Every weekday, rain or shine, The New York Times arrives at my home, and the whole venture seems a bit of a modern marvel to me. Articles written by journalists around the world are collected by editorial staff across the country, prepared in New York for publication, shipped to California for printing, and delivered daily to my suburban driveway around the time I start my first cup of coffee. Despite the fact that my wife gets her news delivered directly to her hand the instant she picks up her phone to turn off the alarm, the delivery of the newspaper seems a feat worthy of remark.
The Privilege of Preference
Born in 1981, I am the kind of transitional Millennial who is old enough to remember life before the internet but young enough to have never really lived without it. The Digital Revolution was well underway by the time I graduated high school, and I never thought it was particularly odd for people to get news online. I did, however, grow up seeing a morning newspaper on almost every doorstep in my apartment complex.
As a college student, I remember making the deliberate choice not to read the news. I had the idea that life would be better for everyone if we all learned to mind our own business and take care of the issues immediately around us. That optimistic naïveté was, like me, born of privilege. American, white, and male, I could afford to believe in a wholly benevolent world in which huge collective effort would never be required to overcome huge tyrannical problems. I know better now, but the learning didn’t come from reading the news online.
I started reading the news sometime in my middle twenties. First my computer, then my phone gave me some information about the wider world. I stopped being completely surprised when disasters occurred and started sharing interesting features with friends. Like most people I know, however, my news came tailored to my preferences. By the time I stopped reading the news online last year, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter were providing an endless stream of aggregated reading from around the web directly to my hand. Whatever the algorithmic alchemy they used to decide what would show up in my curated feeds, I was getting news based predominantly or entirely on my existing preferences and associations. I know because I liked or agreed with everything I read.
Someone Always Chooses
Curation is getting a lot of attention at the moment. The proliferation of what we have chosen to call “fake news” has drawn tremendous public attention, and many suggest the solution to that problem is curation. We do well to remember, however, that curation is taking place all around us — whether we recognize it or not. To curate is to select, organize, and look after the items in a collection, and the process often escapes our notice despite its ubiquity. The definition in the previous sentence was the result of curatorial choices made by the writers of the New Oxford American Dictionary, and the NOAD’s presence on my computer was the result of curatorial choices made by the creators of the Mac OS. Curation is happening all the time, all over the place — and it is neither inherently good, nor inherently bad.
Newspapers and newsfeeds are both curated collections of information, but the method of curation that governs each differs wildly. A newspaper is as impersonal and limited as a newsfeed is personal and unlimited. Although we generally think of personal as better than impersonal and unlimited as better than limited, my experience reading the newspaper has convinced me to rethink both assumptions.
When I skim the news on a personalized newsfeed, I am shown an unlimited number of stories that match my known preferences. The algorithm that curates my newsfeed works hard to make sure I never run out of material I am likely to enjoy reading. The newspaper is not so accommodating. Curated by a mission-driven editorial staff, the newspaper presents a finite number of stories that someone thinks I ought to read — whether I want to or not. While the newspaper is far more obviously susceptible to editorial bias than the newsfeed, I think that obviousness makes the bias less sinister. After all, my newsfeed is just as biased as my newspaper, but because the dominant bias is defined by my own existing opinions, it is largely invisible. The newspaper, biased as it may be, requires me to interact with stories I might prefer to skip by authors I might prefer to ignore. Whatever its bias, the newspaper challenges and expands my worldview rather than affirming it.
An Expanded Worldview
Increasingly, we live in a world tailored to our individual preferences. Choice isn’t a bad thing. Life in a free society in which everyone else is equally free is bound to get a little chaotic. Sometimes the best way to keep the peace is to allow everyone the opportunity to opt-in or opt-out at will. There is, however, high value in keeping our perspectives open. Opting in and opting out can be either violent or compassionate, and the difference depends largely on our knowledge of and comfort with that which is different. Reading a newspaper-sized summary of everything that happened in the world yesterday is even less comprehensive than reading a 50-word summary of the Harry Potter series, but it’s a start. And starting is better than not starting — because, after all, you never know where you’ll end up.
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