The Optimistic Futurist: Free speech benefits from balanced view

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 9, 2012

By Francis P. Koster
Citizens everywhere are in danger of becoming like the group of blind people touching the elephant (our society) and reporting it to be like a tree (touching the leg), like a snake (touching the tail) and like a house (touching the body). We can be adamant about what we experienced — but both our collective picture and our individual pictures are wrong.
Our shared view is being eroded by the “narrowcasting” of communication by modern electronic media. The information stream we drink from is intentionally being biased without our awareness.
The job of television is to deliver large groups of viewers to advertisers. Televised sports events deliver beer and truck commercials; Oprah delivers commercials about food and fashion.
The Internet is different because it is not delivering advertising to a mass audience; it is delivering filtered information to individuals. On TV, it would be rare to hear the sportscaster offer political opinion. But on the Internet, the ball score is the bait – the opinion or advertisement posted alongside them is the real product.
How did this come about?
In 2009 Google began using 57 “signals” to prune search results and deliver to you what they think you would like. Your computer has an electronic address that is quietly recorded by the search engine when you visit a website. The search engines learn that the user of your machine likes sports or politics or dating sites. Over time, your profile is developed.
Other vendors of information about you have joined in, selling your divorce records, driving record and property taxes paid. This picture is then linked to statistical pictures of similar people based on such things as your grocery store purchases or the history of your political and charitable donations. A picture of your socioeconomic and political orientation has been created.
This profile tells marketers of goods and thoughts which advertisements or opinions or news headlines to pop up. When you use Google or Yahoo to search on a topic, the results you see are ranked in order of appeal to you, based on what is known about you. Items closest to your profile show up on top; those further away from “who” you “are” disappear. And the commercials are aimed right at you — not the guy next door.
The same is true of Facebook postings. Without your knowledge, items deemed not likely to interest you are moved down the list shown to you, and unless you read way down the list, are seldom seen.
This “narrowcasting” also feeds information that confirms your opinion that you are right and others are wrong — while at the same time, your spouse, kids, neighbors or co-workers are being educated that they are right, and you are wrong. The seeds of righteous behavior are sown — on all sides.
Issues such as “fracking” for natural gas or changing the income tax rates of the wealthiest among us ricochet around the electronic environment. Imagine how the public dialogue and information regarding these issues can be shaped when opinion vendors have access to credit card transactions documenting that you contribute to environmental causes; or they offer various electronic investment publications for free in exchange for your email address, birth date and zip code. What a stunning opportunity to recruit people to your movement, any movement. This is happening now, not at some time in the future, and the volume of the debate rises as complex issues are presented in black and white terms, with only one shading shown.
For more information on this aspect of our future you would benefit by reading “The Filter Bubble,” by Eli Pariser.
All this shaping of information is being driven by Internet marketers who make their money not because they sold you a widget but because they sold “you” to the widget maker. And what is being sold is increasingly the ability to present ideas of one slant or another — but not both.
As a futurist, I note the growing number of political “independents” who say they are uncomfortable with the strident tone of the “base” on both ends. This base gets a significant amount of its information diet from carefully targeted messages designed to make people comfortable in their beliefs, and more hostile to differing beliefs of others.
As citizens, we have a new duty. We must actively seek out points of view different from our own and try to overcome the increasingly tailored news streams that we get.
Our democracy has survived many changes by treasuring the right to free speech. In the electronic age, I am wondering if we need to treasure more the right to get balanced information.
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Francis P. Koster, Ed. D., lives in Kannapolis. For more information, visit his website: