I’ve always been a fan of science fiction for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that the creators are so visionary. Freely thinking far into the future and open to myriad possibilities. Asking and answering so many “what if” questions and deeply considering the implications of past and present dynamics. The movies and books that titillated my imagination are too numerous to mention, but it seems that many sci-fi writers not only dreamt up possible futures but seemed to predict, if not mold our current realities. (See cyber-prophet Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, 1992, or The Diamond Age, 1995, which many early technologists and digital entrepreneurs cite as their inspiration.) Also, there’s the science part of sci-fi. Underpinning the best of the genre are ideas of complexity theory, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and the list goes on. Seeing these ideas as the enablement of immersive worlds, compelling narratives and often come to life through the magic of movies and television was exciting. Specifically, I loved the idea of alternate realities: The Multiverse.
“Our reality … continues to splinter into factions that believe different sets of ‘facts.’ ”
Honestly, I love the Multiverse both as a thought experiment that can drive plot and character, and create new visions of the world, but also, I believe it is a very real possibility. That said, I always thought about alternate realities as necessarily existing in different dimensions—meaning parallel universes, a copy/paste, if you will, that over time could diverge and evolve, split into more parallel universes and so on. But now, the biggest trend I believe impacting our present day existence (and creating the trajectory of our world) is that the multiple realities now exist in a single dimension: our reality, which continues to splinter into factions that believe different sets of “facts.”
How did we get here? There’s not enough room to give this a proper academic and fully contextual explanation, but from a trends standpoint, we started discussing this about 10 years ago, when author and thought leader Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” to describe the phenomenon of being in an informational echo chamber caused by algorithms that only feed you reinforcing information.
“There is no longer even a baseline for consensual truth.”
In 2011, Pariser published a book by the same name: The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think. At the time, I think most of my colleagues were concerned about this more on a personal level, or saw it as impacting individuals and their agency–a sense of an “other” narrowing our perspectives without our permission and in the name of customization and great experiences. We discussed how to “pop” the bubble so we were well informed and able to braille the culture without the shaping of “recommended” content (said more directly, bias from search engine results).
Fast forward to 2016, with the US election results and the question of political interference by Cambridge Analytica, our conversations were re-energized. We considered how a number of tech giants were using our data to shape opinion, spread misinformation and more broadly impact society and culture.
In 2019, we articulated this as a trend called Algorithm Warfare, where we both described the state of affairs and the desire from consumers to push back against the gentle predictive nudges. The sense was that as a society we needed to have heightened awareness of the filter bubble effect and actively fight against it. That at the individual level, our creativity and discovery were being blunted by algorithms on all of our platforms, from Facebook to Netflix, from Google to Instagram, et al. Our point was that we needed to buffer ourselves from such influence and that big tech really had nothing to gain by changing their game.
In late 2019, we began discussing an upcoming book by Shoshana Zubo, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. The book, a 4-inch tome, delves further into the implications of corporations gathering our data, surveilling our every move and shifting the paradigm from humans as consumers to humans as the product.
2020 saw these ideas begin to mainstream with the Netflix documentaries The Social Dilemma and The Great Hack (2019) and The New York Times podcast “Rabbit Hole.” These all aimed to pull back the curtain to reveal the unintended consequences of, and detrimental impact of, biased algorithms, digital echo chambers, and laying bare the truth behind the motivations of big tech. Seemingly born from altruism (connection, free flow of information, sharing) many of the engineers, executives and technologists reveal in their own words their fears about the world they’ve helped to create. Said more accurately: the worlds they helped to create. It now appears that there are indeed multiple universes of shared realities. A true Multiverse, but instead of them being in discreet dimensions, they co-exist in one. Wherein swaths of our society operate with different sets of facts. There is no longer even a baseline for consensual truth. Only in late 2020 did Facebook finally remove misinformation supporting Holocaust deniers. It is unclear if this is implicit acknowledgement of their role in allowing (if not profiting from) the spread of misinformation. “Rabbit Hole,” the NYT podcast, literally takes one down the rabbit hole as it investigates and documents one man’s “radicalization” by YouTube.
“Perhaps these different realities existed all along, but we relegated them to ‘subculture.’ ”
All of this is deeply disturbing to me both personally and professionally. The implications for trend forecasting and consumer understanding are serious and significant: these filter bubbles have created numerous realities and, as professionals, we now have to understand not only those with different beliefs (which has always been part of our jobs), but different realities. Finding unifying messages will become increasingly difficult. Resonating with “shared values” could be precarious. Perhaps there will never again be opportunity for true “mass marketing.” Or maybe everything will need to become necessarily bland to avoid seeming alignment with dubious or dangerous ideas.
This has also been referred to as a Crisis of Truth or a “post-truth” society. Many find themselves with the feeling of collective gaslighting, at worst questioning their own sanity. While this trend has been building for over a decade, how exactly to articulate it fully and understand its implications fully remains to be seen. Perhaps these different realities existed all along, but we relegated them to “subculture,” essentially deeming them fringe and small. But 2020 ripped the lid off of that idea in many ways, alerting us to culture that is not at all fringe or small. And further there were systemic forces creating coexisting “multiverses,” even before technology polarized the privileged. The result is that now more than ever we have a personal duty to root it out of our lives as human beings and to acknowledge it as we go about our professional work. We must set aside our distaste for those whose realities don’t match our own, accept and process the shame and guilt for our ignorance and complicity, and seek to use our power to understand, have compassion and to unify.