I was walking home the other day when I noticed a chicken crossing the road. It was a small side road, with negligible traffic, and so there was nothing unusual about the spectacle. Yet it was a source of great amusement to me. I was inadvertently beginning to question its motive for venturing across the street. Why did the chicken cross the road? I asked and chuckled.
Now, those of you familiar with the joke might have reacted in a similar way. But someone who has never heard of it might just see a chicken passing by — nothing funny there they might say.
That got me thinking: each of us sees things differently, don’t we? We extract different information from the same experience. A filter has developed in our minds that warps every bit of information — gained through optical, auditory or any other sensation — into a view unique to ourselves.
Nobody else in the world shares that view, that perspective with you. It’s your own little vantage point.
The view empowers you as you hold a unique resource — the way you see the world. It makes you valuable, it gives you the right to present the way you see any given topic because nobody else can.
You don’t get to, and usually don’t want to, see how anybody else sees the world and that’s billions of views you are missing out on. It’s a thought that troubles me sometimes. It may sound silly but I lament the fact that I’ll only live in one world — the world that I observe, that I see — and miss out on every other.
I have an American friend of Chinese heritage with a Spanish step-dad. How does he see the world? I can only wonder.
How does Zuckerberg see the world? How does that famous footballer see the world? That random guy I see on the television, that old lady in the crowd, how do they see the world?
Is the world a happy place or a miserable one? Most people may find it to be a combination of joy and suffering yet they might have differing views as to the ratio of the two polarities. Some well-to-do guy in the first world might say the world is a cheerful, happy place while someone struggling in the bottom hierarchy of the third world might charge the first person of being ignorant of the “real” world — the world of hopelessness and despair.
On the flip side, even an affluent person might say the world is rotten and life is only full of grief while a person struggling in the society of the underprivileged might be full of hope and positivity.
For better or worse, through external and internal influences, we see life and the world we live in and everything around us, in a discrete manner.
As such, I can’t even say how my father sees the world. I don’t know and never will. I could ask him things like what’s your thought on religion? What pops up in your mind when you hear “comfort food”? Do you think tea is healthy? Black ink or blue ink, which looks better when written on paper? That would be a great endeavor and I’d definitely know him better at the end of it but it wouldn’t tell me what comes to his mind when he sees the chicken crossing the road. I still won’t see the picture of the world as he sees it. He has his filter and I have mine.
I guess Shakespeare got it right when he proclaimed the world as a stage. But though the stage is the same, we are all in different plays and sadly — we can only watch one.
Personalization is a great feature for any product or service to have. It allows them to serve the user better. Social Network sites like Facebook are of course highly personalized. Their feed is full of things they think you’d be interested in. And so is the case with Google Search. Google uses everything it knows about you, which includes things like your location, behavior, search history, etc, to get the results of your query.
Now, I say it again: personalization is an extremely useful thing to have. It usually gets you exactly what you want (at least it’s supposed to) and nothing irrelevant. But there’s a catch: it also places you in a filter bubble.
Internet activist Eli Pariser, who coined the term, provides a great explanation of the Filter Bubble in his Ted Talk.
The basic concept is that though personalization is a great idea, you get exactly what the algorithm thinks you want and sometimes that may not be what you need. What we need is to be exposed to views that are different from ours, that challenge us into questioning the way we see things, making sure we stay reasonable creatures not blinded — ironically — by our views.
It’s one of the ‘problem’ that search engines like DuckDuckGo try to solve. In fact, I came to know of the bubble when reading about the two primary goals of DDG: protecting searchers’ privacy and avoiding the bubble. You can search and browse privately in Google but by default, it is personalized. That is its core principle, the belief that it’s better for users to get personalized results. But the duck is opposed to this belief. It’s a ducking revolution and don’t bubble us is the central chant.
I still use Google as my primary search engine but I am now conscious of the bubble around me and know where to go if I feel the need to get out.
However, the culmination of all these thoughts, ideas and knowledge is actually a way of thinking — of being aware and open.
I am now aware that I can be blindsided by how I see things, that the other side may not be dumb.
Online it means we can be blindsided by the opinions of our friends or, more broadly, America. Over time, this morphs into a subconscious belief that we and our friends are the sane ones and that there’s a crazy “Other Side” that must be laughed at — an Other Side that just doesn’t “get it,” and is clearly not as intelligent as “us.”
I am aware of the differing views people have of the world and all the things in it — that the filter doesn’t exist only on the Internet; the filter is ingrained in our minds. It’s a shame I don’t get to see the picture exactly as any other person does. But that’s okay. I can acknowledge it and become more open to it. Indeed, I am more open now. I am open to views that I don’t agree with, that challenge what I believe in and to the possibility of being wrong.
An advice given by Sean Blanda, in the article I referenced above, has resonated with me perfectly.
A dare for the next time you’re in discussion with someone you disagree with: Don’t try to “win.” Don’t try to “convince” anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to “lose.” Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it.
Two questions sprung up in my mind as I recalled the scene of the chicken crossing the road. And I am glad to have found the answer to both of them.
Q. Why did the duck cross the road?
A: To prove he’s no chicken.
And perhaps more importantly.
Q. Why do I cross the road?
A: To see the view from the other side.
A version of this article appears on our Medium Page.
First Published on Feb 10, 2016.