Friday, March 17, 2017

Curating by Allen Laudenslager

by Allen Laudenslager

We see the word “curating” bandied about the Web regularly but most of us have only a vague idea what the word means:

Curating: to pull together, sift through, and select for presentation, as music or website content: “We curate our merchandise with a sharp eye for trending fashion,” the store manager explained.

It’s the kind of thing Amazon does with targeted advertising when they track your shopping history to send you ads related to the kinds of products you have either bought in the past or are looked for on their site. I’ve noticed recently that my Google searches are starting to show ads for more of the same things I've shopped for.

For most people that’s a good thing. If I was searching for extra wide shoes (I wear a 4E width and those are very hard to find in my local stores) I will see ads for wide shoes when I make my next search on Google or Amazon. Even if I’m now searching for hardware for my vintage trailer, those ads will continue until I do enough searches for some other item to boot them off.

There is a movement to do the same thing with your news feeds. The concept is that if you read articles about the latest presidential candidates you would like to read more articles about them. That actually sounds like a pretty good service, right?

The scary part is that if you begin to focus on just one candidate that same system may focus its future recommendations on that one candidate as well. If you focus on things favorable to one candidate you might see only favorable articles. This naturally narrows your reading to what your “curation” software is spoon-feeding you. It's kind of like limiting your social interactions to just the people you know.

A television news show has a large and varied audience that has equally varied tastes, so it presents a collection of unrelated news stories. Some of them are very interesting to you others not so much, BUT if you watch the whole half hour news report you'll get a range of information about a variety of subjects. In other words, you'll get a rounded view of what is happening. If on the other hand you only listen to a news station that reports on a narrow range of topics from a single view point you won't get fresh ideas.

Most of us know that guy at the gym or office that only listens to an extreme political talk show and whose entire world is bounded by a single point of view. They're the one who is always talking about conspiracy theories and never accepts that sometimes it’s just a coincidence. So in in order to not be like "that guy", I like to use a news aggregator that requires me to manually add news feeds and doesn’t look at what I am currently reading and make recommendations about similar sources. I like it that way because I prefer an eclectic collection of sources so I get a broad range of subjects and viewpoints.

Dudley Field Malone, co-counsel for the defense of John T. Scopes in the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, responded to William Jennings Bryan's argument against admitting scientific testimony when he said, "I have never learned anything from any man who agreed with me!" Malone gave arguably the best speech of the trial in defense of academic freedom and his quote became famous.

In exactly the same way, your world of ideas can be circumscribed and limited by software that tries to show you more information that supports what you are already reading. Fresh and new ideas that challenge your existing concepts and accepted wisdom are the food of intellectual thought. Yes, after you read an opposing viewpoint you may well decide that you were right the first time. But unless you continually challenge what you think you know how can you grow and learn?

Sitting in a classroom being presented with new facts or viewpoints all of us have experienced the awakening that new information gives us. That moment when we think “Oh, if that’s true then this is true too! I never thought about it like that before.”

The latest improvements in artificial intelligence can allow this kind of curation and while it can lead you to many things you might not find on your own. On the other hand if it’s poorly done, it can become a straitjacket that limits your ideas to what you already know.

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