by Ralph Lelii, English Department
In his 1964 work, Understanding Media, Marshall McCluhan famously, and certainly prophetically, claims that the “medium is message” in modern industrial societies. By that phrase, he suggests that we find it difficult to separate the content of the message from the status conferred on it by its inclusion in powerful public media systems. One only has to glimpse the massive celebrity culture that has evolved since then to know how prescient he was, but there is a new wrinkle to his notion that is perhaps even more worrisome.
Because of the instantaneous nature of our web browsers, it is relatively safe bet to assume that we are all drawing on the same information when we search out a topic. For instance, if I Google “Syria”, one would reasonably expect to receive the same results as the person across the room who made the same virtual request. In fact, it is not only likely that you would receive different results, it is virtually certain. Google, Facebook, Yahoo and a host of other web services filter your responses according to a myriad of factors including age, gender, ethnicity, past browsing record, income, time of day and fifty others. The algorithms they use are so sophisticated, so subtle and infused with a bright artificial intelligence, that you can be relatively certain to receive results which conform in many ways to your past reading habits, and most certainly, to your past responses to advertisements. This is well documented by many researchers, and with each passing generation of software, it grows more precise, more restrictive. In simple terms, the more you surf the net for information, the less likely you are to receive a broad, representative search result. If your proclivities are liberal, you will get mostly liberal information. A conservative can expect the same treatment. Ultimately, the guiding force for this is commercial. Ideas are linked to ads which raise money.
My decision to seek a TEDx Conference here at George School was at least in part a response to this virtual conundrum. Our process for selecting TEDxGeorgeSchool speakers is collaborative. A committee of twenty-seven living souls has agreed to vet, however imperfectly, a series of speakers and to make them representative of a host of perspectives. No one who speaks will get paid; no money is made from TEDxGeorgeSchool, no advertisers are permitted here. In the truest sense, our mission for hosting this conference is the pure search for knowledge, a search guided by human hearts intentionally committed to working in a consensual, egalitarian process.
As a teacher, I often despair for our children when I see the left/right polarities that paralyze not only our political process in Washington, but our media sources, news outlets and state governments as well. People can choose, or more likely, have chosen for them information carefully tailored not to challenge or upset one’s ideological and political proclivities. Our natural tendency towards “confirmation bias” may have found its virtual corollary in the algorithmic ontology that governs the internet.
The beauty of TEDx, in my view, is that it brings us face to face with those who present new ideas. There are no commercial intrusions, no mandated inclusions, no centralized enforcer of ideas. We are free to choose whom we like, and it is up to us to open our hearts and our minds to those who would likely confirm and challenge what we already know, and bring us awareness of what we do not. It seems to me the rightful business of a school to pursue such a program.