The internet, cozy cocoons, confirmation bias and the death of the generalist

I have been leafing through issue 38 of The World of Fine Wine. One article that has got me thinking is a book review by David Williams, who is one of the magazine’s best writers. He’s discussing an an anthology of wine writing from The New York Times, but in his introduction he looks at a broader theme: the death of the generalist reader.

The way we access media has changed from a predominantly push to a predominantly pull model, and the internet has hastened this change.

When I was growing up, there were three television channels, a handful of radio stations, and the newspapers. You were given limited choice in what you read, watched or listened to. As a consequence, you often ended up exposing yourself to subjects you had only a peripheral interest in. As a consequence, you developed a relatively broad general knowledge.

Accessing media today is completely different. On the internet, I read only what interests me. Listening or watching to a news bulletin is completely different from accessing the news online. As Williams puts it:

Online we rarely stray into subjects with which we are not already familiar, or in which we don’t already have some level of pre-existing interest. Consequently, we miss out on the serendipitous discoveries we get from a leisurely leaf through the weekend papers. Slowly, but surely, it seems we’re losing sight of the simple joys of being a general reader.

This is one of the reasons I like listening to BBC Radio 4. I am exposed to so many ideas and programs that I’d never have deliberately chosen to engage with. [Also, the horrors of Radio 4 comedy, and The Archers, both of which I switch off immediately.]

Perhaps there is room for a generalist blog, picking up on disparate interesting ideas and stories in much the same way that Radio 4 does?

But back to the pull rather than push model of media access. The biggest danger is that of confirmation bias. We select voices that reverberate with our own beliefs and prejudices. We create a bubble of consistent stories that all reinforce our worldview, which is thus unchallenged and rarely stretched.

I think this sort of confirmation bias happens in the wine trade, and in wine media. We become resistant to new ideas and the selected media we access reinforce our existing mindset. We assume everyone thinks like us. Williams quotes another David, this time Schildknecht, in his piece, suggesting that the way in which the web is configured:

…threatens to spin for each of us a bright and crazy cocoon from which we may never break free, nor wish to

I hope this doesn’t happen, and it is something we all need to be on our guard against. Long live the generalist reader!

6 comments to The internet, cozy cocoons, confirmation bias and the death of the generalist

  • Hi Jamie..

    We may agree on our thoughts about a good natural wine, but we come from different world completely on this one.

    It’s just the opposite actually from what you say IMO.

    To imply that because you can choose and filter, you will only see what you are looking for. That’s just not how either people or the net are wired.

    People are not monofocused. We are an amalgam of interests. And the wonders of the social web, especially blogs and Twitter, is that conversations happen amongst people and interests come out.

    It’s pretty impossible not to be attached to one of my nets for example, and not see my connection to the tech world in NY, LA and SF, my interest in artisanal wines, my fixation with travel, love affair with NY, my immigrant heritage and my black cat Sam. Maybe my side businesses of thelocalsip (wine) and lulitonix (green and raw food).

    And I’m not unique in this instance.

    So….not to worry about this cause beside human nature the tech background of the web, in all of our nets, is built on mining our explicit needs (what we look for) and implicitedly recommending other stuff.

    The combination of the interest fingerprint and the algorithmic nature of the web, for me at least, is a runway of continuous discovery. In wine as it a lot of other things.

  • Arnold, good points. The internet certainly helps me to explore other interests that otherwise would have remained on the back burner. But were it not for me already having a generalist background, because of my age, would these other interests be there in the first place?

    Also, think about confirmation bias, and, say, political viewpoint. Those who access their news from a media source politically aligned in one direction will have their viewpoints reinforced. The bubble. The internet makes this worse. In the UK, the main news outlet, the BBC, is about as free from political bias as is possible. It has to be. This is a very healthy thing.

    But it is a complex debate, I acknowledge. There are many facets to it.

  • It’s always been easy to find people to tell you you are right. In politics. In anything.

    Pre the web and now.

    What the web does, when community is present to some degree is give room for different views, create a civility that allows dissent to be natural.

    To the age thing and a more generalist attitude…many of my clients are in their 20s and 30s. They amaze me by their intelligence, maturity and breadth of knowledge. I don’t think age or experience breeds interest, it’s our reflection on both and the application of that thinking that creates breadth and rarely…some wisdom.

    The work day calls…

  • Jamie, Arnold,
    I think I side more with Jamie on this one. From my own personal experience, I don’t get any generalist input at all from my interactions on Twitter or Facebook or from the blogs I read, as 99% of my contacts/friends/followers/etc are all wine-related. In fact I do that on purpose. The only way for me to obtain the equivalent generalist input, would be to surf randomly, following links as the fancy takes me; but I don’t like to do that, it seems like a waste of time, and I always feel that I should be doing something more useful!!! Hmmm, I’d better be careful, or I’ll turn into a winebore!

  • People like to be seen as an authority figure on any subject that means a lot to them. Thats why the phrase ‘everyone is an expert online’ comes into play though in reality we know this isn’t the case. There are those who like to browse blogs and topics online in an attempt to learn more, like myself who reads many blogs about dining and food choices, Christmas is just round the corner and I definately need a good wine to go with the Turkey!

  • Damien

    The same David Williams who was recommending an Asda “Extra Special Chianti Classico Riserva” at £6.98 and a “Sunny Gruner Veltliner” from Morrisons a week ago? And you think he’s one “of the magazine’s best writers”?! Oh, and this “magazine” that costs £30 an issue, and from that you’re talking about being a generalist… geez, get a grip.

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