This column first appeared January 27, 2012, in issue 2004.
When’s the last time a piece of writing surprised you? I mean really opened your eyes to a new idea, or startled you out of complacency, or introduced you to a pastime you never knew existed. If It’s been a while, there are easy ways to change that?and it might surprise you to know that they’re the same tools we use to limit what we read.
In spite of (or maybe because of) the endless hum of the information highway, we’re remarkably good at tuning out things we don’t want to hear. Instead of letting the flood of newspapers, magazines, and websites swamp us, we tweak endless options to selectively pull in small streams of info. RSS feeds deliver content from favourite sites, while news aggregators like Yahoo offer customized settings right down to local TV listings.
And now, with e-readers and tablets gathering massive piles of data on our reading habits, It’s easier than ever for authors and publishers to update books, customizing them to even more closely match people’s preferences. As Nicholas Carr notes in this Wall Street Journal article, the ease of updating digital texts ?will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover.? If most readers skip the chapters where the hero isn’t chasing someone or blowing something up, why not simply get rid of those parts altogether?
But by customizing nearly every type of media we read, we also run the risk of closing our window on the world, of narrowing our interests so much that we narrow our minds. Tweak your settings closely enough and, except for the occasional headline that gets through, It’s possible to fill your RSS feeds, home pages, and Twitter stream with nothing but news about fashion or finance.
Even those helpful suggestions on Amazon and other retail sites can perpetuate the cycle. How does it offer me fresh ideas to know that customers who bought the same spy novel as I did also purchased similar books in the same genre?
This behaviour’s nothing new. An introductory journalism course I took many years ago devoted particular attention to this bias. Whether it was print newspapers in the 1950s or a website today, people have always tended to seek out media that already agree with their opinions?media that offer an authoritative, reassuring voice that It’s the rest of the world That’s wrong.
So how can we turn those filters into tools to selectively expand our world, not limit it? Choose a topic or person you know nothing about and add it to your settings. Subscribe to a blog on lacrosse or bonsai trees or wedding planners, and commit to scanning the titles and reading occasional articles for a month. Bored witless? Unsubscribe and choose another topic.
If you only ever visit the corporate media sites, bookmark Mother Jones or The Dominion. Subscribe to the lifestyle feed of a foreign newspaper to get a first-hand take on the small, daily interests of people who might seem to have nothing in common with you (most of the major dailies offer versions in several languages). The Arts & Letters Daily site offers dozens of links to newspapers, magazines, columnists, and blogs of all stripes.
With all the choices available, It’s easy to understand why we filter so many voices out. But those same filters can also be remarkably useful in letting a few new voices in?voices that speak of unknown possibilities. Try it. You just might be surprised.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).