The Age of Unenlightenment

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The Enlightenment period of the late 17th and 18th centuries was an era that saw the rise of the scientific method, reason, liberty, and progress. Building on the cultural and scientific revolutions of the Renaissance, Enlightenment thinkers felt compelled to observe and analyse rather than simply relying on accepted wisdom or intuition.

Rational thought and skepticism were key concepts to the enlightenment period with notable figures, such as Isaac Newton, Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, giving us the tools to essentially teach us how to think critically 1.

Gradually, there was a paradigm shift as more and more individuals began to subscribe to more secular concepts of learning and to the scientific method. It was hoped by many Enlightenment philosophers that this would propel us into an age of reason where rational thought would help us break free from irrationality and ignorance.

Fast forward over four hundred years, and we are living in a world where the news we receive straight to our smartphones has been tailored to what we ‘want’ to see. A year ago, Google introduced a new personalised news stream which allowed you to choose what content you wanted to see based on your interests. It also began to draw information from your previous searches to make inferences about the kind of news you want to be told about. From just one app, we can view news that always agrees with our opinions and never challenges us. It doesn’t require us to think.

When we look at the causes for this reversal in reasoning, we see that that there are a number of complicated components at play. From one-sided media coverage of global events leading to radicalisation, to the rise of right-wing populism, a convoluted network exists that has been perpetuated by technology. Despite this, such technology is a powerful tool with many innovative uses and the ability to increase communication and connectedness. But, how exactly has it begun to foster a culture of ignorance?

When the internet was first introduced, no one could have predicted just how vital it would become to our economy, infrastructure and ultimately, our lives. According to The International Telecommunications Union, a specialised department of the United Nations, an estimated 47% of the world’s population uses the internet. Of these more than 3.3 billion people, 81% live in developed countries 2. The internet has a vastness that reaches across our planet and yet, the online ‘bubble’ that we as individuals inhabit is incredibly small.

These micro-universes have been subtly created over time by industry giants, such as Google and Facebook, leaving us in a permanent state of intellectual isolation. In 2011, Eli Pariser, an author and internet activist, wrote “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You” and in it, he first coined the term ‘filter bubble’.

A filter bubble is a term used to describe the algorithmic bias that exists when using social media and search engines. Despite the aim of personalised feeds being to show you content that is relevant to you, it has instead propelled us to a point of cerebral solitude with Pariser characterising it by commenting that “Personalization filters serve a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas…” 3.

Every social media post we ‘like’ and every link we follow allows our personal preferences to be further refined and as we do, we are further insulating ourselves from reality and the world from the perspective of others.

We now exist in a digital domain where no two people will have the same results from a search they conduct and where background industrious bots are diligently curating a selection of the things they think we want to see. What’s revealed to us are things that agree completely with our understanding of how we think that the world is and that do not challenge our assumptions in any way.

In 2016, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) conducted an experiment designed to try and burst the so-called ‘filter bubble’ with their ‘Blue Feed, Red Feed’ feature 4. The intrepid news outlet attempted to point out our biases by showing the same news from two different perspectives. In this case, material that appeared in the red feed is deemed to be deeply conservative. In comparison, the blue feed, was profoundly liberal and by showing the two side by side the WSJ highlighted the disparities between the two points of view. The tool was designed for users who may be inquisitive about opposing viewpoints but who are uneasy about ‘liking’ these stories on platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

In an interview with Quartz in 2017, Bill Gates commented that “Technologies such as social media lets you go off with like-minded people, so you’re not mixing and sharing and understanding other points of view…”5.

Gates accurately pinpointed one of the fundamental issues we are facing with social media. We are using the platforms as intermediaries more and more progressively, mindlessly consuming irrelevant content. All the while, invisible judgements are constantly being made by algorithms about what kind of personalised utopia we should be living in.

Social media has a surprising way of luring you in and will work hard to keep you on their sites. What was supposed to be a couple of minutes on Facebook turns into 20 mins of scrolling through your feed, clicking on a link that will see you completing a personality quiz and, when that is done, feeling compelled to swipe through a slide show entitled “20 Hollywood actors and how they really look now”.

Since its inception into mainstream society, social media has been slowly training us to accept what we see at face-value. In feeds where anyone’s thoughts can become immortally digitised and news has been carefully selected to mirror our own moral compasses, we don’t have to scroll down far to have our opinions validated and our view on current affairs confirmed.

Despite its faults, the internet can be a positive asset that allows for advancements that would be impossible otherwise, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a corner of it where truth has not been distorted and the line between fact and fiction blurred beyond recognition. So, how can we combat the culture of ignorance? How can we pop the filter bubble?

Challenging our own assumptions and reflecting on personal biases can help us view the information we receive in a completely different way. In 1988, a study was conducted at Princeton University by Charles G. Lord, Elizabeth Preston and Mark R. Lepper who was at Stanford University at the time. The aim of this experiment was to find a practical way to fight confirmation bias and to develop a method of correcting our reduced reasoning. They asked participants who had strong existing opinions, both for and against the death penalty, to review information that either confirmed or opposed their views.

The researchers found that no matter whether the subjects were presented with confirmatory or conflicting data, they remained firm in their judgements in what is known as bias assimilation. However, when asked to ‘consider the opposite’, 6 they were able to avoid the bias as they began to think about how they were processing the information.

This study and the results it obtained are still incredibly relevant today, particularly when trying to look beyond our own filter bubbles and accessing the news we read critically. By challenging our own assumptions, being curious and actively seeking to discover views that oppose our own, we can finally begin to dispel our culture of fake news and enter a new age of reason.

This article was specialist edited by Anna Henschel and copy-edited by Kirsten Woollcott.




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