the educational technology journal

Vol 20|No 1|September 2011
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Escaping the Filter Bubble

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2011, all rights reserved.
About author

This article is an excerpt from Chapter 15 of Jamie's new book Lost and Found which began shipping this month. You can order now here. (The chapter is called "Getting off the Google Map.")

New information technologies are changing the ways we wander, actually improving our success, as it is now nearly impossible to get lost when wandering a city with a GPS equipped smart phone. This is especially true for physically wandering through a city, but might it also become true for those wandering through swamps and quagmires of information?

As I have tested out this proposition in cities ranging from Charleston and Saigon to Paris, I have learned to follow my fancy, as it were, turning around corners and down alleys that might have led me seriously astray even ten years ago. I can spend fifteen minutes exploring a warren’s den without paying much attention to my path, without leaving a trail of crumbs behind me and without doubt that I can find my way home. If we practice this process in physical spaces, is it possible that we might also learn to wander through ideas and information with an equivalent level of abandon and discovery?

Search engines pretend to offer this kind of searching but rarely deliver anything quite so liberating. There usually seem to be subtle or not-so-subtle influences trying to shape the search and point the thinker toward resources that have paid the search engine company for prominence or steer us toward conventional wisdom. Lurking behind this shaping is the patronizing assumption that Father (the search engine company) knows best. There is a fundamental lack of respect for the capacity of individuals to search with discernment. Artificial intelligence is typically considered superior when it comes to locating reliable and valuable information.

Getting lost in the tide

A few decades back we complained about the scarcity of information and the difficulty of finding what we needed, but now
we are often drowning in more information than we can handle. We suffer from what might be called the “poverty of abundance”—the overwhelming and possibly crippling excesses that may block us from finding what we need. The irony is almost amusing.

This abundance requires a high level of searching skill from the researcher to get past the “off the rack” search results that Google and its competitors are proud to offer. If we hope to learn anything beyond the ordinary about Isadora Duncan or anyone else from history, we must extend our search beyond the collections that are swiftly offered. As soon as we start typing her name, Google will make suggestions. Isadora D produces the following list of choices:

Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan Quotes
Isadora Duncan Dances
Isadora Duncan Facts
Isadora Duncan Movie
Isadora Duncan Dance Company

Isadora Duncan Biography

Isadora Duncan Timeline
Isadora Duncan Lyrics
Isadora Duncan Awards

This list is both helpful and stifling in its structuring of the search to fit those categories of inquiry that “most people” would want to pursue. The support is generous but patronizing. The steering is subtle but powerful. How many researchers will take the plunge and accept one of those phrases instead of one of the following?

Isadora Duncan arrogance
Isadora Duncan abuse
Isadora Duncan morality
Isadora Duncan pride
Isadora Duncan decadence
Isadora Duncan self-hatred
Isadora Duncan egotism
Isadora Duncan rebellion
Isadora Duncan waste
Isadora Duncan immorality

If we stick with Google’s suggestions, we may not encounter passages like the following that cast a sometimes harsh light on her life aside from the dance itself:
Both in her professional and her private lives, she flouted traditional mores and morality. In 1922, she married the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who was 18 years her junior. Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe, but his frequent drunken rages, resulting in the repeated destruction of furniture and the smashing of the doors and windows of their hotel rooms, brought a great deal of negative publicity. The following year he left Duncan and returned to Moscow where he soon suffered a mental breakdown and was placed in a mental institution.

The main thrust of this chapter is the importance of wandering further afield to explore unusual possibilities rather than giving in to the “helpful” guidance and structuring of some search engines.

What we need is a generation of “free range searchers”!

There is always some danger that events and people from history will be sanitized, disneyfied, cleaned up and distorted by standard resources. In contrast, in some cases, as with Isadora Duncan, when lives were controversial, the person’s stumbling may become the focus, the details of her death by strangulation grabbing more attention than her contributions to the field of dance. The celebrities may be turned into icons, or they may be scandalized.

The chapter began with physical wandering but that was intended as a metaphor for research that turns down alleys and explores unusual neighborhoods. In order to resist the formulations and the information packages that dominate many of the current resources, the researcher peers around corners and unwraps the packages.

Looking for a rich menu

While search engines like Google tend to compress and simplify findings for someone like Isadora Duncan, there are others that offer far more complexity and choice. Raroi.com (also known as “Search the Tail”) offers 55 keywords for Isadora Duncan compared to Google’s nine.

1. biography of isadora d 29. isadora duncan movie
2. dancer isadora duncan 30. isadora duncan muerte
3. death of isadora duncan 31. isadora duncan paris
4. doris humphrey 32. isadora duncan pelicula
5. duncan isadora 33. isadora d performances
6. isa dora duncan 34. isadora duncan photos
7. isadora d autobiography 35. isadora duncan pics
8. isadora duncan awards 36. isadora duncan pictures
9. isadora duncan bio 37. isadora duncan quote
10. isadora duncan biography 38. isadora duncan quotes
11. isadora duncan books 39. isadora duncan scarf
12. isadora duncan children 40. isadora duncan scarf death
13. isadora d choreography 41. isadora duncan social
14. isadora duncan dance 42. isadora duncan sorocaba
15. isadora d dance company 43. isadora duncan technique
16. isadora d dance foundation 44. isadora duncan timeline
17. isadora d dance quotes 45. isadora duncan video
18. isadora duncan dance style 46. isadora duncan videos
19. isadora duncan dancer 47. isadora duncan wiki
20. isadora duncan death 48. isadora duncan works
21. isadora d death photo 49. isadora duncan youtube
22. isadora duncan death scarf 50. katherine dunham
23. isadora duncan died 51. modern dance isadora d
24. isadora duncan dvd 52. pictures of isadora duncan
25. isadora duncan images 53. quotes by isadora duncan
26. isadora d modern dance 54. ruth st. denis
27. isadora duncan mort 55. youtube isadora duncan
28. isadora duncan morte  

This list points the researcher in directions that are quite intriguing. Unlike Google’s short list, this list offers a rich selection, many of which might not have come to mind—like Ruth St. Denis.

Seeking the context

It turns out that researchers may often lack the context for whatever issue, person or question they are exploring. Most search engines will amplify this problem by taking us swiftly to the central search item, but search engines like Qwiki.com are eager to share related information that helps to supply the missing context. In the case of Isadora Duncan, Qwiki suggests the following related people and topics:

Raymond Duncan Modern Dance
Edward Gordon Elenora Duse
Graig Augustin Daly Mercedes de Acosta
Isaac Singer Romano Romanelu

Unless you lived through part of that century and followed the celebrities of those years, most of these names would be unknown to you, yet they were important to understanding the life of Isadora Duncan. If one cannot take the time to understand the dance, theater, and personalities of those years, one cannot hope to understand a complex person like Isadora Duncan. For that matter, when you click on the link to modern dance, Qwiki offers a menu of dance-related links without which one could hardly understand modern dance.

Dance Concert Dance
Free Dance Expressionist Dance
Ausdruckstanz Postmodern Dance
African-American Dance  

As well as Mary Wigman and Loie Fuller!

Once these links appear, it becomes apparent that a huge amount of background information is missing without which one cannot hope to understand the time period, let alone any one individual who was a celebrity during those years. Our new technologies allow us to zoom in almost too easily, missing so much context.

Escaping excessive guidance

During these years of increasingly powerful search engines, individuals must learn to broaden their array of search tools to guard against excessive guidance. As Schroeder, Smith and Welch-Boles suggest in their workshop presentation:

Google and Bing dominate the search engine marketplace, but they are not the only —and in some cases not the best —research tools available. We will examine the range of Internet search tools that are available with an emphasis on those that will best serve those in education. Unique engines such at Touch Graph, Exalead, RaRoi, Blinkx, Wolfram Alpha, Internet Archive, and the Good Search Engine may not be household terms, but these and others have unique, useful qualities for those searching the Web.


Another good source to understand the choices available for more divergent searching is the blog Beyond Google, Bing & Yahoo: Search Engine Alternatives at alternatesearch.blogspot.com, produced by one of the presenters mentioned above, Ray Shroeder. This blog helped to inspire much of the earlier content in this chapter.

The bubble

Just as tourists often experience a cultural bubble when visiting other cities and countries as mentioned earlier in this book, Eli Pariser warns that a bubble may restrain our searching on the Internet.

In “When the Internet Thinks It Knows You,” published on May 22, 2011 in The New York Times, Eli Pariser of Moveon.org claims that search engines are starting to tailor search results to what they think the individual should know about the subject they are exploring— taking the concerns of this chapter forward in an Orwellian sense:

By now, we’re familiar with ads that follow us around online based on our recent clicks on commercial Web sites. But increasingly, and nearly invisibly, our searches for information are being personalized too. Two people who each search on Google for “Egypt” may get significantly different results, based on their past clicks. Both Yahoo News and Google News make adjustments to their home pages for each individual visitor. And just last month, this technology began making inroads on the Web sites of newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

nytimes.com/2011/05/23/ opinion/23pariser.html

As Pariser points out, it is one thing when they show you products you might like based on previous searches, but it is chilling to consider the implications of political information being shaped in this manner. It takes the egocasting warned about by Christine Rosen’s article to serious new levels.

Pariser expands on these themes in his book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You (Penguin Press, 2011). He shows how personalization of search results can become a prison of sorts. His use of the term “bubble” echoes my mention in Chapter Eight of the bubble experienced by tourists.

Acquainting students with the bubble

Pariser’s term "bubble" captures in a simple but powerful manner the challenge we all face when searching on the Net. It would serve well as a way of capturing this issue for students.

Teachers might lead students through search exercises like the one illustrated for Isadora Duncan at the beginning of this chapter. The goal is to alert them to the steering that goes on.

Another exercise is to have students test out Pariser’s claim that Google will present different findings for different folks. This works best when students are away from school where they are signing into Google accounts and using home computers that identify their location and track their previous visits. My own results for searches change when I am out of town, using wireless in a coffee shop or searching at home. Changing settings on Google for something like a default Google Maps location may dramatically shift search results so that local businesses appear.

The average person and the typical student will be blissfully unaware of this bubble, but it does not take much more than a half hour to acquaint them with the steering being done. It might take a bit longer for them to learn how to turn off the steering and become a “free range searcher.” Initially, the main goal is to awaken them to the phenomenon and make them aware of the costs and the benefits.

Back in 1998 I published “Grazing the Net: Raising a Generation of Free Range Students” in Kappan (fno.org/text/grazing.html). At that time I did not predict that the freedom to wander originally associated with the Internet might later become limited by apparently benign personalization implemented to bolster sales of products and ideas.

The theme of this article is the value of raising young people to think, explore and make meaning for themselves.

This article will show how schools may take advantage of these electronic networks to raise a generation of free range students —young people capable of navigating through a complex, often disorganized information landscape while making up their own minds about the important issues of their lives and their times.

Back then I was concerned that students might have difficulty wading through the questionable information that would greet them on the new Internet.

The extensive information resources to be found in cyberspace are both a blessing and a curse. Unless students possess a toolkit of thinking and problem-solving skills to manage the inadequacies of the information landfills, yard sales, gift shoppes and repositories so prevalent on the “free Internet,” they may emerge from their shopping expeditions and research efforts bloated with techno- garbage, information junk food or info-fat.

Now the problem has shifted because many searchers depend on Google and other search engines to point them to the best information and protect them from the clutter of those early days. Unfortunately, they may be unaware of the information they will not be seeing.

One of the most vivid examples of this steering is the difference between regular and advanced Google search results when looking for advice on a health issue. The regular search results will usually be heavily dominated by commercial Web sites, providers of treatment and products. If the domain is limited to .gov in the advanced search, the results are mainly medical reports from government agencies.

We owe it to our students to show them how these information systems can serve them and steer them, but most important of all, we must show them how to be in charge of their searching, capable of finding information that is rich, varied and reliable.

What is a “free-range student?” It is simply a student fed on the wild grains and fragments available in the magical world made accessible by the Net. Just as some gourmets prefer free-range chickens to their plump cousins raised on processed grains and feed heavily impregnated with hormones and chemicals, the theme of this article is the value of raising children to think, explore and make meaning of their worlds for themselves. No more second- hand knowledge. No more sage on the stage. Students will learn to make sense out of nonsense and order out of chaos. They will ask essential questions and solve complex problems. They will join electronically with brothers and sisters around the globe to cast a spotlight on earth- threatening issues which deserve attention and action.

The Net offers amazing freedom of access to information. But Info-Heaven can quickly become Info-Hell if we do not equip our students with the reasoning and exploration skills required to cope with Info-Glut and Info-Tactics. To a large extent, the value of cyberspace resides in the minds of the voyagers.

“Grazing the Net” fno.org/text/grazing.html

The exact nature of the challenge has changed since these words were written, but the bolder vision remains the same.


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This new book will begin shipping in September 2011.

Outline and sample chapters