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A piece on Amazon in the August 2/9 issue of The Nation confirms what I’ve been suspecting about that metric of offering choices that we’ve all experienced by now:  “If you liked X, here’s some other titles you might like.”  As the author of the article, Colin Robinson, points out, the algorithms used by Amazon (Netflix and countless others) to calm the consumer’s fear that there are too many choices available “can simultaneously increase the variety of books purchased . . while decreasing the overall variety.”  He describes “[t]he loss of serendipity that comes with no knowing exactly what one is looking for.”  An ex-Amazon editor points out that it “engineers spontaneity out of the picture.  The happy accident, the freakish discovery, ceases to exist.”

I’m all about the freakish discovery (as for “Happy Accidents,” watch it instantly on Netflix; it’s a refreshing surprise), hence my perverse, Luddite affection for public libraries.  But there’s something else going on here besides the narrowness of choices provided.  While reading another Nation piece on Tea Party candidate Rand Paul supporters in Kentucky, I realized that social networking sites are offering a world equally lacking in difference.  One supporter learned about Rand Paul from his Facebook page.  “The page doesn’t just give me information about the campaign,” the interviewed man explains.  “It also connects me to other people who feel similarly to myself.”

I’m not against people getting together with others who feel the same way.  Back in the day, when people made the time to get together with their bowling league or at the Elk’s Club or with their knitting circle, they could see how small, how exclusive, their groups were. When they went to the video store, they warmly greeted the folks in their circle but also said hello to other community members who they may have quarreled with over school board or zoning issues.  Married couples might not have socialized with the divorcees, but their kids went to school together so they smiled at each other during school programs, a silent acknowledgement of how tough it was to parent, for instance, or of just how boring those programs could be.

With cyberspace, this kind of tight, sometimes uncomfortable physical dimension sewn together by shared daily experience has been overcome.  True, people maybe be feeling less isolated and more able to express their individuality (this is a perception worth debating), but this comes at the cost of bypassing those people who have different opinions.   I would argue that this trade-off is very bad.  We need to start listening to the people who disagree with us, not because we need to emulate Obama’s namby-pamby bipartisanship (which is just a ruse — notice him pimping for the Democrats, proof his soul belongs to the DNC) but because we all live in the same neighborhood, no matter how big it has grown and no matter how weird we have gotten, sitting in our homes ordering books and picking out movies on line.

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