Saturday, May 14, 2011

Does Technology Make Us Blind To News?

On my way home yesterday, I caught the tail end of a radio piece on the demise of the physical newspaper: online news was to eclipse the traditional format.  An interesting comment was made: online news providers have begun customizing their news towards what they think their audience wants to read.  At first blush one might think "well, that's great!  More of what interests me and less of what doesn't!".  The interviewee in the radio piece, who worked for a physical newspaper, pointed out how this can lead to an under-informed public.  I thought that was a very good point!  Think about it: if you're just interested in sports and technology and your online news provider knows that about you (either directly via forms you filled out or indirectly via your click-through pattern on previous visits to the site), then the news provider might begin to show you just those types of stories - since it leads to you spending more time at the site...which leads to more advertising dollars.  The downside is that you may begin to miss out on other important news or cultural events.  In a physical paper, being totally "uncustomized", you get to see everything - even if it doesn't interest you: so even if you're just interested in the sports section, you might still catch a glimpse of the latest political wrangling or invasion or....

This problem isn't unique to the Web.  It's not just the evil corporations who are withholding news from us in order to maximize their profits - we, ourselves are using technology to isolate ourselves from the 'unpleasantness' of the real world.  On cable we have hundreds of channels to choose from - we usually surf to the ones that entertain us the most; on the web most of us have customized home pages on yahoo or google - what do we customize them with?  Maybe a sports section, a technology section, the weather?  How many of us include multiple sections on world or US news?  The arts, etc.?

In essence, technology is making us all into something akin to idiot savants: our depth of knowledge in the areas that interest us is becoming ever greater - while our knowledge of other areas is becoming ever more shallow.

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