Many intellectuals claim that our world is getting smaller and smaller thanks to the increasing interconnectedness created by globalisation and technological improvement. At the same time, however, also our perception of reality is getting smaller and more individualistic, as if we were living in isolated bubbles. These are created mainly by the media, which filter, manipulate and selectthe information we obtain, taking advantage of our cognitive bias.
In order to face such tendency, the law scholar Cass Sunstein suggests the introduction of “serendipity buttons” that allow people to gather not customised tailor-made news and to have a wider vision of the world. At first sight, it may seem an interesting solution, but is it enough to solve a much more complex andproblematic situation? And is a button enough to encourage people to click on it and enlarge their horizons?
Those horizons and the way we see reality are deeply influenced by our source of information, the media. They act as gatekeepers or “watchdog” selecting the news and guiding the “agenda setting”, an expression coined by McCombs and Shaw, meaning the process of suggesting people what to think about, not what to think. In doing so, they also distort our perception of reality and induce a negative worldview, a “mean world syndrome” as Gerbner defines the impression, derived from frightening news,that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Such strategical choice is determined, according to Chomsky’s Propaganda Theory, by the ruling élites, government and corporations, to manipulate and control people’s minds in theirinterest. However, even more dangerous is the fact that nowadays not directly powerful people, but algorithms not encoded with ethicsand transparency control the information supply, encaging us in ultra-personalised “filter-bubbles” which show to customers “what they want to see, not necessarily what they need to see” to use Eli Pariser’s words.
To avoid the risk of being trapped into “echo-chambers” where fragmentation, polarisation and extremism may flourish, Sunstein is spurring Facebook on to create buttons that expose people “to a wide range of ideas and perspectives, even and especially those they would not choose to see or hear”. In fact, it is necessary to give people the chance of challenging their opinions, changing or learning how to support them in order to prevent the dangers of the “single story”, such as the presentation of one and only one version or partial aspect of a fact, that is not necessarily untrue, but incomplete.
Such incompleteness, associated to news distortion, tends to have a cumulative effect through the various filters of information and our cognitive bias, namely a tendency of the human brain that induces it to develop irrational or illogical judgements and inferences to interpret the reality. It may be caused by information-processing shortcuts called heuristics, noisy information processing, the brain’s limited information processing capacity, emotional and moral motivations and social influence.More precisely, as Kahneman wrote in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, there are two systems of thinking: the “Automatic System”, instinctive and rapid, and the “Reflexive System”, self-conscious and deliberative. As there are conflictual discrepancies between the two systems, people end up behaving irrationally due to biases, fallacies and heuristic that are distinguished in “anchoring”, when the subjects rely exclusively on one source or partial information, “availability heuristic” associated to predictions made on the simplest available examples, “representativeness heuristic” when judgements rely on the category prototype, “status quo bias” that follows and respectstradition even if it is not adequate anymore and “herd mentality” influenced by the group or mass behaviour.
As people’s choices are so determined by irrationalism and habits, there are risks that the instinctive click on the serendipity button is generally avoided, not to be exposed to potential sources of doubt and instability, or that the new perspectives suggested are ignored and do not sort any effect because the mind-set is not receptive. That is why, although the theoretical idea sounds worthy, in the practical context it is clear that Cass’s buttons are definitely not enough. In fact, serendipity, the finding of interesting or valuable things by chance, is too poetic a concept based on eventuality, and it is not suited to face a huge, systematic problem. An attempt of using simply and exclusively it can produce very limited results, but it may be one of the useful tools of a more detailed, complex plan.
First of all, it is fundamental to learn how to deal with the irrational sphere, trying to understand it, not to repress it, for the good of the society as a whole. In “The Greeks and the Irrational”, Dodds explains that what prevented Greeks from the metaphorical jump towards a better society was the fear of the irrational that led to its underestimation and final destruction of what the reason had achieved. He had an optimistic view of the future, noticing the improvements in the field of psychology, but nowadays there is the risk of a new decline, with the media addressing directly the gut feelings. The irrational can’t be fought simply with another semi-irrational tool like serendipity, but requires a broad cooperation of the rational and irrational sphere.
Namely, it is necessary to develop a strategy that works both on education to shape culture in the long-run and on civic and behavioural education in the short-term.
Culture is defined, from an anthropological point of view, as everything that can be considered acquired knowledge. Human beings are the only animals with a very limited natural knowledge and an exceptional disposition towards learning that must be activated in social terms. Therefore, it is important to invest in the education received in the society in informal ways, like in the family education, and in formal ways, such as the scholastic education. In both cases, we need to develop not only IT abilities to live in a more and more technological world, but also awareness of its functioning, potentiality and dangers in an open-minded perspective. The latter aspect is basilar because only by training curiosity and unbiased, prejudice-free mentality is it possible to use reason where theoretical knowledge is absent, without acting instinctively in a negative way.
To do so, we can work in the short-run as well, according to the theory of libertarian paternalism. In the book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness” Thaler and Sunstein promote the idea that people should be free to make their choices, even if wrong, and that it is also “legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better”. For example, people can be “nudged” by simple devices like serendipity buttons or flies’images drawn in male urinals to encourage them to centre the objective and leave the toilet clean.
A step further is taken by John, Smith and Stoker in the paper “Nudge Nudge, Think Think: Two Strategies for Changing Civic Behaviour”, in which they suggest combining both nudging of behavioural economics and spaces for citizens to think and debate together in experiments of deliberative democracy. Also called discursive democracy, it is a form of democracy based on the central role of people debating and deliberating, pondering rationally all the opinions before taking a final decision. The main difference from traditional democracy is that the primary source of legitimacy for the law is not simply voting, but a kind of deliberation that must be informed, balanced, conscientious, substantive and comprehensive, free from distortions of unequal power, according to Fishkin’s model. Although it adopts not only consensus decision-making but also the majority rule, it represents a great improvement compared to the common representative democracy in which the role of the citizens is considerably reduced and where a general phenomenon of disillusion and disinterest can be observed.
Therefore, only by associating education for open-mindedness and critical thinking to nudge and spaces of freedom, is it possible to escape the traps of the contemporary society and the media, not remaining confined in our individual bubbles, but taking care of the community, proposing new alternatives and horizons to the world we were restricting.