What Google’s search filters could mean for the future of creative thinking

In The Filter Bubble, author Eli Pariser presents various reasons why Internet personalization filters are bad for us.  The part that I’ve been most interested in is how these “filter bubbles” affect our ability to think creatively.

As an undergrad working on my English thesis, I had an a-ha moment when I was developing my topic.  I was pulling information not just from my knowledge of literature and writing, but going a step further to connect this with facts and ideas from other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, and science.  My brain was connecting all kinds of dots to create a bigger, more fully realized picture.  Because I had taken a variety of courses and exposed myself to topics outside of my usual comfort zone, I had access to broader resources which made my thesis more interesting and, I think, more accessible to those outside of the English department.

A major reason for this process and outcome was a result of my ability to think creatively and “outside the box.”  And yet, this is precisely what Pariser believes will deteriorate with the increasing popularity of personalization filters on the Internet.  These filters find out who we are and what we like, think, and believe and then proceed to give us more of the same.  It severely limits our exposure to news, facts, and ideas that we otherwise may not see or hear about.  Pariser explains that “ingenuity comes from the juxtaposition of ideas that are far apart” (p. 93).  When we are no longer seeing ideas from other disciplines, opinions, and modes of thinking because of a filter bubble, we lose our ingenuity and our access to the innovative mind.  Serendipity is deleted from the equation.

As a librarian and Millenial, I have grown up with this paradigm shift — from getting information from books, newspapers, radio, and television, to the Internet being the sole information source for some, if not most, people.  I still read books and newspapers.  I listen to the radio to catch up on the news.  Yet, I’m beginning to see how the filter bubble is affecting younger generations.  As an after school leader of a library drop-in homework help program, I try to refer kids to print media first but so many of them say that they would prefer to go on the Internet to look up a fact or answer a few homework questions.  They would rather wait a half hour or longer for a computer to open up instead of taking 5 minutes to look through a book.  Print media is serendipidous in the way it is organized.  This younger generation is missing out on the chance to be surprised and amazed by things they don’t know yet.  By flipping through an encyclopedia, dictionary, atlas, or any non-fiction book, kids explore information in a way that the Internet and search engines are not suited for.  Children are seeing less and less of the bigger picture and therefore will be impaired later in life when creative and critical thinking skills are highly valued.

Librarians should be aware of the filter bubble and find ways to measure and combat its deleterious effects on our intellectual culture.

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