Monday, November 02, 2009

Filtering information to suit the self

From Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker review of Cass Sunstein's latest book:
From this, it is often argued that the Internet is a boon to democracy—if information is good, then more information must be better. But, in Sunstein’s view, the Web has a feature that is even more salient: at the same time that it makes more news available, it also makes more news avoidable.
“The most striking power provided by emerging technologies,” he has written, is the “growing power of consumers to ‘filter’ what they see.”
Filtering is the prerequisite for consumerdom -- the economic surfeit/surplus is winnowed down in an ongoing process to make for a given Self at a given moment, which is then evaluated in terms of how popular it proves at the proverbial water cooler or in the social networking domain, etc., and then adjusted by consuming more information. (Information can now be a matter of facts, data, opinions, or retail purchases -- anything that could be deployed in signaling.) The goal is not to become informed so much as to signal a tentative, tactical self in the marketplace of identity (arena of identity might be better -- money doesn't necessary change hands, as the currency is attention). This identity, since it is documented online, can serve as a rolling target for marketing, which in turn shapes how it will evolve -- how the subject's self-knowledge will develop. The seemingly autonomous choices will actually be contained by the field of possibilities intrusively presented, by the various filters the subject's prior consumer behavior has shaped.

Choice in informing oneself is now driven by the social-networking self (the self that can be ranked and archived and broadcast to ever-more people), which covertly serves the ends of the corporations that control those networks. Less important to be informed than to know the passwords to admission into chosen hierarchies structured in networks online.

Sunstein’s theory of the (Dis)Information Age is pointedly nonjudgmental. By his account, the problem is basically structural: certain tendencies of the human mind interact badly with certain features of modern technology, much as certain prescription drugs interact badly with alcohol. Young or old, bigoted or tolerant, liberal or conservative -- everyone is equally implicated here, since everyone is predisposed to the same, or at least analogous, mental habits and has access to the same technological tools.
Sunstein points to the polarization effect of like opinions reinforcing each othe rin the absence of facts. Does this extend to the tendency to fixate on a fabricated self-concept in lieu of one grounded in a broader shared reality -- atendency to restrict the reality filtering through to only what suits a particular notion of self, thereby granting inordinate power to the filter-keepers.

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