This is a guest post by Caroline Esser, a research associate with the New America Foundation’s Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program.
At the same time that Steve was streaming a live video of Monday’s New America event with Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble, we were pondering similar questions to those raised in Pariser’s book at the Center for Social Cohesion’s event, “Can the United States Remain United?”
In his recently published book, Pariser discusses the dangers of the filter bubble, or the “personal ecosystem of information that’s been catered by” the algorithms of companies like Google, Facebook, or Yahoo to match users’ individual interests. Instead of exposing users to new ideas and connecting diverse people from around the world, Praiser fears that the internet is instead “connecting us back to ourselves,” serving as a powerful reinforcement of our previously held beliefs.
According to Bill Bishop, the filter bubble phenomenon is occurring not just within digital media but also on a much broader scale in American society. Bishop, the author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart and a panelist at the Social Cohesion event, found that despite the unprecedented numbers of immigrants arriving in the United States and the increasing diversity of the population, individual communities are themselves becoming more and more homogenous. Simultaneously, the differences between communities are become greater and greater. Income differentials are rising and partisan alliances are polarizing between communities–each bastion of American society is falling away from the mean. Why is this occurring? According to Bishop it is because of the unique freedom (and burden) each American has to create his or her own identity. In a society that glorifies the individual, each citizen has the ability to choose where to live and what type of people to surround him/herself with. As a result, like the web searches that simply connect us back to ourselves, Bishop argues that Americans are seeking out communities that constantly reinforce their lifestyles and beliefs. Cross-cutting relations with people of diverse opinions and ways of living are becoming increasingly rare.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who opened the conference with a short speech, quipped that the best way to overcome divisions within the U.S. is to “get everybody together…and sit around outside and eat Mexican food and drink beer and make friends with each other. That worked.” Despite the refreshing honesty and simplicity of O’Connor’s advice, I left feeling that Bill Bishop and Eli Pariser’s work has called into question whether or not it is still possible to get a group of diverse Americans together in Justice O’Connor’s backyard for a friendly, open-minded conversation. Is there enough binding each American together–a greater set of shared American values grounded in the country’s founding documents–for Justice O’Connor’s plan to work? Or is all that unites us now the freedom to choose our lifestyle and a tolerance of those who have chosen differently?
— Caroline Esser