Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
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How Do I Know If I Am Living in a Digital Ghetto?

AI-enabled tools can help to achieve the objectives of those motivated to create anger, fear, isolationism, or bigotry by manipulating our attention

I have recently been enjoying the PBS documentary on the history of New York City, part of the “An American Experience” series. With that in the back of my mind, I read design theorist William Dembski’s thought-provoking article, “How Does Worldview Differ from Cultural Environment?” I found myself contemplating various aspects of his argument and in this article, I would like to present some thoughts, using this statement as a launching point:

When I taught apologetics at seminary, I would stress to my students that in doing apologetics, they needed to get out of the ghetto.

Some seem to think that there is a Christian community in which one can isolate oneself. Beyond this Christian community there is a secular world. Perhaps this is a common trait among “tribes” in general. There is our group and in the vast “out there,” those who are “other.” In the extreme, those “others” are a different kind of being, while my group is human. As I thought about this with the example of New York City in my mind, it seemed that such a reductionist view should be replaced by one that is more accurate.

I am certainly part of a Christian community, but I am also part of several other communities. As an engineer, I have a professional community that is important to me. Over the years, I have formed many friendships in this community which are as close as or closer than relationships I have in my Christian community. I also participate in other communities, some with significant involvement. At present, to use Dr. Dembski’s term, I would say that I am involved in at least three ghettos. I am not sure if the terms are important; “ghetto,” “tribe,” and “subculture” all seem to refer to a distinct group within a larger society.

On further reflection, I find there is no monolithic “other.” Rather, larger societies and nations seem to be made up of a large number of interconnected but separate tribes. I can point to my closest neighbors. On one side there is a retired couple from California. They play a lot of golf and are part of a country club tribe. They also continue to work post-retirement, and both have communities related to their work in which they are still active. On the other side is a young professional couple with two young kids. They have their professional tribe but are also part of other tribes, like that of parents of young children. Of course, we are all part of a tribe that is defined as residents of the neighborhood.

These days, when I venture out, beyond the boundaries of what I consider “my group” I am likely to use technology. Increasingly I explore and communicate by e-mail, the internet, and social media. I may use any one of a number of messaging or social media platforms. A question is, how do these influence my “travels”? We know that electronic communication today is monitored and analyzed. Advertisers target those that have a high probability of becoming their customers. We have probably all received targeted ads based on our recent searches and web browsing. We may have noticed how social media is likely to guide us to others like us, giving us the false impression that many share our views and perspectives. It seems safer to assume that society is highly varied.

If, when exploring or developing an artificial intelligence (AI) system, we experience society as highly homogenous, we are likely being deceived. If society is complex and varied, but we do not experience it that way, it is a good time to question our experience. It may be that, by some process, we are being guided to encounter only others who are like us or at least fit within a profile defined by the algorithms used. If we are confident that the full reality of society is highly varied, with many local differences, but we are not experiencing that, one conclusion is that our exposure to society is being guided to pre-selected parts.

Depending on the purposes of the AI or algorithm developers, the guidance need not be to only other people or groups like our home tribe. It can be guidance to groups that will lead us to desired conclusions. One example would be when the desired outcome of the developers is to create in us fear, anger, and defensiveness. If some objective like this is motivating developers, then the guidance may be to groups with extreme viewpoints. This may reinforce isolationist ideology based on a portrayal of all our encounters with immigrants as bad. It may create racial bigotry if all our exposure to another racial group is negative. Creating anger, fear, isolationism, or bigotry all have purposes for some objectives. The AI-enabled tools that are now available can help to achieve the objectives of those who are motivated that way.

There are consistent themes underlying the diversity of communities within a larger society. The correct anthropological view is that there are characteristics shared by all people. All people have good and bad traits. If we think we see people who are all good or all bad, we can be confident that the problem is in our perception. There are people who are more self-serving and those that are more generous in all “tribes.” There are people with various emotional needs and mental health issues in every “tribe.” People are people. If we think we see a different kind of being we can be sure that the problem is with our perception.

These characteristics offer us two tests for our exploration of the larger society: Are we observing enough diversity to convince us that we are experiencing the full reality of the larger society? If so, are we also observing enough consistency to confirm the accuracy of our perception? As our experience with our larger society is increasing guided and facilitated through AI social media and other systems, we need, increasingly, to test our experience for reality. We need to have a firm understanding of the reality that governs all societies and then test our perceptions if we are to avoid being guided and manipulated to serve someone else’s purposes.

Dr. Dembski’s article is most helpful in separating worldview and cultural environment. The history of New York City illustrates how diverse a society can be, containing many “neighborhoods,” each with a distinctive character. As we explore our world in a technologically facilitated journey, we must be alert to the potential for the journey to be “guided” to serve the objectives of those that create the technology. Happily, there are tests that can be used to verify the accuracy of our experience and perception of what we observe.

You may also wish to read: Escaping the news filter bubble: Three simple tips Spoiler: Reduce the amount of information big providers have about YOU. (Russ White)

Stephen Berger

Stephen Berger is the founder of TEM Consulting, LP. He specializes in developing consensus multidisciplinary solutions for complex public policy issues. He has served on three federal advisory committees. Two of those committees addressed accessibility of telecommunications and information technology for people with disabilities. The third addressed requirements for voting equipment. He has chaired five standards committees that developed standards incorporated by the FCC and FDA into the US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). A current focus of this work involves improving healthcare through insightful introduction of technology with supporting system change.

How Do I Know If I Am Living in a Digital Ghetto?