Beware of the Cocoon of Curation

By Jillian Smith

Facebook and Spotify are wonderful, and I use both on a daily basis, but the two represent a phenomenon that may be perceived as the insanity of the 2016 presidential election. Now granted, I am writing this on the eve of Election Day, and so by the time you read this the whole world will be different, and you will be either in celebration or disbelief over your candidate’s fate. One thing will not be different; our society is steadily marching toward customization and curation.

Curation, or the idea of collecting and sorting information based on taste and preferences, has been one of the great innovations of the digital age. We no longer have to suffer through a swamp of bad stuff to get to the good stuff. Social media and other digital platforms have created complex algorithms that do the curation for us based on our previous likes, dislikes and internet searches. In a world that is tailored to delivering your choices based on what you already want, shouldn’t that make our lives better and richer?

From the news stories that show up at the top of our page based on previous likes to the songs suggested based on previously enjoyed artist, means we are continually setting ourselves up for environments that maximize comfort and minimize challenge. This desire to surround ourselves with things we like and enjoy seems not just to live in the digital space, however, but even in the way we move about geographic space.

In Bill Bishop’s book, “The Big Sort: Why The Clustering Of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” he explains that with increasing frequency, Americans are choosing to relocate to communities that are perceived to hold a majority political or philosophical worldview very similar to that of the potential inhabitant. He claims this micro-clustering is a major reason for what pundits observe as the “hyper-polarization” of American politics.

Americans, increasingly, are choosing content, news outlets, music and even neighborhoods that reaffirm their confirmation bias, or the tendency to interpret information in a way that validates one’s previously held belief. This, I believe, is the major cause of a disparaging report put out by Pew Research Center over this past summer. The report stated, “More than half of Democrats (55 percent) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49 percent of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.”

To be afraid of someone from another party is quite different from merely having an ideological opposition to another person. But this fear is entirely understandable when placed in the context of what psychology tells us is one of the main drivers of fear: the unknown. The cocoon of curation that modern, digital society has created, in effect, has driven those who have opposing views to corners of fear, suspicion and unfamiliarity that invalidate any form of real intellectually based political dialogue.

Whatever happens Tuesday, the 2016 race indicates a far larger problem that may pose an immediate threat to the health of American democracy. We have stopped talking to each other and instead prefer to talk “at” each other. Rather than taking the time to understand the real problems of the “basket of deplorable” or “welfare queens,” we delegitimize people’s divergent interests with slick labels and further entomb ourselves in our cocoons of carefully curated content.

My solution? Use this election to prompt yourself to step outside of your comfort zone. Staunch liberal? Suspend your opinions for a moment and sit in on a College Conservatives meeting. Keep your calm even if a call for “Hillary for Prison” arises, and take the time to understand exactly why such people are making such a plea.

Dyed in the wool conservative? Head over to a College Democrats meeting. Put aside your ideological distaste for a time long enough to try to understand the viewpoint of your fellow citizen who may argue for increased reproductive rights.

Rational people are allowed to disagree. Indeed, the entirety of our democratic republic has been founded upon a concept. But to continue that process in a meaningful way, it requires that we make real, honest and legitimate effort to truly understand the point of view of the person with whom we disagree. This doesn’t happen on Facebook. Go out and have some conversations.

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