disagree. That's where the learning starts.
In a TED talk by psychologist Susan David, she says it so well. “Tough emotions are part of our contract with life… Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
The news/media environment these days continually triggers tough emotions, but due to the influence of algorithms, we've grown unaccustomed to dealing with them. So when consuming the news, I would encourage people to consider looking into alternative sources of information before broadcasting their opinions. Give your ideas time to marinate. Issues, people and situations are more complicated than we think, which is why Netflix and the film industry are so popular--they explore the unspoken undercurrent of what makes people tick. As a reporter, I have trailed a subject for 3-4 weeks and gathering information always influenced what I wrote, lending it greater nuance.
Writer Anais Nin once wrote, “We see the world not as it is but as we are.” This has both incredible benefits and terrible disadvantages. As we live life, we are continually forced to revisit our ideas of the external world. It is a necessary, and at times painful, process, just as when we mature from being a child to an adult, letting go of ideas that no longer serve us.