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.


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