People have always tended to see the world in their own image. However advanced our powers of empathy may become, our own opinions and perceptions remain more prominent in our consciousness than those of others. Lately, I've noticed that the illusions in my world seem to be growing stronger--more completely crowding out the part of reality that doesn't center around me. In fact, the technology I'm working on may be contributing to the growth of worlds of illusion around more and more people.
Most of our time and attention is naturally dedicated to the things that surround us most closely: our work, our families, etc. Our awareness of the larger world comes largely through people we meet who are different from us, and news and other entertainment (I almost deleted the word "other", but I suppose it's accurate--the news has become more and more entertainment oriented). In a society where job specialization is increasing, except for those who act as connectors between different specialties, the variety of people we meet may be decreasing. And in spite of the tremendous potential for technology to increase the variety of our interactions and the sources and types of news and entertainment to which we are exposed, the opposite outcome may be increasingly more common.
Technologies that I like to call "digest formats" (which more often go by names like "newsfeed", "webfeed", or more specifically "RSS" and "Atom") may be the culprits. In my feed reader, I subscribe to three comics, five marketing feeds, five web design feeds, four RSS and Atom related feeds, ten technology feeds, one on families, four feeds that I created by scraping local real estate listings (I'm hoping to buy a home soon!), and a few others, among which there is only one covering general news. Marketing, web design, technology, and "digest formats" get most of my attention. The stream of information coming to me from the outside world is tightly focused around the things that are central to my work. And even among the feeds I subscribe to, the further the topic is from the core of my work, the more quickly I skim it. Digest formats make it easier than ever to focus our attention narrowly.
This morning, the first entry that came up in my feed reader was about a new blog ad network. I see multiple stories each day about yet another RSS related business, and I noticed with a little surprise this morning that the illusion surrounding me is that the whole world is getting into this market. But were I to ask a stranger on the street what RSS was, most wouldn't have a clue, and those who did probably wouldn't be a whole lot more likely to talk about an XML data format as about Indian politics.
In fairness to my syndication format centered world view, even the titans of Redmond and Cupertino are getting into RSS and Atom these days. So while the whole world may not be wearing t-shirts with orange XML icons on them tomorrow, the industry certainly is booming. But it occurs to me that I've used my ability to be very selective about what news I read to create a world of illusion around myself.
I fear that my work will help others to do the same, and that our ability to empathize with the other how ever many billion people on the planet may decrease. What can be done to ensure that we keep a healthy dose of variety in our information diets, and that we read and ponder it, rather than skimming by in search of the few things that touch us most closely?