Tech

Can Tech Break Us Out of Our Bubbles?

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The internet has created an abundance of information and entertainment, and it’s great.

But we don’t yet have perfect ways to find movies, books, music, information and activities that we might like — and especially those that push us out of our comfort zones.

Cracking the best ways to discover new things in our online abundance is a technology challenge — but also a human one. It requires us to want to expose ourselves to ideas and entertainment that don’t necessarily fit with our status quo.

I hope we can. It’s a way to make our lives fuller.

Call me corny, but I still marvel at the wonder that the online world brings to our doorstep. We can drop in on world-class chess players on Twitch, discover products from Black-owned businesses, listen to people debate nuclear power on Clubhouse or play around with a Polaroid-like photo app.

It’s amazing. But we can experience it only if we know it exists and feel compelled to seek it out. Enter the computers.

Online services like YouTube, Netflix and TikTok digest what you have already watched or its computer systems infer your tastes and then suggest more of the same. Websites like Facebook and Twitter expose you to what your friends like or to material that many other people already find engaging.

Those approaches have drawbacks. A big one is that they encourage us to stay inside our bubbles. We keep following and watching what we already know and like, either by our own inclination or by design of the internet sites. (Counterpoint: Some research has suggested that social media exposes people to broader viewpoints.)

More ideas, more stuff to entertain us — and more potential ways to confirm what we already believe or to be steered by people who game the algorithm machines. This was a reality before the internet, but it’s amplified now.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure. My colleague Kevin Roose told me last year that it’s important to understand the ways that the internet crowds or computer systems might influence our choices. Rather than rely on computerized suggestions, Kevin said, he turns off the autoplay option in YouTube’s video settings and makes his own music playlists on Spotify.

I also appreciate ideas for combining computer-aided discovery with experts who might push you in a fresh direction. Spotify has song playlists created by experts. Apple editors surface news articles and suggest apps for people to try. I want many more experiments like these.

News organizations including BuzzFeed News and The New York Times have tried projects to expose readers to opposing viewpoints. Facebook batted around a similar idea for recommending online forums that people might not ordinarily encounter, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.

Finding stuff that is different from what we usually like also requires us to be open to ideas, culture and diversions that challenge and surprise us. I wonder if most people have the willingness or time to do that.

In the sea of abundance online, I often fall back on the tried-and-true: wordof-mouth recommendations from people I know and from experts. When I’m looking for a new book, I ask bookworm friends or read professional reviewers.

I don’t think I trust the online crowds or algorithms, but I’m missing out. It feels as if the wonder is right at my fingertips, and I can’t quite reach it.

We want to hear from readers on this! How do you discover new books, music, information and activities? Tell us what you like about digital modes of finding new stuff, and what you think is missing. You can reach us at ontech@politicsay.com.


Your lead

Some On Tech readers told us they were angry about Thursday’s newsletter on the long road for proposed regulations that would force internet service providers to treat all online content on the same footing.

I described the fight over rules to enshrine this principle of net neutrality as “pointless,” and I get why people who have advocated net neutrality thought I was being glib.

It was a fair criticism. What I was trying to express was exhaustion. The current rounds of fights over net neutrality regulation go back to at least 2008. The protracted efforts on this have me pessimistic about the possibility of any new rules or restraints that could tame the downsides of our digital world.

My colleague Cecilia Kang and I also discussed net neutrality’s relative importance compared with other tech policies, including effective rules for online expression and the influence of technology superpowers.

A valid pushback from Evan Greer, a deputy director for the digital rights group Fight for the Future, is that if people are worried about Big Tech, then enshrining net neutrality in law is essential to restrain their power.

I’ll say one more thing about internet regulation. I am angry every day that so many Americans — particularly Black and Latino people and households in rural areas — cannot access or afford the internet. (Cecilia has a new article about an emergency federal subsidy for home internet access.)

I am also angry that Americans (and Canadians!) pay more for worse internet and cellphone service than people do in most other rich countries.

These are complex problems with no easy fix. But in my view, they are partly symptoms of America’s failures to set effective telecommunications policies and hold internet and phone providers accountable for their promises over many decades. And those companies deserve a large measure of blame for obfuscating the problems and fighting tooth and nail over any regulation.


  • Being corny again: I make fun of internet companies for just stealing others’ ideas or making trivial things. But my colleagues Kate Conger and Taylor Lorenz wrote about genuinely fresh concepts from Twitter and a photo app start-up called Dispo.

  • Militaries were the original customers for Silicon Valley: Some big American tech companies have recently shied away from working with the U.S. military, partly because of complaints from employees. My colleague Cade Metz reported on smaller companies that are courting business from government agencies and the Pentagon with technology, like a self-piloting drone.

  • The Roombas are acting “drunk”: A software update for some models of the robotic vacuum cleaners made them do weird things, like repeatedly bang into walls.

Dwayne Reed, a teacher, author and rapper in Chicago, made a music video to encourage kids to wear face masks. It is extremely catchy. (Thanks to my colleague Natasha Singer for sharing this.)


We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@politicsay.com.

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