Tag: Nicholas Carr

How to Remember What You Read

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why is it that some people seem to be able to read a book once and remember every detail of it for life, while others struggle to recall even the title a few days after putting down a book?

The answer is simple but not easy.

It's not what they read. It's how they read. Passive readers forget things almost as quickly as they read them. Active readers, on the other hand, retain the bulk of what they read.

There is another difference between these two types of readers: The quantity of reading affects them differently. Passive readers who read a lot are not much further ahead than passive readers who read a little. If you're an active reader, however, things are different.

The more that active readers read, the better they get. They develop a latticework of mental models to hang ideas on, further increasing retention. They learn to differentiate good arguments and structures from bad ones. They make better decisions because they know what fits with the basic structure of how the world works. They avoid problems. The more they read, the more valuable they become. The more they read, the more they know what to look for.

Think back to the books you studied in school. Despite the passage of time, most us remember a lot about them. Even if the details are fuzzy, we can doubtless recall the basic plots, main characters, notable themes, and motifs. We didn't just passively read those books. We actively read them. We had class discussions, took turns reading parts aloud, acted out scenes, or maybe even watched film adaptations. No matter how long it has been since we set foot in a classroom, we all probably remember Animal Farm.

Having a deliberate strategy for anything we spend a lot of time on is a sensible approach. But most people don't consciously try to get the most out of the time they invest in reading.

For us to get the most out of each book we read, it is vital to have a plan for recording, reflecting on, and putting into use the conclusions we draw from the information we consume. In this article, we will look at a strategy for deriving the maximum benefit from every single page you read.

First, let's clear up some common misconceptions about reading. Here's what I know:

  • Quality matters more than quantity. If you read just one book a week but fully appreciate and absorb it, you'll be far better off than someone who skims through half the library without paying much attention.
  • Speedreading is bullshit. The only way to read faster is to actually read more.
  • Book summary services miss the point. I know a lot of companies charge ridiculous prices for access to summaries written by some 22-year-old with zero life experience, but the point of reading for fluency is to acquire a repository of facts and details. Nuance, if you will. In this sense, you understand a bit more about why things work.
  • Fancy apps and tools are not needed. A notebook, index cards, and a pen will do just fine. (For those of you wanting a simple and searchable online tool to help, Evernote is the answer.)
  • We don't need to read stuff we find boring.
  • We don't need to finish the entire book. 

“Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something'.”

— Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

Before Reading

Choose Your Books Wisely
There are no rules when it comes to choosing books. We don't have to read bestsellers, or classics, or books everyone else raves about. This isn't school and there are no required reading lists. Focus on some combination of books that: (1) stand the test of time; (2) pique your interest; or (3) resonate with your current situation.

The more interesting and relevant we find a book, the more likely we are to remember its contents in the future.

For older books or those that have been translated, check which version is considered to be the best. For example, the Hayes translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is regarded as being truest to the original text, while also having a modern feel.

Get Some Context
A good place to start is by doing some preliminary research on the book. Some books – for example, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Palm Wine Drinkard – have a very different meaning once we know a bit about the life of the author.

For older books, try to understand the historical context. For books written in an unfamiliar country, try to understand the cultural context. Some helpful questions to ask include:

  • Why did the author write this? (Did they have an agenda?)
  • What is their background?
  • What else have they written?
  • Where was it written?
  • What was the political, economic, and cultural situation at the time of writing?
  • Has the book been translated or reprinted?
  • Did any important events — a war, an economic depression, a change of leadership, the emergence of new technology — happen during the writing of the book?

Know Why You're Reading the Book
What are you reading this book for? Entertainment? To understand something or someone you don't know? To get better at your job? To improve your health? To learn a skill? To help build a business?

You have to have some idea of what you want to get from the book. You don't just want to collect endless amounts of useless information. That will never stick.

Skim the Index, Contents, and Preface
Before starting to read a book (particularly non-fiction), skim through the index, contents page, preface, and inside jacket to get an idea of the subject matter.  (This article on how to read a book is a brilliant introduction to skimming.) The bibliography can also indicate the tone of a book. The best authors often read hundreds of books for each one they write, so a well-researched book should have a bibliography full of interesting texts. After you've read the book, peruse the bibliography and make a note of any books you want to read next.

Match the Book to Your Setting or Situation
Although it's not always practical, matching books to our location and circumstances can be powerful. Books will have a greater resonance as they become part of an experience rather than just supplementing it.

When choosing books, take a look at your own situation and decide on genres or authors that might help you overcome any current challenges. Whatever your state of affairs, someone has been in the same place. Someone has felt the same feelings and thought the same thoughts and written about it. It's up to you to find that book.

For example:

  • Traveling or on holiday? Match books to the location — Jack Kerouac or John Muir for America; Machiavelli for Italy; Montaigne’s Essays, Ernest Hemingway, or Georges Perec for France; and so on. Going nowhere in particular? Read Vladimir Nabokov or Henry Thoreau.
  • Dealing with grief? Read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Torch by Cheryl Strayed, or anything by Tarah Brach.
  • Having a crisis about your own mortality? (It happens to us all.) Read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life or Theodore Zeldin’s The Hidden Pleasures of Life.
  • Dealing with adversity? Lose your job? Read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way.
  • Dissatisfied with your work? Read Linchpin by Seth Godin, Mastery by Robert Greene, or Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

If I were a Dr., I'd prescribe books. They can be just as powerful as drugs.

While Reading

You'll remember more if you do the following seven things while you're reading.

Make Notes
Making notes is perhaps the single most important part of remembering what you read.

The best technique for notetaking is whichever one works for you and is easy to stick to. You need to create your own system. Some people prefer to record notes on index cards or in a commonplace book; others prefer a digital system. Notes are especially useful if you write on a regular basis, although everyone (not just writers) can benefit from making them.

Start by writing a short summary of each chapter and transcribing any meaningful passages or phrases. If you are unsure how to simplify your thoughts, imagine that someone has just tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to explain the chapter you just finished reading. They have never read this book and lack any idea of the subject matter. How would you explain it to them?

In The 3 Secrets That Help Me Write and Think, Robert Greene describes his notetaking process this way:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes … on the side.

After I am done reading I will often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards.

David Foster Wallace recommends a similar form of active reading (for more, see Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing):

Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you're like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you'll actually learn what's going on. It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh that was pretty good…” but you don't get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them.

Stay Focused
Decide that for the time you will be reading, you will focus on the book and nothing else. No quick Twitter checks. No emails. No cell phone. No TV. No staring into midair. Understanding and absorbing a book requires deep focus, especially if the subject matter is dense or complex. Remember, we are aiming for active reading. Active reading requires focus and the ability to engage with the author. (Focus is hard work. If you're lost, start here.)

Referring to the time before the internet, Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: “In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”

If you're struggling to stay focused on a particularly difficult or lengthy book, decide to read a mere 25 pages of it a day. It takes only a few minutes to nibble away at a challenging text. Completing a long book in this manner might take months, but at least you will have read it without getting overwhelmed or bored.

Mark Up the Book
Most of us were taught as children to treat books as something sacred – no folding the page corners, and no writing in the margins, ever. However, if you want to remember what you read, forget about keeping books pristine. I've spent a lot of time helping my kids unlearn the rule that books are not to be written in.

In fact, go crazy with marginalia. The more you write, the more active your mind will be while reading.

Jot down connections and tangential thoughts, underline key passages, and make a habit of building a dialogue with the author. Some people recommend making your own index of key pages or using abbreviations (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings writes “BL” next to any beautiful language, for example).

The first time you write in a book can be unnerving, but in the long term, it leads to a rich understanding and a sense of connection with the author.

Billy Collins has written a beautiful poem on the joys of marginalia: “We have all seized the white perimeter as our own / and reached for a pen if only to show / we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; / we pressed a thought into the wayside / planted an impression along the verge. /… ‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love.'”

Stop and Build a Vivid Mental Picture
Building vivid mental pictures is one of the most effective techniques for remembering anything, not least what we read. When you come across an important passage or concept, pause and visualize it. Make the picture as salient and distinctive as possible.

Make Mental Links
Books do not exist in a vacuum. Every concept or fact can be linked to countless others. Making an effort to form our own links is a fruitful way to better remember what we read.

Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows:

The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiriting new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer's work. It gives the author confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory.

Keep Mental Models in Mind

Mental models enable us to better understand and synthesize books. Some of the key ways we can use them include:

  • Confirmation bias: Which parts of this book am I ignoring? Does this book confirm my opinions? (Okay, but does it actually affirm your beliefs or are you just seeing what you want to see? If you cannot think of a single point in the book that you disagreed with, confirmation bias is perchance distorting your reasoning.)
  • Bayesian updating: What opinions should I change in light of this book? How can I update my worldview using the information in it? Keep in mind the words of John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
  • Pareto principle: Which parts of this book are most important and contain the most information? If I had to cut 99% of the words in this book, what would I leave? Many authors have to reach a certain word or page count, resulting in pages (or even entire chapters) containing fluff and padding. Even the best non-fiction books are often longer than is imperative to convey their ideas. (Note that the Pareto principle is less applicable for fiction books.)
  • Leverage: How can I use lessons from this book to gain a disproportionate advantage? Can I leverage this new knowledge in a tangible way?
  • Incentives: What motivates the characters or the author? What are they seeking? What is their purpose? Here’s how Kurt Vonnegut described the importance of incentives in books: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
  • Availability bias: Are the books I have recently read affecting how I perceive this one? How are my neoteric experiences shaping my reading? Am I assigning undue importance to parts of this book because they are salient and memorable?
  • Stereotyping tendency: Am I unconsciously fitting the author, characters, or book in general into a particular category? Or is the author stereotyping their characters? Remember, there is no such thing as a good stereotype.
  • Social proof: How is social proof — the number of copies sold, bestseller status, the opinions of others — affecting my perception of this book? Is the author using social proof to manipulate readers? It is not unusual for authors to buy their way onto bestseller lists, providing social proof which then leads to substantial sales. As a result, mediocre books can end up becoming popular. It’s a classic case of the emperor having no clothes, which smart readers know to look out for.
  • Narrative instinct: Is the author distorting real events to form a coherent narrative? This is common in biographies, memoirs, and historical texts. In The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality, Hayden White explains our tendency to meld history into a narrative: “So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent… narrative is a metacode, a human universal… Narrative becomes a problem only when we wish to give to real events the form of story… This value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams, reveries. Does the world really present itself to perception in the form of well-made stories, with central subjects, proper beginnings, middles, and ends, and a coherence that permits us to see “the end” in every beginning? Or does it present itself more in the forms that the annals and chronicle suggest, either as mere sequence without beginning or end or as sequences of beginnings that only terminate and never conclude? And does the world, even the social world, ever really come to us as already narrativized, already “speaking itself” from beyond the horizon of our capacity to make scientific sense of it? Or is the fiction of such a world, a world capable of speaking itself and of displaying itself as a form of a story, necessary for the establishment of that moral authority without which the notion of a specifically social reality would be unthinkable?”
  • Survivorship bias: Is this (non-fiction) book a representation of reality or is the author failing to account for base rates? Survivorship bias is abundant in business, self-help, and biographical books. A particular case of a successful individual or business might be held as the rule, rather than the exception.
  • Utility: If a book offers advice, does it have practical applications? At what point do diminishing returns set in?

Put It Down If You Get Bored
As a general rule, people who love reading never, ever finish a crappy book.

As Schopenhauer once wrote, “one can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.” Life is much too short to finish a bad book.

Nancy Pearl advocates the Rule of 50. This entails reading the first 50 pages of a book and then deciding if it is worth finishing. The Rule of 50 has an interesting feature: once you are over the age of 50, subtract your age from 100 and read that many pages. Pearl writes:

And if, at the bottom of Page 50, all you are really interested in is who marries whom, or who the murderer is, then turn to the last page and find out. If it's not on the last page, turn to the penultimate page, or the antepenultimate page, or however far back you have to go to discover what you want to know… When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book…When you turn 100, you are authorized (by the Rule of 50) to judge a book by its cover.

Nassim Taleb also emphasizes the importance of never finishing a substandard book:

The minute I was bored with a book or a subject, I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether – when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement… The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of the pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research.

“The things you're looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book.”

— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

After Reading

Most people think that consuming information is the same as learning information. This idea is flawed.

The basic process of learning consists of reflection and feedback. We learn ideas gained through experiences – ours or others – that remain unchallenged unless we make the time to reflect on them. If you read something and you don't make time to think about what you've read, your conclusions will be shaky.

The Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique is named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. You can think of it as an algorithm for guaranteed learning. There are four simple steps: choose a concept; teach it to a toddler; identify gaps and go back to the source material; and review and simplify.

Think About What You Can Apply
So, you've finished the book. Now what? How can you use what you have learned? Don't just go away with a vague sense of “oh yeah, I should totally do what that author says.” Take the time to make a plan and decide how to implement key lessons from the book.

Reading alone is not enough. We have to contextualize the knowledge. When does it work? When doesn't it work? Where can I apply it? What are the key variables? The list goes on. If you can take something you've read and apply it immediately, it will reinforce the learning and add context and meaning.

Teach What You Have Learned
Teaching others is a powerful way to embed information in your mind. This is part of the Feynman technique.

Upon completing a book, grab the nearest (willing) person and tell them about what you have learned. You'll have to remove or explain the jargon, describe why this information has meaning, and walk them through the author's logic. It sounds simple. After you try it the first time, you'll realize it's not easy.

If there is no one around who is interested, try talking to yourself. That's what I do … but maybe I'm crazy.

And if that doesn't work, write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or post about it on Reddit or anywhere else where people are likely to be interested.

One of the benefits of our virtual reading group is that people are forced to actually think about what they are learning. We ask weekly questions on the assigned reading, and responses are diverse and thoughtful. The jargon goes away and people remove blind spots. It's incredible to watch. The result is that after reading a book with us, people say “I've retained so much more than I would have if I did it on my own.”

It was Schopenhauer who said, “When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.” To escape this, you need to reflect on your views and see how they stand up to feedback.

Catalogue Your Notes
There are endless ways of organizing your notes – by book, by author, by topic, by the time of reading. It doesn't matter which system you use as long as you will be able to find the notes in the future.

Having a catalogue of everything you learn from reading creates a priceless resource which can be consulted whenever you need an idea, want inspiration, or want to confirm a thought. Over the years, you will build up a bank of wisdom to refer to in times of crisis, uncertainty, or need. It is hard to convey quite how valuable this can prove to be.

As General Mattis wrote: “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn't give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

The options for cataloguing your notes include:

  • A box of index cards, ideally organized by topic, author, or time of reading. Index cards can be moved around.
  • A commonplace book (again, ideally organized by topic, author, or time of reading).
  • A digital system, such as Evernote, OneNote, or plain old Microsoft Word. Digital systems have the added benefit of being searchable, which can save a lot of time if you refer to your notes on a regular basis.

Schedule time to read and review these notes.

Reread (If Necessary)

Great books should be read more than once. While rereading them can seem like a waste of time because there are so many other books to read, this is a misunderstanding of the learning process. The best time to start rereading a great book is right after finishing. The goal is not to read as many books as possible; I've tried that and it doesn't work. The goal is to gain as much wisdom as you can.

Rereading good books is of tremendous importance if we want to form lasting memories of the contents. Repetition is crucial for building memories. As Seneca wrote: “You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”

There's no better way to finish this article than with the wise words of Henry Thoreau:

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

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How Filter Bubbles Distort Reality: Everything You Need to Know

The Basics

Read the headline, tap, scroll, tap, tap, scroll.

It is a typical day and you are browsing your usual news site. The New Yorker, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, BBC, The Globe and Mail, take your pick. As you skim through articles, you share the best ones with like-minded friends and followers. Perhaps you add a comment.

Few of us sit down and decide to inform ourselves on a particular topic. For the most part, we pick up our smartphones or open a new tab, scroll through a favored site and click on whatever looks interesting. Or we look at Facebook or Twitter feeds to see what people are sharing. Chances are high that we are not doing this intending to become educated on a certain topic. No, we are probably waiting in line, reading on the bus or at the gym, procrastinating, or grappling with insomnia, looking for some form of entertainment.

We all do this skimming and sharing and clicking, and it seems so innocent. But many of us are uninformed about or uninterested in the forces affecting what we see online and how content affects us in return — and that ignorance has consequences.

The term “filter bubble” refers to the results of the algorithms that dictate what we encounter online. According to Eli Pariser, those algorithms create “a unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.”

Many sites offer personalized content selections, based on our browsing history, age, gender, location, and other data. The result is a flood of articles and posts that support our current opinions and perspectives to ensure that we enjoy what we see. Even when a site is not offering specifically targeted content, we all tend to follow people whose views align with ours. When those people share a piece of content, we can be sure it will be something we are also interested in.

That might not sound so bad, but filter bubbles create echo chambers. We assume that everyone thinks like us, and we forget that other perspectives exist.

Filter bubbles transcend web surfing. In important ways, your social circle is a filter bubble; so is your neighborhood. If you're living in a gated community, for example, you might think that reality is only BMWs, Teslas, and Mercedes. Your work circle acts as a filter bubble, too, depending on whom you know and at what level you operate.

One of the great problems with filters is our human tendency to think that what we see is all there is, without realizing that what we see is being filtered.

Eli Pariser on Filter Bubbles

The concept of filter bubbles was first identified by Eli Pariser, executive of Upworthy, activist, and author. In his revolutionary book Filter Bubbles, Pariser explained how Google searches bring up vastly differing results depending on the history of the user. He cites an example in which two people searched for “BP” (British Petroleum). One user saw news related to investing in the company. The other user received information about a recent oil spill.

Pariser describes how the internet tends to give us what we want:

Your computer monitor is a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click.

Pariser terms this reflection a filter bubble, a “personal ecosystem of information.” It insulates us from any sort of cognitive dissonance by limiting what we see. At the same time, virtually everything we do online is being monitored — for someone else's benefit.

Each time we click, watch, share, or comment, search engines and social platforms harvest information. In particular, this information serves to generate targeted advertisements. Most of us have experienced the odd sensation of deja vu as a product we took a look at online suddenly appears everywhere we go online, as well as in our email inboxes. Often this advertising continues until we succumb and purchase the product.

Targeted advertisements can help us to find what we need with ease, but costs exist:

Personalization is based on a bargain. In exchange for the service of filtering, you hand large companies an enormous amount of data about your daily life — much of which you might not trust your friends with.

The internet has changed a great deal from the early days, when people worried about strangers finding out who they were. Anonymity was once king. Now, our privacy has been sacrificed for the sake of advertising revenue:

What was once an anonymous medium where anyone could be anyone—where, in the words of the famous New Yorker cartoon, nobody knows you’re a dog—is now a tool for soliciting and analyzing our personal data. According to one Wall Street Journal study, the top fifty Internet sites, from CNN to Yahoo to MSN, install an average of 64 data-laden cookies and personal tracking beacons each. Search for a word like “depression” on Dictionary. com, and the site installs up to 223 tracking cookies and beacons on your computer so that other Web sites can target you with antidepressants. Share an article about cooking on ABC News, and you may be chased around the Web by ads for Teflon-coated pots. Open—even for an instant—a page listing signs that your spouse may be cheating and prepare to be haunted with DNA paternity-test ads. The new Internet doesn’t just know you’re a dog; it knows your breed and wants to sell you a bowl of premium kibble.

The sources of this information can be unexpected. Companies gather it from places we might not even consider:

When you read books on your Kindle, the data about which phrases you highlight, which pages you turn, and whether you read straight through or skip around are all fed back into Amazon’s servers and can be used to indicate what books you might like next. When you log in after a day reading Kindle e-books at the beach, Amazon can subtly customize its site to appeal to what you’ve read: If you’ve spent a lot of time with the latest James Patterson, but only glanced at that new diet guide, you might see more commercial thrillers and fewer health books.

One fact is certain. The personalization process is not crude or random. It operates along defined guidelines which are being refined every day. Honing occurs both on the whole and for individuals:

Most personalized filters are based on a three-step model. First, you figure out who people are and what they like. Then, you provide them with content and services that best fit them. Finally, you tune to get the fit just right. Your identity shapes your media. There’s just one flaw in this logic: Media also shape identity. And as a result, these services may end up creating a good fit between you and your media by changing … you.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr also covers online information collection. Carr notes that the more time we spend online, the richer the information we provide:

The faster we surf across the surface of the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Its advertising system, moreover, is explicitly designed to figure out which messages are most likely to grab our attention and then to place those messages in our field of view. Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention—and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible.

Every single person who has ever spent time on the web knows how addictive the flow of stimulating information can be. No matter how disciplined we otherwise are, we cannot resist clicking related articles or scrolling through newsfeeds. There is a reason for this, as Pariser writes:

Personalized filters play to the most compulsive parts of you, creating “compulsive media” to get you to click things more.

In an attention economy, filter bubbles assist search engines, websites, and platforms in their goal to command the maximum possible share of our online time.

The Impact of Filter Bubbles

Each new technology brings with it a whole host of costs and benefits. Many are realized only as time passes. The invention of books led people to worry that memory and oral tradition would erode. Paper caused panic as young people switched from slates to this newfangled medium. Typewriters led to discussions of morality as female typists entered the job force and “distracted” men. The internet has been no exception. If anything, the issues presented by it are unique only in their complex intensity.

In particular, the existence of filter bubbles has led to widespread concern. Pariser writes:

Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another's point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.

… Personalization filters serve a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.

Pariser quotes Jon Chait as saying:

Partisans are more likely to consume news sources that confirm their ideological beliefs. People with more education are more likely to follow political news. Therefore, people with more education can actually become mis-educated.

Many people have debated the impact of filter bubbles on the recent US election and the Brexit vote. In both cases, large numbers of people were shocked by the outcome. Even those within the political and journalistic worlds expected the inverse results.

“We become, neurologically, what we think.”

— Nicholas Carr

In the case of the Brexit vote, a large percentage of those who voted to leave the European Union were older people who are less active online, meaning that their views are less visible. Those who voted to remain tended to be younger and more active online, meaning that they were in an echo chamber of similar attitudes.

Democracy requires everyone to be equally informed. Yet filter bubbles are distorting our ideas of the world. In a paper for Princeton University, Jacob N. Shapiro revealed the extent of the influence on our voting:

The results of these experiments demonstrate that (i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) search ranking bias can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation. We call this type of influence, which might be applicable to a variety of attitudes and beliefs, the search engine manipulation effect. Given that many elections are won by small margins, our results suggest that a search engine company has the power to influence the results of a substantial number of elections with impunity. The impact of such manipulations would be especially large in countries dominated by a single search engine company.

Filter bubbles do not just occur on the internet. Shapiro provides an example from a decade ago of TV shifting the results of elections:

It is already well established that biased media sources such as newspapers, political polls, and television sway voters. A 2007 study by DellaVigna and Kaplan found, for example, that whenever the conservative-leaning Fox television network moved into a new market in the United States, conservative votes increased, a phenomenon they labeled the Fox News Effect. These researchers estimated that biased coverage by Fox News was sufficient to shift 10,757 votes in Florida during the 2000 US Presidential election: more than enough to flip the deciding state in the election, which was carried by the Republican presidential candidate by only 537 votes. The Fox News Effect was also found to be smaller in television markets that were more competitive.

However, Shapiro believes the internet has a more dramatic effect than other forms of media:

Search rankings are controlled in most countries today by a single company. If, with or without intervention by company employees, the algorithm that ranked election-related information favored one candidate over another, competing candidates would have no way of compensating for the bias. It would be as if Fox News were the only television network in the country. Biased search rankings would, in effect, be an entirely new type of social influence, and it would be occurring on an unprecedented scale. Massive experiments conducted recently by social media giant Facebook have already introduced other unprecedented types of influence made possible by the Internet. Notably, an experiment reported recently suggested that flashing “VOTE” advertisements to 61 million Facebook users caused more than 340,000 people to vote that day who otherwise would not have done so.

In the US election and the Brexit vote, filter bubbles caused people to become insulated from alternative views. Some critics have theorized that the widespread derision of Trump and Leave voters led them to be less vocal, keeping their opinions within smaller communities to avoid confrontation. Those who voted for Clinton or to Remain loudly expressed themselves within filtered communities. Everyone, it seemed, agreed with each other. Except, they didn’t, and no one noticed until it was too late.

A further issue with filter bubbles is that they are something we can only opt out of, not something we consent to. As of March 2017, an estimated 1.94 billion people have a Facebook account, of which 1.28 billion log on every day. It is safe to assume that only a small percentage are informed about the algorithms. Considering that 40% of people regard Facebook as their main news source, this is worrying. As with cognitive biases, a lack of awareness amplifies the impact of filter bubbles.

We have minimal concrete evidence of exactly what information search engines and social platforms collect. Even SEO (search engine optimization) experts do not know for certain how search rankings are organized. We also don’t know if sites collect information from users who do not have accounts.

Scandals are becoming increasingly common, as sites and services are found to be harvesting details without consent. For example, Evernote came under fire when documents revealed that staff members can access documents, and Unroll’s nasty habit of selling details of user email habits led to criticism. Even when this information is listed in user agreements or disclaimers, it can be difficult for users to ascertain from the confusing jargon how their data are being used, by whom, and why.

In his farewell speech, President Obama aired his personal concerns:

[We] retreat into our own bubbles, … especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. … And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.

Filter bubbles can cause cognitive biases and shortcuts to manifest, amplifying their negative impact on our ability to think in a logical and critical manner. A combination of social proof, availability bias, confirmation bias, and bias from disliking/liking is prevalent. As Pariser writes:

The filter bubble tends to dramatically amplify confirmation bias—in a way, it’s designed to. Consuming information that conforms to our ideas of the world is easy and pleasurable; consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways or question our assumptions is frustrating and difficult. This is why partisans of one political stripe tend not to consume the media of another. As a result, an information environment built on click signals will favor content that supports our existing notions about the world over content that challenges them.

Pariser sums up the result of extensive filtration: “A world constructed from the familiar is the world in which there's nothing to learn.”

Filter Bubbles and Group Psychology

We have an inherent desire to be around those who are like us and reinforce our worldview. Our online behavior is no different. People form tribes based on interests, location, employment, affiliation, and other details. These groups — subreddits, Tumblr fandoms, Facebook groups, Google+ circles, etc. — have their own rules, conventions, in-jokes, and even vocabulary. Within groups (even if members never meet each other), beliefs intensify. Anyone who disagrees may be ousted from the community. Sociologists call this behaviour “communal reinforcement” and stress that the ideas perpetuated can have no relation to reality or empirical evidence.

“When you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing, it’s best to join the side that’s going to win.”

— Conor Oberst

Communal reinforcement can be positive. Groups geared towards people with mental health problems, chronic illnesses, addictions, and other issues are often supportive and assist many people who might not have another outlet.

However, when a group is encased within a filter bubble, it can lead to groupthink. This is a psychological phenomenon wherein groups of people experience a temporary loss of the ability to think in a rational, moral and realistic manner. When the members of a group are all exposed to the same confirmatory information, the results can be extreme. Symptoms include being excessively optimistic, taking risks, ignoring legal and social conventions, regarding those outside the group as enemies, censoring opposing ideas, and pressuring members to conform. As occurred with the US election and the Brexit vote, those experiencing groupthink within a filter bubble see themselves as in the right and struggle to consider alternative perspectives.

For example, imagine a Facebook group for Trump supporters in the months prior to the election. Members share pro-Trump news items, discuss policies and circulate cohesive information among themselves. Groupthink sets in, as the members selectively process information, fail to evaluate alternative viewpoints, fail to consider risks, haze any members who disagree, and even ignore the possibility of a negative outcome. From the outside, we can see the issues with a combination of filter bubbles and groupthink, but they can be hard to identify from the inside.

How Can We Avoid Filter Bubbles?

Thankfully, it is not difficult to pop the filter bubble if we make an effort to do so. Methods for doing this include:

  • Using ad-blocking browser extensions. These remove the majority of advertisements from websites we visit. The downside is that most sites rely on advertising revenue to support their work, and some (such as Forbes and Business Insider) insist on users' disabling ad blockers before viewing a page.
  • Reading news sites and blogs which aim to provide a wide range of perspectives. Pariser’s own site, Upworthy, aims to do this. Others, including The Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, BBC, and AP news claim to offer a balanced view of the world. Regardless of the sources we frequent, a brief analysis of the front page will provide a good idea of any biases. In the wake of the US election, a number of newsletters, sites, apps, and podcasts are working to pop the filter bubble. An excellent example is Colin Wright's podcast, Let’s Know Things (http://letsknowthings.com/), which examines a news story in context each week.
  • Switching our focus from entertainment to education. As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: “The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”
  • Using Incognito browsing, deleting our search histories, and doing what we need to do online without logging into our accounts.
  • Deleting or blocking browser cookies. For the uninitiated, many websites plant “cookies” (small text files) each time we visit them; those cookies are then used to determine what content to show us. Cookies can be manually deleted, and browser extensions are available which remove them. In some instances, cookies are useful, so removal should be done with discretion.

Fish don’t know they are in the water and we don’t know we are in a filter bubble unless we take the effort to (as David Bowie put it) leave the capsule — if you dare.

In shaping what we see, filter bubbles show us a distorted map and not the terrain. In so doing, they trick our brains into thinking that this is the reality. As technology improves and the ability of someone like the NYT, say, to show the same story to 100 different people using 100 different ways, the filter bubble becomes deeper. We lose track of what's filtered and what's not as the news becomes tailored to cement our existing opinions. After all, everyone wants to read a newspaper that agrees with them.

Systems — be they people, cultures, or web browsing, to name a few examples — naturally have to filter information and thus they reduce options. Sometimes people make decisions, sometimes cultures make them, and increasingly algorithms make them. As the speed of information flowing through these systems increases, filters will play an even more important role.

Understanding that what we see is not all there is will help us realize that we're living in a distorted world and remind us to take off the glasses.

For more information on filter bubbles, consider reading Filter Bubbles by Eli Pariser, So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr or The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov.