The day my phone turned on me

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Lately my phone has been leading me down some dark and twisted paths and I'm not sure how to bring her back to the light.

A woman looks at her phone mistrustfully, while an emoticon on the screen looks back with similar mistrust. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonWe used to be so close. She was a constant companion; reliable, slightly bossy ('Traffic is heavy, you need to leave now for your appointment', 'You're at the airport, here are available international data roaming packs'), occasionally funny ('I have set your alarm for 5am, please don't wake me'), and sometimes cool ('A friend has shared her journey with you, you can pinpoint your location so she can find you').

Under it all, however, we thought alike. We were in simpatico in the small things — a preponderance of baking hacks and very few dog and cat videos, except for a passing fondness for dogue de Bordeaux (dog chilling in a van is the cutest thing).

But even more, were we alike in the big things such as politics and religion. My Facebook news feed and Google cards were full of stories from the Guardian, New York Times, the Age, and Eureka Street, while Commonweal, America and Australian Catholics provided the bulk of my religious content.

Each article from these publications reinforced my view of the world. There is comfort in being part of the pack, in feeling that everyone thinks like me all the time. It was, as the psychologists would say, 'confirmation bias' to the nth degree.

Which is why it has come as a shock to find that my best friend has turned on me. Somehow the algorithms have become skewed and my phone has become a lot more conservative, especially as regards religion.

I cannot pinpoint when the change occurred. Was it when I clicked on the Australian or Wall Street Journal to read some political arguments? But how does that account for the links to traditional Catholic websites that espouse 'combatting the heresies and abuses that have infiltrated the Church' (churchmilitant.com), and other websites that laud Steve Bannon and question the Pope's utterances?

 

"Perhaps my phone is still really my friend. By showing me different points of view she is giving me the chance to think deeper about what is important to me."

 

Surely my regular reading of New York Times columnist and Catholic conservative Ross Douthat, who writes about politics, religion and moral values, wasn't enough to turn my phone. I mean, for every one conservative article there has to be nine that are to the left — politically and regarding religion.

Was it when I strayed into some American evangelical websites seeking information? Which article about Pope Francis did I click that has brought on an avalanche of right-wing think tank pieces criticising his pastoral approach to questions of society and social justice?

I must admit to being bewildered by this change in my phone's news choices for me. She has opened up a world that I don't recognise or particularly like. If this keeps happening we're going to have to part. I need a friend I can rely on — one that is always in my corner. After a while if you have nothing in common, then it becomes too difficult to sustain a relationship.

But perhaps my phone is still really my friend. By showing me different points of view she is giving me the chance to think deeper about what is important to me and enabling me to marshal my thoughts.

Much has been written in recent years about the polarisation of society. The internet has connected us to the widest choice of opinions and data but, almost to protect ourselves from information overload, we stay in our own 'tribes' or thought bubbles. We gravitate towards articles and information that conform to our views of the world, which is why when the results of elections or referendums are opposite to our expectations we are more than surprised, we feel betrayed and angry.

So, while still concerned that my phone and I don't know each other as well as I thought we did, I'm not looking to abandon her yet. However, too much opposition and that will change ...

 

 

Michele FrankeniMichele Frankeni is Madonna magazine associate editor. 

Main image credit: cokada / Getty)

Topic tags: Michele Frankeni, smartphones, Steve Bannon, Pope Francis

 

 

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Existing comments

Last Friday I borrowed a book from the library. It is a biography of Caravaggio. He's not my favourite painter but I think of him sometimes and have seen some of his paintings. So I borrowed the book, initially to look at the colour plates of his other famous paintings. And then I became interested in his life so I started reading. I wonder if Diego Velasquez minds? He has nothing to worry about, really. I have one month to read the book!!
Pam | 28 October 2019


Although I rely almost totally on Google for search and other web activity, I have recently stumbled upon a search engine called DuckDuckGo (bizarre name I know). It claims not to track your search activity and returns very different and sometimes superior search results for many search enquiries - much like the early years of Google before it got to know my preferences and passions. A good example is a Google search enquiry for "climate change denial" returns scientific sites debunking climate change such as NASA and other academic journals. The same search through a web engine that does modify results based on a persons profile is quite different. The results surprised me to the extent that if I often know switch search engines if I am searching a topic that I do not want to be influenced by my "Google" profile.
Roy Gardner | 31 October 2019


Hi Michele, I want what you’ve got! What are the apps you use to get “ Traffic is heavy, you need to leave now for your appointment', 'You're at the airport, here are available international data roaming packs'), 'I have set your alarm for 5am, please don't wake me'), and 'A friend has shared her journey with you, you can pinpoint your location so she can find you').”? I didn’t realise I was so behind the times!
Frank S | 31 October 2019


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