Technology and Nerds are Reshaping our Scope of Knowledge

By: Jeff Fleming

Want to be a successful, broad minded, worldly citizen? Too bad, you should have subscribed to a newspaper.

With the recent launch of Zite, touted as the app that thinks for you, we are blindly heading down a deep cavern of narrow-minded thinking. Developed by researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Laboratory for Computational Intelligence, the technology behind Zite learns your reading habits and personalizes content based on your interests. Basically, it tracks you like a bloodhound, sniffing out your Internet haunts, analyzing the data using complex algorithms, and selecting news that directly reflects your personal preference, then delivering the results in an online newspaper.

Immediately upon download, Zite begins personalizing your experience and evaluating the characteristics of articles you like (and don’t like). The more feedback Zite collects, the more personalized it becomes. The app is impressively creepy, it can detect if you prefer to read long or short articles, soft or hard news, statistical analysis or colorful reviews. Zite knows your political lean, your favorite sport, whether you prefer modernism or impressionism, and probably if you take your coffee black or with cream. You are what you read, and eventually your reading will become stuck in a vertical rut.

Edward de Bono, a British physician and originator of the concept of lateral thinking, wrote, “Vertical thinking is concerned with digging the same hole deeper; lateral thinking is concerned with digging the hole somewhere else.” He goes on to say “Lateral thinking is like the reverse gear in a car. One would never try to drive along in reverse gear the whole time. On the other hand, one needs to have it and know how to use it for maneuverability and to get out of a blind alley.”

A recent letter to the editor in the Los Angels Times reflects what’s really happening in today’s online world:

“My digital-dependent friends are mostly uninformed and rely on me to tell them about important events, business news, or cultural happenings. They say, ‘Oh, I’ll have to look that up.'”

The writer’s point reflects the value and range of serendipitous sections of a newspaper, covering a weird and wonderful diversity of arts, culture, sports, hobbies, and world events. A newspaper editor is the human equivalent to Zite, except the editor lives in the real world and Zite lives in an electric matrix of linear equations.

With more than 120,000 downloads in its first week, digital junkies are already addicted to Zite’s seductive ability to simplify their lives, which is why I suggest apps that narrow one’s thinking come with a warning label: “This app may be hazardous to your intelligence and can severely restrict your understanding of the world” – followed by the toll free number for Appaholics Anonymous.


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Published: May 2, 2011


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