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Friday, 3 March 2017

Global Connectivity to Personal Disconnect: The Collapse of Public Discourse in the Digital Era

People you may know. Pages you may like. Our online lives may be more insular than we recognise, while negatively affecting our civic life.


The great amount of attention given to issues such as fake news reflects a larger problem - the collapse of public discourse. We lack a common platform as well as understanding of what constitutes meaningful public discussion, making the public itself rest on shaky ground. 
Our current predicament is often framed as a function of the neoliberal age as increasingly we are individuated; loneliness is up while the emotional connections underpinning collectivist politics is down. Facilitating our increasing isolation from each other is rapid technological advancement. The amorality of technology demands that instruments both reflect and further the user’s values – this is embodied by the rise of the so-called bubble filter and its creation by neoliberal subjects such as Amazon or Facebook. 
The bubble filter is the effect created from tools used by most major websites and social media platforms to personalise the cyber experience insofar as advertisements and suggested links are concerned. The effect is demonstrated by users finding recommended resources and google results tailored to their previous activity. 
The barrage of personalised advertisements reflects capitalism’s tightening of the noose around the internet’s emancipatory potential; in a space where all information should be accessible, resources not deemed to match a user’s profile or previous activity are placed at the back of the proverbial line. The bubble filter both explains and creates a climate conducive to the rise of fake news. For the user, fake news is deemed trustworthy as it is compatible with narratives and information previously presented to them within their insular online experience. 
In showing us products or services that logarithmically match our listed preferences in terms of consumption as well as ideology, bubble filters sift through ideas that are determined to be incompatible with our desires or worldviews. In doing so, not only do bubble filters adhere to the neoliberal dictates of customer satisfaction but conveniently provide an informational escape from the contradictions of modern, capitalist life - Amazon tells us what to buy, Facebook tells us who to friend. Without exposure to competing ideas and values, neoliberal denizens lack a platform for debate while remaining in the shelters of their own personalised intellectual comfort zones. 
The bubble filter is the logical extension of capitalism’s shaping of the internet. Just as capital has created zones of comfort for consumption reflected by malls or urban policies that relocate the homeless, the unpleasant or discomforting is made absent from the daily experience online as well. Accordingly, just as homeless people (as opposed to homelessness) have become conceived of as a solvable problem, so to have narratives that differ from our own understandings of the world. Material that is not personally tailored for us is pushed to the peripheries.
The bubble filter demonstrates the internet as shifting from a tool of global connectivity to individual disconnect; personal opinion becomes fossilised while public discourse withers away. Without meaningful public discourse, the internet simply exposes us to competing opinions only insofar as (often anonymous) trolls are concerned. This is dangerous. With little to no space for productive debate, ideological conflicts are carried out institutionally as evinced by the onslaught of fake news accusations that characterised the final American presidential debate. 
As a product of the neoliberal project, the bubble filter caters to our perceived demands for constant personalised stimulation as well as the commodification of the digital experience. We find ourselves further removed from our neighbours who occupy distant ideological worlds; we do not understand each other as we increasingly lack basic exposure to each other. When we live in bubbles, we forget how to engage and disagree in a civil manner. 
This situation has the potential to normalise extreme polarity and reactionary populism as well as for ideological conflicts to increasingly be articulated in the streets. Left without public fora to negotiate competing worldviews and engage with each other, we should not be surprised if ideological conflicts escalate physically and violently.

***Please note this piece was originally featured by Daily Maverick and is coauthored with Francesco Fanti Rovetta