Feb. 11, 2018

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On a recent TED Talks the speaker described how Facebook and Google use our searches and our likes to tailor search outcomes and ads to our specific predilections and prejudices. Well, he did not actually explain the how of it but described their use of proprietary algorithms to tell us all what we want to hear about our interests.

If you favor liberal views, you will get a list of liberal viewpoints about, let us say, Trump. Liberals get the CNN slanted outcomes and conservatives get Fox News. Jihadists will receive jihadist results. The more one looks at a particular kind of Website, the lower down the list will appear Websites with dissenting viewpoints. The speaker added that opposing viewpoints may as well disappear since most people do not scroll past the first or second page of Google results. 

In other words, search engines pander. A person who is provided solely with information that confirms their biases is much like a king whose advisors tell him only what he wants to hear. “Sire, we have had a great victory! No, Your Majesty, those aren’t shells raining down on our city. They are fireworks!” So, instead of examining different views and hearing arguments from all sides, one hears only the biases of your own viewpoint. This results in Web-based balkanization into enclaves of delusional thinking. We all become petty dictators of our own digital banana republics.

This has terrible consequences when we walk out into the real world and we are exposed to people with different viewpoints. I believe this is one reason why young people in college cannot tolerate debate and react to the mildest criticism so violently. They want to live in a world in which no one will disagree with them.

These algorithms are designed to keep us coming back so that we will continue to use Facebook or Google and to buy the products advertised on their Websites. Since algorithms have no ethical qualms about the impact they have on the body politic, they are on a par with used car salesmen. Any method of inducement can be used as long as no laws are actually broken.

So what is the harm in using algorithms that tell you only what you want to hear so that you will purchase whatever someone wants you to buy? Using the quantity of “likes” as a way to evaluate worthiness is a Darwinian version of survival of the fittest, except in this case it is the survival of the popular. Moral positions disappear in this world. Instead, an anonymous digital mob incites itself into a frenzy of viral likes and dislikes—sometimes hatred—about any topic, person or viewpoint.

We have never lived in safe times but I fear that the world is moving close to the edge of a precipice and all people have are virtual reality parachutes. May the Lord give wisdom, protection and comfort to those who love Him.