Finding God in Texas

This was supposed to be the first of my post-MW2013 posts, wrapping up the conference and starting to pull together the underlying themes and ideas that emerged for me during the week in Portland. And then I arrived in Texas, and Google brought me God in the form of a thousand search results; an unexpected kind of creeping normalcy that painted the world a different colour to the way I usually see it. So I thought I’d detour from plan and spend a couple of minutes thinking about some of the immediate questions that this raised for me.

When I search on almost any issue back in Australia, I don’t get a lot of religion in my results. I don’t know whether it’s because we are a largely secular country, or because the profile of people whom otherwise “look” like me to Google (ie, using a Mac, female) in Australia aren’t very religious. Therefore, to look into the Google mirror and find the results reflected back at me so distorted from their usual bent, and from my sense of self, was somewhat jarring. In The Filter Bubble Eli Pariser comments that “from within the bubble, it’s nearly impossible to see how biased it is.” (10) What I think I’ve experienced here in Texas is my first real opportunity to look at the search results presented to me from beyond my normal cocooned perspective. The sensation grates.

It also raises interesting questions for me about the idea of a canon of knowledge, because these kinds of personalised results surely make it much harder to form an agreed-upon body of ideas or frame of reference for history, much less the present. (This is something that Danny Birchall and I touched lightly on in our Museums and the Web paper about curating the digital world.)

I am not even close to making sense of what these kinds of distorting lenses mean for us in museums, but here are some first thoughts. We are all now at the mercy of these kinds of algorithms, because they are in some ways a necessary strategy for coping with the scale of non-hierarchical online information; whether we work in museums or not. The information we have access to, then, is rarely going to be everything we might need or want. This is ok, I think. It’s surely always been the case that with so much information in the world only some has been esteemed over others.

But the perniciousness of algorithmic invisibility, that it is next to impossible to understand how and where those non-neutral search engine biases comes from, seems to present museums with both a challenge and an opportunity. By declaring where our own knowledge is drawn from as it relates to the collection or otherwise, or acknowledging when it is missing or known to be incomplete, we gain the opportunity to act as a different voice within the digital space, with different interests and values. In addition, utilising such an approach could enable those who use our resources to both provide other perspectives by knowing where our conclusions were drawn from.

What do you think? Is this an issue that museums need to tackle, and if so, how should it affect their approach to knowledge sharing and gathering?

4 thoughts on “Finding God in Texas

  1. I have no real comments on this except to say I find the ‘filter bubble’ situation frightening and akin to being stuck in one’s own self-created paradigm. So ditto any museum. An obvious solution is to be able to opt out or turn the filter bubble on and off at will.

    1. Robert, I agree. This idea of something that shapes our world that we cannot break out of is quite scary, although I suppose there have always been forces that controlled what we could access in terms of information. Search isn’t the only way to get information, even if it is persuasive. The challenge is maybe the awareness that our results are limited only to those that are expected to be useful to us, whether or not that is true. I’m becoming more convinced of the benefits of showing one’s hand wherever possible; of admitting where information came from or how conclusions were drawn. Having said that, this is a big shift in the nature of institutional authority, which has – at least partially – come from its opaque nature, and we don’t know how that change will play out over a longer term.

  2. Is the filter bubble new? Haven’t we always had the same distorting lens laid over our perceptions? Before it was google’s algorithm didn’t we have geographic limitations, an influencing circle of friends and acquaintances, and social norms which were rarely challenged within our communities because we had to actively seek those challenges to find them?

    Is google’s algorithm a totally new thing? Or is it just another manifestation of the same old tribalism that we’ve been dealing with in one way or another for millennia? And is this new form of that thing better or worse than before? I mean, people talk about the filter bubble. People notice the filter bubble. The filter bubble is kind of obvious when compared to the old bubbles. Even with our own bubbles around us we can’t help but see people who clearly live in a different bubble than we do, and we end up questioning how that happened.

    Could the filter bubble actually be a useful focus for us to start talking about a larger and much older issue? I’d actually love to see a history museum talk about the “filter bubbles” of past eras. Think about the “bubbles” humanity has lived in in the past: the biased exceptionalism of the Romans, the religious wars of countless eras, the invention and subsequent rise of nationalism, the Cold War… If anything, our networked world (and the flawed heuristics which try to filter it for our consumption) provides us with a vocabulary we can use to further examine our own natural tendencies.

    We just have to be careful not to fall too deep into our own bubbles in the process.

    1. Matt, I think that’s a really interesting perspective. I agree that “filter bubbles” are themselves not new; that it’s more becoming aware of different types of filter bubbles. I wanted to make the argument that it was possible to escape the filter bubble pretty easily before (if you were a conservative and wanted to know what the liberal media was writing, you could just go and read their paper), but that’s still true. It might not be easy to realise what information you are and are not getting access to if you are only able to come across particular perspectives, but that was ever the case. The shock was kind of great when I arrived in Texas because I’d never had results so far removed from normal. But that would have been the same if I’d picked up a newspaper no doubt, or anything else, that normalises a different kind of language or thinking.

      Your idea of using the discussion of filter bubbles to draw attention to the filter bubbles of the past – and present – makes a bunch of sense. It’s a new vocabulary for thinking, I guess.

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