Ever feel like your life is on rails? As if you know exactly where it’s headed before it gets there? I’ve had a bit of that recently. Partly age, I think, and having kids, which brings the chronological progress of your life into sharp focus (where do I see myself in five years time? I’ll tell you exactly: parenting a teenager and a 10-year-old). Don’t get me wrong – I relish my responsibilities. I also thrive on a certain amount of predictability. Most people do, I suppose – especially when it comes to the big things. I’m happy for them not to change too much.
Still, a while back I realised I’d started to feel like I knew what was going to happen next in small ways, and it was unsettling. There was a sense of déjà vu about the scenery of day-to-day life. Like one of those old Hanna-Barbera cartoons where Fred Flintstone keeps running past the same background over and over again. It was something to do with the ideas I was surrounded by. I felt like the same news stories and internet arguments about them kept repeating. Films felt predictable (“a dark take on a comic-book classic”? Really? How original!). “Cutting-edge” fashion and “cult” food trends had started to seem samey. A surprising album felt as miraculous as a comet strike. Life felt a bit like it was on a loop.
Turns out, it was. I was stuck in what Michigan’s School of Information refers to as “an information bubble”. This is a problem that occurs when the reality we experience is so overly filtered by algorithms trying to predict what we might be interested in, it becomes something else entirely. (Surreality?) Living online, this experience is hard to avoid. The digital world we see is increasingly bespoke and largely determined by our past choices, from the bookshop that prompts you with recommendations of the “if you bought that, you might like this” variety to the results shown to you by your search engine, which are increasingly personalised by everything, from your location to the metaphorical breadcrumb trail left by your internet cookies.
I have enjoyed reintroducing a little bit of randomness into everyday life. I’m making an extra effort to think for myself more – I’ve stopped checking facts I already know
On the one hand, this sort of editing is convenient and useful (many of us do buy the same sort of item over and over. God knows I’ve been wearing leopard print and listening to bands that sound a bit like Pavement since I was 15, and it’s just as much fun as it ever was). It can be fun and reassuring to see your views and values affirmed by your peers. But there’s an invisible line that’s easy to cross without realising: when automated curation begins to narrow your tastes. When you think people in general agree with you, but it turns out you’ve stumbled into a hall of mirrors and are nodding at your own reflection, while reality is completely different. If online content is chosen for us using the past to determine the future, it’s easy to see how a sense of déjà vu could follow. It’s easy to see how life could get boring.
In big ways and in small, this does matter. Constant confirmation bias is intellectually stifling (although it’s nothing new – Hegel was writing about the way human beings filter their experience of reality in the 19th century). A distorted perspective on the world doesn’t just affect the individual. Its effects can manifest themselves in the real world in ways that matter to all of us. Plus, many experts believe that information bubbles don’t just affirm our existing assumptions and biases, but also erode our desire to challenge ourselves and be challenged. As for the “small” stuff, like music, style and food, all that is what gives life its flavour – it needs to stay fresh most of all.
So, what to do? Upset the algorithm, I suppose. I’m not claiming a smugly unplugged lifestyle (boring, not very practical, I’d miss chatting to my friends). But I have enjoyed reintroducing a little bit of randomness into everyday life. I’m making an extra effort to think for myself more – I stopped checking things so often (facts I know I know; reviews of anything, from restaurants to carpet cleaner). I started playing charity-shop roulette with my reading material. Buried my nose in a book instead of Facebook. I stopped overthinking music (a DJ’s occupational hazard) and opted to just listen to it again – especially non-useful but wonderful stuff I probably won’t be able to play on the radio (Julie London and Bach today, since you ask). I downloaded some ancient radio documentaries – brainfood harvested from beyond the current news cycle, with a completely different flavour. As for fashion, I’m looking for inspiration from people who are going against the grain. When I saw Mary Greenwell’s fabulous pink hair last week (she said, at 59 it has stopped her feeling “invisible”), I cheered. The unexpected thing about doing things differently is that I haven’t fallen behind on what’s current in the way I thought I might. I still know what’s going on – you only need to check once a day, it turns out. It’s just that I have a clearer perspective on all the stuff I thought I was keeping up with. I’m still Fred Flintstone running along, but the background isn’t so predictable because I am thinking differently. Funny how sometimes that’s all it takes.