Last week my spouse became a stereotype: driving a Prius with reusable shopping bags filled with arugula in the trunk…and listening to NPR. Sigh. But the story she heard fit right into discussions here at HX about the echo-chamber.
NPR reported on the advent of religious search engines: specially-coded search engines that only return results that fit into a particular religion’s framework. This would enable strict religious adherents to use technology that normally returns all search options instead return only search results that match their religious beliefs.
According to Michael Gartenberg, a partner at technology research firm Altimeter Group, these religiously centered search engines are bringing new users to the Web.
“You have an emerging generation and emerging culture that wants to take advantage of technology … search engines and the things that they provide but at the same point, be true to their heritage … and not stray from their belief system,” he says.
But not everyone has been supportive of the idea. Some people call it censorship. SeekFind’s Houdmann disagrees.
“In a sense, I guess kind of what SeekFind does is a form of censorship, but I would more describe it as selective inclusion,” he says.
The articles and commentaries focus on how these conservative web sites return “Marxism” as a top result with a search for Democrats. (For the record, SeekFind and Jewogle don’t have “Hacking Christianity” indexed, while I’mHalal returns my website/Facebook accounts in their entirety. Clearly Islam loves this site more than rigid Judeo-Christianity).
But what caught my eye was the following exchange:
Some who oppose such search engines argue that allowing people to only access material that they already agree with will lead to an intolerant society. But Gartenberg says he does not see it that way.
“It’s no more censorship than if I find something on television that I find offensive to me and I could change the channel,” he says.
Whereas search engines are often thought to be horizontal and thus broad, customized search engines are vertical in that they delve into one slice and return results that fit that slice. Clearly, even a United Methodist pastor’s blog is excluded from such results and thus the search engine is not my slice of the world. Fine. Live and let live.
However, we’ve talked about the fears of search engines returning customized results before here (Google and the Echo Chamber). But while that was based on recommendations and web patterns, this is a dictated top-down exclusion of dissonance and questionable content. As I wrote before on the echo-chamber:
When our news media is customized to reflect our monoculture, when our neighborhoods are chosen to reflect our monoculture, and when our gatherings speak only to those who share our culture, then how will we know that the world is changing? And more dangerously, if by hearing the same culture reflected back at us, we may become more radical and thus more hostile to the world around us.
While the concept is great for strict adherents to be able to branch out into technology, cutting out the real world strikes me as a retreat from the world rather than an engagement of it. While there are certain times in a religious adherents’ life that are bettered by isolation and individual growth, narrowing the field of one’s curiousity and desire for strict information is a retreat from the world rather than an engagement of it. It is Pharisaic in that it demands purity of curiosity not just purity of choice. If one is never confronted with the choice to click “abstinance” rather than other search engine results on “sex”, then how can they learn from that experience?
Clearly such an argument is a slippery slope to a “Christ of Culture” where pastors ought to do drugs to better understand the choices addicts make. But on a more level plain, such an argument is not far-fetched in a world where we can customize our lives to the nth degree.
I wonder how many generations it will take until the human psyche can no longer handle dissonance, social groups can no longer navigate conflict.
I wonder if it is with no small irony (given its history of squashing dissent) that the Church, with its Bible full of holes and contradiction, may ironically be the last redoubt of dissonance where disagreement is modeled and dissonance is cherished for its catalytic effect on discipleship and personal growth. In such a doomsday scenario, there’s no place for customized narrowly vertical search engines.
[Image: Apple Computer’s famous ad breaking through the 1984 drones with a woman with a hammer]