Five Reasons Why Filter Failure is Good For You

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

I've been thinking about Clay Shirky's argument that 'filter failure' is a better model to explain what we are currently experiencing as a culture than the rather tired meme of 'information overload'. It's no accident that we Datachondrians chose that as the tagline that currently adorns this blog: Datachondria is about how various aspects of our lives -- creative, leisure, work -- intersect with the range of information that's available to us, and the interfaces through which they do so. For those of you who haven't yet seen Clay Shirky's presentation from last September's Web 2.0 Expo, here it is:

Whose Filters?

A subtext of Shirky's thought is that the burden of responsibility for filtering has shifted to the consumer, where in the past it lay with the producers and distributors (publishers, networks, studios, retailers) that selected which information was available to us.

This is a pretty fundamental shift. Think of the generations of TV consumers from the 50s through the 90s, passively consuming the schedules laid out for them by the networks. The YouTube viewer of today, by contrast, surfaces content for themselves and exercises selective attention on their own terms. It's going to take a while for our systems -- and our collective mindset -- to catch up to change in approach. What's more, we're currently in a transitional phase wherein one generation is used to passive consumption; another is used to viral or voluntary distribution of content. The former associates content distributed by the viral means as amateurish and unofficial. The latter expects a certain samizat credibility with their content, and associates the waterhose model of content distribution as fundamentally suspicious, boring, bullying, stultifying, and uncool. Anyone who has tried to explain to their parents the appeal of a YouTube hit, or why Lost or 24 can seem so astoundingly dull, can probably sympathize with this.

Bridging the Gap

However, at this historical moment, content creators have to bridge this divide, which often means distributing and marketing in quite distinct channels. There is still a generation of music-buyers who buy CDs; bands who have found success in that market segment have to advertise and distribute in the traditional ways that best appeal to those consumers. And they have to do so even as the economies of scale that made that medium profitable are collapsing, and new listeners simply do not conceive of music as being available in high-street stores.

The kind of multi-faceted approach that this requires from content producers is obviously very expensive and difficult to achieve -- and one for which most companies are seriously under-prepared. Consumers are poorly equipped to tune out content that is being broadcast in such a variety of ways. And there's nothing to say that this isn't the permanent condition that goes with rapid technological and cultural development. So while everyone grapples with these changes, things are going to feel broken, messy, misdirected, and confusing.

And it's going to be a great deal of fun. Here's why:

1. Filter failure is the engine of development

Walt Whitman would have had a hell of a Twitter feed

Walt Whitman would have had a hell of a Twitter feed

Those happy accidents which occur when one thought accidentally collides with another are essential to innovation. Modernism was -- and continues to be -- fueled by moments of brilliantly creative collision in which the discoveries of one field or medium were transfered to another.

This is an idea that Richard Rorty outlines in his fabulous little book Achieving Our Country:

[Walt] Whitman picked up [the theme of diversity] from Mill and cited On Liberty in the first paragraph of his Democratic Vistas. There Whitman says that Mill demands "two main constituents, or sub-strata, for a truly grand nationality -- 1st, a large variety of character -- and 2d, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions."

Mill and Humboldt's "richest diversity" and Whitman's "full play" are ways of saying that no past human achievement... can give us a template on which to model our future. The future will widen endlessly. Experiments with new forms of individual and social life will interact and reinforce one another. Individual life will become unthinkably diverse and social life unthinkably free. The moral we should draw from the European past.... is not instruction about the authority under which we should live, but suggestions about how to make ourselves wonderfully different from anything that has been.

This romance of endless diversity should not, however, be confused with what nowadays is sometimes called "multiculturalism." The latter term suggest a morality of live-and-let-live, a politics of side-by-side development in which members of distinct cultures preserve and protect their own culture against the incursions of other cultures. Whitman, like Hegel, had no interest in preservation or protection. He wanted competition and argument between alternative forms of human life -- a poetic agon, in which jarring dialectical discords would be resolved in previously unheard harmonies... This new culture will be better because it will contain more variety in unity -- it will be a tapestry in which more strands have been woven together. But this tapestry, too, will eventually have to be torn to shreds in order that a larger one may be woven, in order that the past may not obstruct the future.

That "poetic agon" is exactly the kind of filter failure essential so that microcultures -- ethnic, sociological, generational -- do not remain barricaded behind their own ossified practices and prejudices. So that, instead, innovation can occur, leaving society, culture, and technology better equipped for the present.

2. Filter failure is the counterpoint to heat loss

The overt message of Shirky's piece is that users (and interface designers) will have to become better at filters in order to to sift and segregate our inputs. reducing the extent to which we feel "overwhelmed" by information. The users who are most successful at this -- pruning their Twitter follow lists, refining the feeds that they follow in their RSS readers -- can feel good about themselves as they reduce the 'noise' to which they are exposed. And feel smugly satisfied as they become more efficient than their peers.

But left unguarded, this rigorous pruning of inputs can lead to entropy and feedback. All information sources have a tendency to decay: people stop updating blogs; institutional culture co-opts investigation; recognition stultifies the urge to innovate. In short, our information sources narrow. We need to be continually exposed to new sources, new voices, in order to even maintain the same volume of information. And the surest way to do that is by accident.

3. Filter failure is the insurance against Siege Marketing

When your filters are too good, you're going to face this

When your filters are too good, you're going to face this

What's more, content producers -- to the extent that they remain discrete from consumers at all -- are going to be up against filters erected in order to protect users from unwanted inputs. As these filters improve, there will be constant experimentation to get more and more information to the people who are perceived as being the most receptive market. At worst, producers will become belligerent in their attempts to penetrate these walls, encircling potential customers to capture every possible eyeball. Already, viruses and spam are the digital analogue of the worst practices of siege warfare, poisoning the water supply or hurling diseased biological material over the castle walls.

But there is a more benign model, in which none of this is necessary, because our filters failure with enough regularity to expose new customers to information at a rate that keeps our business models sustainable. It's a question of balance. Better yet, intelligent businesses and information producers will use permission marketing to achieve wider distribution and more credibility by having consumers themselves disseminate information.

4. Filter failure is good for our institutions

We are already seeing how our traditional industrial institutions are increasingly inadequate to the volume and nature of new, networked data flows. These aren't just institutions in the obvious sense: corporations being outpaced by open source development, nation state governments undermined by instantaneous distributed opposition. Conceptual institutions -- copyright, privacy -- are similarly under threat.

This is good for institutions: it requires that they remain supple, remain responsive to the needs of our society as it evolves. Open society requires institutions that serve social and cultural needs. Filter failure can be painful -- even lethal -- for those at its edges, be they grandmothers prosecuted for music piracy or underground bloggers hiding from failing police states. But filter failure is the only mechanism by which these institutions can be well maintained, preventing them from becoming bulwarks of power and guarantors of the status quo.

5. Filter failure is funny



Finally, there will inevitably be some spectacularly amusing pratfalls as companies attempt to market to one demographic in the terms of another. Microsoft's hastily pulled 'puke' ad is a case in point. And then there are the daily juxtapositions which are so incongruous that they not only provoke laughter but make us think about how different aspects of our lives interact with one another.

In short: consistent, habitual filter failure is going to be a fact of life for a very long time. Filter failure is the new black. Filter failure is good for you.