Tell me something I don’t already know

Source: Content in a Cottage

Like most people, I love reading things that tell me what I want to hear. I love blabbing to people about “this great article I just read” that bolsters what I already believe about politics, food, religion, or dog training. It’s obnoxious. But, simply, it’s gratifying to see someone else espouse your deeply held convictions out on the great plains of cyberspace. This is why I loved reading the hilarious memoir-like piece about a nightmarish trip to Disney World by John Jeremiah Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine last week, “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!” One of my principal beliefs is that Disney World is a materialistic swamp of America’s lowest common denominators and one of my top life goals is to never go there. Sullivan’s article simply reinforced this conviction.

As enjoyable as it was to read that essay and others like it, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not good for my brain–or my spirit–to read only things that I already believe. Sue Halpern’s article in the New York Review of Books, “Mind Control and the Internet,” helped bring me around to this moment of enlightenment. Halpern’s article is a terrifying one. In it, she explains how, right now, Google and Amazon are creating a detailed profile of you and figuring out just what it is that you want to hear, read, and buy. Through complex algorithms, which I do not understand, Google also tailors your search results and your e-mail ads to your interests, a fact which most people now recognize. As soon as you start telling your friends that you’re engaged via e-mail, you start seeing all of these weird “discount wedding jewelry” ads pop up.

We’ve come to placidly accept the fact that Google is watching us. While this Big Brother factor is creepy enough on its own, Halpern’s article posits that the more insidious consequence of being profiled by Google is the fact that we are sheltering ourselves from the marketplace of ideas. The Internet is becoming less democratic. Google figures out what you want to hear and it keeps telling you those things. As Halpern suggests,

a search for proof about climate change will turn up different results for an environmental activist than it would for an oil company executive and, one assumes, a different result for a person whom the algorithm understands to be a Democrat than for one it supposes to be a Republican. (One need not declare a party affiliation per se—the algorithm will prise this out.) In this way, the Internet, which isn’t the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say, the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.

This is scary to me. It is also scary for the American public sphere as a whole, which seems to get more polarized every day. FOX News is proof enough that we can no longer bear to listen to opinions that differ from our own. I think that’s a very dangerous state for any supposedly democratic nation to be in.

I think back to my mom and the free-spirited way in which she gave us kids access to information. She turned me loose in the library as soon as I could read. Unlike most of her conservative, homeschooling peers, she never censored my reading habits. She even taught us about evolution, God forbid! I read everything I could get my hands on. I will always remember my mom’s quiet and humble defense to the other moms who were appalled at what she was letting her innocent daughters read. “If we think we know the truth,” she would say, “why are we so afraid of untruth?”

Her defense is more applicable to those Christians who were afraid that their children would lose faith in God if they saw proof that seven-day creationism wasn’t true. And yet I think I see it in myself today. What am I so afraid of? It is far more fun to read things that tell me what I already believe. But it is better for me, as a thinking, developing human, to encounter some disagreement, some divergent opinions. To understand why, for instance, some people actually and sincerely love Disney World.  I’ll never know unless I start reading.

This is a roundabout and self-important way to tell you that I’m trying to read more nonfiction. Courtney asked me about what nonfiction I was reading lately and I realized that I’d only been reading dog books. It’s time to challenge the brain, AFP. So I just started The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, in which Wright argues that God has been evolving with the human race and is only getting nicer over time. It’s interesting, for sure. I also write to ask you for nonfiction recommendations to add to my already burgeoning list. Anything important I should read that I also might fundamentally disagree with? And no, Twilight does not count.

Monday Snax

I decided to send a few belated Valentines and used my copperplate nib so I could go all-out with the flourishes. Happy V-Day from the two of us!

Happy Valentine’s Day! Guion and I have enjoyed a particularly laissez-faire holiday and went out for dinner on Saturday and then tonight, he’s promised to make me filet mignon with fingerling potatoes. Who needs chocolates and roses when you have the best husband ever? That’s what I want to know.

And this week’s Angela quote, even though it’s not true about me:

(ALSO WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT MY LIFE-LIST? THERE ARE ONLY TWO THINGS ON IT (YOU INSPIRED ME TO MAKE ONE, BUT THINKING BACK ON IT, ALL OF YOUR ASPIRATIONS ARE LIKE ‘GET PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORKER AND DONATE EARNINGS TO CHARITY’ WHILE MINE ARE LIKE ‘EAT 10 HOTDOGS IN ONE SITTING WITHOUT THROWING UP”)
–E-mail from Angela

That said, here are some Snax on a bed of red rose petals:

The Cheapskate’s Guide to Making Valentine’s Day Plans. Still don’t know what you’re doing yet with your lovebird? Let Mint’s sarcastic flowchart help you out. (Mint)

Google Art Project. If you use the Internet at all, then you already know about this, but I’m posting it here because it BLEW MY MIND. Google Art Project. OMG OMG.  I just went to the MoMA on my lunch break, and then I strolled around the Palace of Versailles before checking out a few paintings at the Met. Yes. This is basically Google Street View for art museums. It’s not without its drawbacks, but it really is an amazing prototype. Have fun! (Google)

Missing Summer. Sad about how cold it still is outside? Then these photos might make tears come to your eyes; they certainly made my eyes get misty (even though today we’re going to enjoy a high of 61!! This calls for a garish number of exclamation points!). (Clever Nettle)

Fly Me to the Moon. Danielle has a conversation with one of her students about what it is that astronauts actually do. Hilarious. I miss getting to hear these stories around the dinner table at 208. (Gallimaufry of a Girl)

Period Films! Um, yeah, I’ve probably seen all of these. At least three-quarters of them. And I’d watch them all again today. A collection of stills from period films, just because. (Where the Lovely Things Are)

John Stezaker. An artist who merges vintage photographs of people with vintage landscape postcards. Sounds dull, but the results are actually quite fascinating and beautiful. (Freckle Farm)

Princeton, 1969. Great photographs from a Life magazine feature from 1969, which was the year that women were admitted to Princeton. I loved the images of these young women and their fashion aesthetics, but it also made me think about how little college students have changed in 40 years. (Miss Moss)

Sadie North. Another gem Miss Moss found from the Life magazine archives. I hope I’ll be just like this woman when I’m her age. Look at her on that bicycle and mowing her lawn and snuggling that baby! Who says that old age has to slow you down? Not Sadie North. (Miss Moss)

Reviewers on Reviewing. Interesting and clever thoughts about the state of book reviewing today, considering Zadie Smith’s new post as the book critic for Harper’s. (The Book Bench)

Six Expressions that Hollywood Will Turn into #1 Movies. Because you know they will. (Best Week Ever)

Rifle Paper Co. 2011 Sneak Peek. Really love the palette and design for this stationery/notebook line. (Rifle Paper Co.)

Sights & Sounds: Sam Beam of Iron & Wine. Did you know that Sam Beam did all of the cover art for his albums except for “Creek Drank the Cradle”? I didn’t. That’s one talented, bearded, whispery musician, and here’s his interview with the ladies at Design Sponge about his artwork. (Design Sponge)