Follow the Filter Bubble

Popping bubbles at MIT


/ May 23rd, 2011 /

Tyler Cowen thinks American innovation is in trouble.

At a TEDx talk two weeks ago he listed the causes of its demise, one being that American research and development is “tinkering with the parts not the whole.” There is “intensive innovation at the margins,” with experts refining the technological advances they know well. But few have the inclination or breadth to look across research fields and come up with entirely new technologies.

It’s a criticism that’s been leveled at university departments (with their academic fiefdoms) and, of course, which Eli sees happening more and more web-wide. As we nestle into our separate information enclaves, we’re missing the opportunities for insight and invention – whether in public policy, culture or innovation – that come from a broad perspective.

Worrisome. But MIT may have an antidote – at least when it comes to what’s ailing technological innovation.

As profiled by Ed Pilkington in the Guardian last week, MIT has long made a habit of pushing its faculty to cross academic boundaries – or disregard boundaries entirely – in order to explore ideas and inventions that may, at first glance, seem hair-brained or useless. That’s how composer and inventor Tod Machover could spend years tinkering with a “hyperinstrument” for Yo-Yo Ma, developing technologies that two of his students would eventually use to build Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

It’s more than just the gestalt of the place though. MIT actively encourages cross-discipline collaboration:

MIT delights in taking brilliant minds in vastly diverse disciplines and flinging them together. You can see that in its sparkling new David Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, which brings scientists, engineers and clinicians under one roof. Or in its Energy Initiative, which acts as a bridge for MIT’s combined firepower across all its five schools, channelling huge resources into the search for a solution to global warming.

With all those big brains bouncing off each other, it comes as little surprise then that MIT’s alumni have gone on to found tech companies that now account for 1/7th of US GDP – and half the ventures in Silicon Valley.

But why is MIT’s kind of innovation not happening among business behemoths, who surely have the money to fund MIT type R&D?

Daron Acemoglu, economist and MIT luminary himself, has an answer. And it’s pretty simple (although he has pages of econo-math to prove it): research only pays if you can convert it into marketable innovations today. But truly earth-shifting discoveries and innovations usually take years – or sometimes centuries – before they can be translated into marketable products. That’s why, as Cowen says, in business innovations only happen at the tips of the branches. Sprouting new technological branches simply doesn’t pay off – even with 20-year patents.

Luckily MIT isn’t dependent upon immediate profit; instead, government funding heavily subsidizes its seemingly zany, boxless and even pointless research. But we all benefit – when that freedom to explore and collaborate turns into new businesses  and jobs down the road.

Publicly subsidized research, of course, has always been recognized as key to national economic growth (unless you’re a strict libertarian). MIT just happens to be a particularly strong example of how those subsidies can foster cross-discipline innovation. The market, as Acemoglu explains, isn’t providing the incentives for ground-breaking research and collaboration – so the government needs to step in.

But what about when about the market doesn’t provide incentives for all of us to explore ideas that are new, outside our usual interests, or challenging to our current perspectives? What should be the government’s role when the market instead draws us into filter bubbles because, well, selling the familiar and habitual is more lucrative.

In his book, Eli shies away from government imposed responses to the Filter Bubble. It’s a wise caution; you want to be really careful when it comes to imposing state rules on information flows. But could we invent and subsidize an internet MIT, a place where it pays to look beyond your perspective, a counter-force to our filter bubbles? I have no idea what that would look like, but if an online venture could push us to challenge our views, explore new ideas and even learn about what is distasteful to us – I’d give my tax dollars to subsidize that check.


The creativity that cannot be bubble-wrapped


/ May 13th, 2011 /

In spite of Eli’s and this blogger’s concern that filter bubbles could put a damper on innovation and creativity, there is one realm that  is evidently immune to the filter: the humorous internet meme.

Whether photo-shopping, re-mixing, re-producing or auto-tuning, online denizens show no shortage of creativity in riffing off of each other and, to reference Arthur Koestler again, “bisociating” two ideas into new, clever, creations.

You’re no doubt familiar with the “Charlie Bit My Finger” phenomenon (if not, do a search and enjoy the hundreds – or thousands – of knock offs on the original home video sensation). I thank Michael Agger over at Slate for introducing me this morning to an endless trove of similar comic collaborations. Know Your Meme will chart you through the history of the Bed Intruder, the Double Rainbow, the Fashionable Chinese Bum, and countless others. (If you don’t want to waste hours of your day, do not check out Super Cut Movie Cliches.)

Perhaps the filter bubble can’t stifle humorous creativity precisely because, as Eli writes about, humor is one of the few things that manages to pierce our bubbles. If you glance at any “top emailed” or “most popular” list, you’re certain to see humorous articles and videos monopolizing the list. For anyone who’s spent more than an hour online, it’s almost not worth explaining why this is so. Who can resist an opportunity to laugh, whether it comes in the form of a forwarded email, a Facebook post or a link on our favorite online mag?

But should we be encouraged by the the penetrability of humor? Probably not. The darker side of humor is that it represents one the “junk foods” we do tend to feast off of online – along with gossip, cute animals, morally shocking news and, of course, porn. None of these items are likely to be slowed down by our filter bubbles. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. But when Antoine Dodson is the one thing we’re sharing and collaborating on, it’s nothing to sing (or auto-tune) about.


The – true – Republic of Twitter


/ May 11th, 2011 /

As has been mentioned before in this blog and in Eli’s book, the internet has not turned out to be the democratic utopia of information it was once hoped to be. If our information is not being piped through (albeit new) elite media hubs, then it is being filtered through the bubble of our and our friends’ preferences.

That’s at least the case for most of the internet. One exception, however, may be Twitter.

Unlike Facebook and Google, Twitter doesn’t make assumptions about the tweets you’d prefer to see. What you sign up for is what you get. It’s bubble-free media.

Twitter, new research suggests, may also be anti-elitist. We’ all know about the Ashton Kutchers and Old Spice Men of mega-twit fame.  Turns out that, in spite of their gajillion followers, those Tweet Leviathans have little influence in spreading memes. Looking at 580 million tweets over 8 months and using some fancy statistical crunching, researchers found that mid-range tweeters (who have about 1,000 followers) are much more influential when it comes to creating and spreading hashtags.

Could that mean Twitter is indeed the democratic medium we’ve all been looking for? We don’t like to jump to conclusions based on one study (especially one with new-fangled statistical techniques), but the study’s findings temptingly align with the theory that on Twitter information roams free. (On an even more conjectural note, their research may also mean Twitter deserves credit on the “maximizing creativity by minimizing silos” front.)

The impressive research – which comes in two reports and which also tracked memes in stories longer than 140 characters – contains some other fun tidbits, although none directly relevant to the filter bubble. Of note:

  • Partly depending on whether memes (defined in longer stories as “short phrases”) started in mainstream news sites or blogs, they had disparate patterns of peaking and trothing online. (The researchers found 6 distinct patterns).
  • The influence of mainstream media v. blogs in spreading memes depends on the subject area. When it comes to Entertainment and Tech, for example, blogs rule.
  • Finally, don’t tell Bill Keller, but when comparing the influence of the New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, USA Today wins out on every beat, except for National News where it is bested by WSJ. (Note: even the authors are surprised by these results.)

OBL and the death of creativity


/ May 2nd, 2011 /

“I’ll believe it when I see the long-form death certificate.”

If you have friends like mine you probably saw four of five versions of that joke on your Facebook feed this morning.

It’s a phenomenon which I’ll call “spontaneous comedy” and which – in a round about way – illustrates Eli’s worry that the filter bubble could put a damper on creativity and innovation.

Here’s where I’m coming from: New ideas don’t appear from nowhere. Even creative geniuses (or especially creative geniuses) come by their inventions and insights by connecting two earlier innovations or concepts. It’s a process Arthur Koestler popularized as “bisociation” and which nicely explains the “Eureka” moments of everyone from Archimedes to Watson and Crick.

Sometimes we’re all exposed to the same two ideas and a Eureka is “ripe” to happen to a handful of us simultaneously. That’s when you get 7 scientists discovering the cellular basis of all life in 1839. Or, in the case of comedic invention, when everyone is thinking of Obama’s long-form birth certificate and the OBL’s death -and out pop 5 independent “long-form death certificate” jokes.

But while some bisociations are just waiting to click, what makes the rare creatives stand out is their exposure to concepts from seemingly distinct worlds (cultures, academic disciplines, fields of art, etc.) – and, thus, their ability to make connections that their more narrowly-focused peers couldn’t see.

That’s something Eli wants us to keep our eye on. What happens when we lose exposure to ideas and concepts because our filter bubbles is blocking them out? We may all be getting a chuckle out of the same jokes – but how many inventions, insights and innovations will we miss out on?


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