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March 19, 2016

Unfiltered.news: Fulfilling the promise of the Web

Jigsaw — the Big Ideas do-tank of Google — has created a site that wants to pop your filter bubble. It’s pretty awesome.

Unfiltered.news visualizes on a map the top topics in countries around the world. Click on a topic — all of them are translated into your langue — to see how it’s trending in different localities. Use a slider to go back in time. It’s all very slick and animated.

Best of all, it automatically shows you the topics that are not trending in your region. That makes it more MultiFiltered than Unfiltered, but that’s actually what we want. (HeteroFiltered? Nah, that sounds very wrong.)

The Web was supposed to enable the world to talk amongst itself. It has left us way ahead of where we were but far behind where we want to be. This is not a failure of the Web but the result of the way understanding and attention work: understanding is a semi-coherent context (AKA echo chamber) that works by assimilating the novel into the familiar. Attention notices the novel based upon its sense of the familiar. It’s impossible to break out of this cycle. Even G-d couldn’t do it, having to show Itself to Moses as a talking, burning bush — weird, but a weird combination of familiar elements.

(This “hermeneutic circle” may be inevitable, but as you traverse it you can still be open-minded and curious or a self-righteous a-hole.)

I would love to see an integration of Google News and Unfiltered so that it doesn’t require you to remember to go to the site after you’ve gone to Google News. If Google News were integrated into Unfiltered.news, we could make the latter our main news site. Even better, Unfiltered could be integrated into Google News so that everyone who uses that very popular site could have their curiosity piqued.

Until then, I hope to make Unfiltered a regular part of my news behavior.

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May 23, 2015

[2b2k] Echo chambers and the importance of like-minded thinking

I’ve found the argument against Echo Chambers to be vexing.

On the one hand, I of course agree that it’s bad for us all when we only hang out with people whose views we share, because this tends to confirm us in our beliefs and even makes those beliefs more extreme.

On the other hand, I disagree with our Western liberal assumption that a genuine conversation is one in which we encounter radically opposite viewpoints with an open heart and mind. No, when I want to understand the meaning of, say, a court ruling about gay marriage, I’m not going to go first to a site that thinks homosexuality is a damnable sin. I’m going to go to my nearest local “echo chamber.” Understanding is incremental. It fits the new into our existing context. That’s how understanding works.

I find a great deal of truth in a passage sent to me by a friend of mine. (I’ll replace that phrase with his name once I’m able to reach him to ask permission). It’s a passage by Swami Vivekananda, “from his book Raja Yoga, a modern study of the founding text of yoga (India, approx 400 CE).” My friend continues, “In it S. Vivekananda is commenting on one of the first of the yoga sutras, which outlines the path the prospective adept must walk.”

“What is meant by study in this case? No study of novels or story books, but study of those works which teach the liberation of the Soul. Then again this study does not mean controversial studies at all. The Yogi is supposed to have finished his period of controversy. He has had enough of that, and has become satisfied. He only studies to intensify his convictions. Vâda and Siddhânta — these are the two sorts of scriptural knowledge — Vada (the argumentative) and Siddhanta (the decisive). When a man is entirely ignorant he takes up the first of these, the argumentative fighting, and reasoning pro and con; and when he has finished that he takes up the Siddhanta, the decisive, arriving at a conclusion. Simply arriving at this conclusion will not do. It must be intensified. Books are infinite in number, and time is short; therefore the secret of knowledge is to take what is essential. Take that and try to live up to it.

There is an old Indian legend that if you place a cup of milk and water before a Râja-Hamsa (swan), he will take all the milk and leave the water. In that way we should take what is of value in knowledge, and leave the dross. Intellectual gymnastics are necessary at first. We must not go blindly into anything.

The Yogi has passed the argumentative state, and has come to a conclusion, which is, like the rocks, immovable. The only thing he now seeks to do is to intensify that conclusion. Do not argue, he says; if one forces arguments upon you, be silent. Do not answer any argument, but go away calmly, because arguments only disturb the mind. The only thing necessary is to train the intellect, what is the use of disturbing it for nothing? The intellect is but a weak instrument, and can give us only knowledge limited by the senses. The Yogi wants to go beyond the senses, therefore intellect is of no use to him. He is certain of this and, therefore, is silent, and does not argue. Every argument throws his mind out of balance, creates a disturbance in the Chitta (consciousness), and a disturbance is a drawback. Argumentations and searchings of the reason are only by the way. There are much higher things beyond them.

The whole of life is not for schoolboy fights and debating societies. “Surrendering the fruits of work to God” is to take to ourselves neither credit nor blame, but to give up both to the Lord and be at peace.” (Raja Yoga, ch 2, comment to verse 1)

Yup.

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