The ‘Filter Bubble’ and Indigenous Knowledge: a Match Made in Archivist Heaven

How does social media really inform our awareness of social issues?

Eli Pariser’s above Ted Talk on “Beware online ‘filter bubbles’” paints a glum picture for social and participatory media’s ability to disseminate knowledge based on political and social biases. “Filter bubbles” happen when algorithms learn to personalize and filter your various news feeds (Google, Yahoo News, Amazon, Huffington Post) based on the kinds of content that you regularly click on. Algorithms replace the “stuff that really matters” with “information junk food” as Pariser calls it (goofy viral videos, celebrity news, kittens), until the stuff that really matters falls out of your view altogether. As the co-founder of the new website Upworthy, Praiser says that lack of information about challenging social/political issues matters “because although we can lose sight of common problems, they don’t lose sight of us.”

This is a challenge for international developers, as a classmate likes to call us, because we become the algorithm by which our beneficiaries receive news. If we deploy an ICT program in a development setting, there is a very real potential for our information, important to beneficiaries or not, to eclipse their information, which could lead to a loss of indigenous knowledge (IK). But Patrick Ngulube, an Ethiopian graduate professor in the fields of archival science and indigenous knowledge systems, found that ICT professionals play an integral role in preserving IK, in so far as that the two fields have become practically intertwined in the past decade.

Ulwazi Community Memory in South Africa engages with local communities to preserve indigenous knowledge.

Ulwazi Community Memory in South Africa engages with local communities to preserve indigenous knowledge.

Ngulube’s 2002 publication Information Development led to the deployment of many ICT programs that preserve IK. One such program is Ulwazi Community Memory, which captures the local culture and heritage of South Africa, mainly Zulu culture, folk tales and traditional agricultural methods, in a digital library. Local participation in building the digital library is key to its success, as it creates jobs and empowers local communities according to an ICT Update author.

To fulfill Tulane’s service-learning requirement this past semester, I interned at the Jazz and Heritage Foundation Archive and saw the connection between ameliorating poverty in New Orleans through promoting and documenting music and the arts. Pariser’s filter bubble does and will indeed continue shape our current social experience if that’s all we’re interested in. But “the stuff that really matters” to those who are interested in pursing challenging and uncomfortable stories from other points of view,will continue to be kept alive through the laborious yet riveting work of archivists and information specialists. When our future selves ask, how did social media inform our awareness of social issues in the past, hopefully they will turn to archivists and to Eli Pariser for some insight.

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