In 1998, two PhD students at Stanford University authored a paper called ‘The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Search Engine’. While it might not be obvious from the title, in that short conference paper they introduced to the world a project which would fundamentally change the way we access and distribute information in the Digital Age.
The paper’s argument was simple. Internet search tools of the time were ineffective, often returning many low quality matches in a somewhat random order. The authors, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, argued it was possible to gain more relevant results by looking at the relationship between websites. As in academia – where a piece grows in influence as it receives more citations – a higher ranking should be given to webpages with the most links on other pages.
This insight formed the backbone of Brin and Page’s large-scale hypertextual search engine, better known today as Google. The more people talk about and share something online, the more value it is given in Google’s search algorithms. Thus the question of whether something possesses value is decided by popular opinion rather than that of a few experts.
This has in some ways been hugely liberating. It asserts the right of ordinary people to follow their enthusiasms instead of letting high-handed experts shape taste with stern or belittling authority.
But incredibly, the democratic structure of the internet, one of its greatest virtues and strengths, is also one of its biggest risks. It frees us from a certain degree of snobbery and intolerance, but also potentially drowns out important, less pleasing, and more complicated ideas.
The danger is that we skip at whim across the trivial and the profound alike – lingering for longest on the most digestible morsels. This creates a form of cyber risk that is very distinct from malware attacks or identity theft: that we might lose sight of dissenting or exceptional voices that do not provide easily digestible arguments or pander to popular tastes.
Thankfully history lends a bit of perspective; though these concerns may be grave, they are not new. Plato and Socrates were perhaps as worried about the implications of democratic decision-making in the 5th Century B.C. as we are today in the age of ‘fake news’, ‘post-truth’ and the online ‘echo chamber’ of self-confirming opinion.
In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates asks us to imagine an election debate between two candidates, one who is like a doctor and the other who is like a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner would say of his rival: “Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will.” Socrates then asks us to consider the audiences’ response:
Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – ‘I cause you trouble, and go against your desires in order to help you’ would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think?
As Socrates makes clear, the thing that we like the most or find the easiest isn’t always best for us. This is the risk of democratic structures of all kinds. Page and Brin did a wonderful thing by helping people to share and exchange information more easily, and by helping to erode some unnecessary snobbery from the world. Yet there is an undeniable risk that this will make us lose touch with ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialised, status-conscious and cynical world. We may become half trapped within a sweetshop that is endlessly delightful but which keeps the voice of the doctor or dentist firmly out of earshot.
To avoid this temptation to tune in only to what already appeals, we may need to consider our own digital diet, cutting down on the “sweets” while seeking out views contrary to our own. This isn’t usually intuitive or pleasant, of course. To start it may be helpful to subscribe to a couple of news sources with which we usually don’t agree, or to follow on social media those with whom we rarely see eye to eye.
Technology should ideally help us stretch in this way. Just as Google has an “I’m feeling lucky” button that gives you the first search result directly, it might also be useful to have an “I’m feeling contrarian” button, which brings up opposing views.
Social media, too, might recommend not only what your friends are reading and posting but also what those rather unlike you consume and share. (Indeed, the Wall Street Journal team made a digital tool that simulates something like this called “red feed, blue feed”). Perhaps many articles, especially those with a particular set of assumptions or point of view, might come with a small “devil’s advocate” blurb at the end, explaining why someone might not agree with the main article’s take.
Or much like Amazon suggests products under the banner “you might also like…” sites might recommend things that are, counterintuitively, things that “you also might not like…” This type of juxtaposition needn’t be only for politics – we can use this type of thinking to make sure we read more varied books, listen to more types of music, and even connect with more diverse types of people.
In seeking to expand our exposure to ideas and information, we are able to practice the principle of diversification that is useful in so many other areas of life and especially helps us avoid extreme risks. Just as diversifying financial investments is vital in wealth management, diversifying our sources of knowledge, information, and opinion is crucial as it helps us lower the risk of becoming too invested in the wrong view.
However, these suggestions and tools for diversifying media consumption may also face something of an echo chamber, as only the more open-minded will seek or use them, while those most in need of new ideas will refuse. But having these features easily available will at the very least make it easier for those who wish to entertain new points of view — and might gradually nudge the stubbornly siloed to explore other directions.
Naturally, consumption of varied opinions won’t change all our views. But it should make it a little less likely that we find ourselves entirely mistaken about a particular issue because we haven’t even considered alternate perspectives. And ultimately, this focus on diversification will help us to counter one of the gravest risks of the modern era – getting lost in a self-made ‘echo chamber’ of opinion which only convinces us of what we already believe to be true.