A Gathering Voice Post by Kate Ott
I grew up as a cradle Roman Catholic. My family and friends were all Catholic. I went to Catholic schools. To be honest, very honest, I didn’t experience religious traditions other than Catholic until I went to seminary. In seminary, I saw a woman consecrate communion for the first time. I was challenged in the classroom about doctrines and religious practices. I learned that Protestants didn’t all believe the same thing. I learned a small bit about Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The most important thing, however, was that my understanding of Roman Catholicism was strengthened by engaging people of other denominations, faith traditions, and religious practices. The diversity and questioning made me deepen some beliefs and modify others.
One might think the internet provides such an encounter for 2.0 seekers and believers. You can watch a video of just about any religious ceremony or worship (sometimes livestreaming). You can join different forums or read a blogger to get the sense of how one lives their beliefs. You learn the differences and similarities in different rules, doctrines, and historical shifts between your faith tradition and another (look no further than Wikipedia).
Unfortunately, the internet does not provide most people with an ecumenical or interfaith experience unless they work very hard at it (the equivalent of entering an ecumenical or interfaith seminary). If we compare the diversity of what the internet offers and what real users experience, we find that most of us live in very closed online spaces regarding religion, news, geographic location, and so on. When we log-on, we are more and more dependent on software platforms that utilize what Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble.” In his book, The Filter Bubble, he remarks “Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us--what I’ve come to call a filter bubble--which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.”(9)
The filtering software works in a few different ways: it learns about you to predict what you like (e.g. netflix recommendations); it prioritizes information based on popularity (e.g. facebook news feed); and it sends unique information to you based on these and other factors (e.g. google search). Pariser shows how these filters lead to online lives marked by homophily (the increased bonding and association with people and ideas similar to us). In other words, the filters not only learn from us, they also shape our choices (which movie we are likely to choose, which friend we know the most about, and which search result we click, since no one goes further than page two). The more I’m surrounded by people and information that is like (or likable) to me, the more I lose the diversity of voices and ideas the Internet encompasses creating a confirmation bias of my own viewpoint.
The restricting of our worlds by unseen filtering reminds me of two scripture texts: Tower of Babel (Gen 11: 1-9) and Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-21). Pentecost is often interpreted by Christians as a correction, or overturning of the sin of Babel. If Babel is about God punishing people with multiple languages, Pentecost is read as God erasing the problem of multiple languages so the disciples preaching and evangelizing is heard by all. This reading suggests that early Christians got “sameness” right unlike the builders at Babel. However, as José Miguez-Bonino in a chapter from Return to Babel suggests, Babel is better understood as a story about God’s gift of difference and Pentecost, a story about understanding this difference. In destroying the tower and scattering the people, God denies a false unity based on sameness (one language and one political power) and gives people the freedom of multiple languages, geography, and political power, as Letty Russell explains in Just Hospitality. At Pentecost, Peter Gomes argues in a sermon entitled Beyond the Human Point of View, we did not lose the gift of difference, instead we received “Spirit-induced understanding” as they heard in their our own native languages (Acts 2: 8).
Filter bubbles are a bit like the building of Babel, hidden because of a misleading interpretation of Pentecost. In other words, we are told the internet is a gateway to the confusion and excitement of Pentecost, while the filter bubble works unseen like the architects of Babel to narrow and create a personalized tower. If Pentecost and Babel are about the gift of difference, then we are called to celebrate diversity of language, viewpoints, geographic location (maybe even religious approaches to knowing God). Pariser writes, “Habits are hard to break. But just as you notice more about the place you live when you take a new route to work, varying your path online dramatically increases your likelihood of encountering new ideas and people” (223).
Why not knock a few blocks off Babel and learn to listen like Pentecost? Turn off your google search personalization. Use twitter instead of facebook to see all updates not just the popular ones. Randomize your news source or read more than one for the headline stories. It would be a bit like going to seminary and meeting people of different religious beliefs. It’s risky! You may change some of your own ideas; but you may also understand yourself and your faith better.