I noticed a couple of years ago when living in a fairly nondescript part of East London, in the kind of Olympically lifeless area where absolutely everyone comes from everywhere else and no-one sticks around for long, that in some parts of the country, and maybe the world, it is becoming more and more difficult to find a shop where get your hands on a physical newspaper. Conversations with my international students confirm this: the regular purchase of a newspaper is increasingly a minority pursuit, an odd and probably slightly quirky habit of people over 35 or so. Younger people inevitably get their news online, if at all – the news might simply consist in what their friends are up to on Facebook or maybe a glance at Google or Yahoo headlines. Given that so much of what we perceive of the world is mediated in some way, what does this imply about our collective experience of a shared reality?
A few years ago I remarked on my Chinese students’ reluctance to engage with information which might conflict with what they had grown up and been taught to believe about their own society. Despite the opportunities presented by the internet, they continued to prefer Chinese sites and to steer well clear of alternative sources of news, ideas and information despite having the language to make sense of what was being said. At the time I tended, rather patronizingly I now see, to regard this as a symptom of ideological brainwashing by the evil Chinese Communist Party, but since then I have come to see this kind of instinctive and wilfull blinkeredness as more generalized and not remotely restricted to authoritarian societies.
Now obviously my Facebook news update page and Twitter feed are different from yours. I chose to follow or to be friends with certain people, and am of course aware that the information I receive in this way does not give me a particularly comprehensive view of what is going on in the society in which I live or around the world. However, news sites tend now to work in a similar way, or at least offer to let you have your news your way – just business and sports headlines if that’s what you’re interested in, with none of that bothersome stuff about earthquakes and floods and generally what’s been happening to people you’ve never even met.
To go back to when I was in the authoritarian society of China, it caught my attention that the results I got from Google searches tended to be quite different from the results I got outside China. This has been quite ably demonstrated elsewhere – if you type Tiananmen Square into google anywhere else in the world, you are confronted with the famous picture of the guy standing in front of the tank, whereas if you do so in China. you get some American people’s holiday snaps (and if you look for human rights in google in China, your internet connection goes down for five minutes). In China, then, we are dealing with a formal kind of censorship, acknowledged or not. Whether or not google colludes in this is not generally known. But what is clear is that, these days, something similar happens wherever we are in the world.
In the interview below Eli Pariser shows us what happens when he types Egypt into google: he gets a page of results which pertain to recent developments: the fall of the dictator and the ongoing revolution. He then shows us what happens when a less socially conscious friend did the same thing – the results he received were mostly related to holidays. Google uses a series of filters to show us what it thinks we as individuals do and do not wish to know. It does so automatically and for our own benefit – just as the authoritarian Chinese Commmunist Party does.
The kind of people I teach here in London are about as likely to type human rights into google as they are to buy a copy of the Guardian.The same is certainly true for climate change – any attempts, even in the most underhand and careful of ways, to raise the topic result in what George Marshall describes as a ‘spinach tart’ moment. Not only are they very unlikely to seek information on the impending annihilation of the human species or indeed on what we individually and collectively can do to prevent it, they are also, these days, extremly unlikely to come across any information on it, given the way that they, and we, increasingly experience the world through a tighter and tighter set of filters, for our own benefit and convenience.
However, for all that we may be inclined to hope that we can hide from the four horsemen in our own private and sealed utopias online, it transpires that this is not the case. According to a recent government report, it is predicted that climate change will play havoc with our internet connections: ‘higher temperatures can reduce the range of wireless communications, rainstorms can impact the reliability of the signal, and drier summers and wetter winters may cause greater subsidence, damaging masts and underground cables’. Maybe our best option would be to challenge climate change to a game of (offline) chess.