Photo credit: Ryan Lash / TED

Technology created stronger filter bubbles, civil discourse and technology can free us

This is the original script from the TED talk on breaking out of filter bubbles and bridging divides through civil discourse, given by John Gable and Joan Blades on November 2nd, 2017 at the TEDWomen conference in New Orleans, Lousiana. The video of this TED talk is now available. Note that the actual words we used in the video were different as we improvised a bit with the live audience and the video was shortened. You can read the actual transcript at TED.


Intro: Joan

Do you have politically diverse friends? What do you talk about with them?

I’m a progressive and I live in a town full of progressives.

I had very few conservative friends 10 years ago. Now I have a wonderful mix of politically diverse friends that include John.

Intro: John 

I am not a progressive. I’m a Republican who grew up in a Republican family in the conservative South and worked in Republican politics locally and nationally.

But for the last 24 years I’ve been in technology and living in a very progressive area. I have lots of progressive friends. And one of the best ever is Joan.

Joan: My personal story

Berkeley slide

I was born in Berkeley CA.  An infamously progressive college town. And I live there today.

In 1998, six months into the U.S. Clinton/Lewinsky impeachment scandal, I helped found with a 1 sentence petition: “Congress must immediately censure the president and move on to pressing issues facing the nation.”  This was actually a remarkably unifying petition.  You could love Clinton or hate him and still agree that this was best for the country.  Back then, Polarization was undermining our government’s capacity to function effectively…..sadly it still is.  

As a leader of MoveOn it became ever more clear to me that our politics were becoming  increasingly polarized. Living in Berkeley I didn’t have conservative friends. I was curious about why people in other parts of our country saw things so very differently. In 2005 I was part of an effort that brought grassroots leaders on the right and left together. I made friends.  Among those friends was leadership in the Christian Coalition, an organization that is on the right the way MoveOn is on the left.  This led to me showing up on Capitol Hill to lobby for net neutrality with one of my Christian Coalition friends.  MoveOn and the Christian Coalition together?   We turned heads!   

The experience of personally connecting with leaders from the other side was transformational for me.  How could vast numbers of people have this experience of becoming friends with people who hold very different views?

John: Personal story & filter bubbles

Stearns, KY

I was born in Oneida, Tennessee, just over the border from Stearns, Kentucky, a tiny lumber and coal mining town where I spent my earliest years before moving to a bigger small town of Frankfort, Kentucky. In other words, I grew up in small town America, conservative at its heart.

Berkeley, CA and Stearns, KY

Now Stearns is a little different than Berkeley.

In the 90s, I moved to the progressive west coast to work first for Microsoft and then Netscape, and led the product management team for Netscape Navigator - the first popular web browser.

In the early days of the Web, we were motivated by a simple vision - in a future where everyone has access to limitless information and people around the world, we will be able to make wiser decisions and better appreciate people who are different.

On the other hand, 20 years ago I gave a speech where I was concerned it might not turn out that way, that the Internet might train us to discriminate against each other in new ways.

So what happened?

In many ways, we have lived up to the inspiring vision. When it comes to how to host a web server or fight breast cancer, the best ideas and people around the world are working together.

But in other ways, the opposite happened, with online behavior breeding division and even hate.

It’s not like we just woke up one day and decided to hate each other more.

How filter bubbles form

Here is how it happened.

There is just too much noise - too many people, too many ideas.

Filter bubbles, group

So, our technology blocks out the noise and lets a few things in

  • People just like me, and ideas I already agree with

Sounds OK at first, right? But when our worlds become that narrow, 2 scary things happen:

  1. We become more extreme in our beliefs

  2. We become less tolerant of anyone who is different or thinks differently

Filter Bubbles, Anger

Does this sound familiar? Welcome to our modern America, our modern World ...

But there is good news. Technology is always changing, and it can change for the better.

That is why I started - to develop technologies and services that can free us from these filter bubbles. The first thing we did was develop technology to identify bias so we can show different perspectives side by side to help burst our news media filter bubbles.

And then I met Joan.

Joan’s story about John

I met John at a meeting outside of Washington DC with a bunch of idealistic cross partisan bridge builders.  We were there to talk about how we could collectively reweave the fabric of our increasingly divided communities. We believe :

that our differences can be a strength,

that the values we hold can be complementary and

that we must transcend the fight to discover how to honor each other’s core values while losing none of our own.  

John and I went for this marvelous walk where I started to learn about John’s deep investment in piercing the filter bubble which technology has helped to create.   I thought what he had developed was brilliant…..and powerful.  More and more of us are living in separate narratives.  Let’s face it, it is near impossible  to have a productive conversation let alone do collaborative problem solving if you don’t share the same facts.  

John's story about Joan

If Joan Blades ever asks you to go on a walk with her, take that walk.

This walk changed things for me and what I was doing. The problem is not just about information filter bubbles, often created by technology, but also social and relationship bubbles.

You see, human beings are not as smart as we think we are. We don’t generally make decisions intellectually, we make them intuitively with our emotions, and use our brains to rationalize everything.

We are not logical Vulcans like Mr Spock.

We are more like bold cowboys like Captain Kirk and passionate idealists like Doctor McCoy.

Star Trek original cast

Or if you prefer, here is your new Star Trek crew

Star Trek new cast


Let’s get some smart, strong women in there too

Star Trek Women

John and I are both Star Trek fans. Isn’t this optimistic vision of the future we all want?

How to break free of filter bubbles

John: Knowing about filter bubbles is not enough

Just knowing the problem or the future we want is not enough. We have to do something about it.

It’s actually not that hard.

To free us from the tyranny of filter bubbles, we need to include a diversity of ideas and people within our own bubbles. It’s that simple.

Filter bubbles, mixed

And I mean the broadest sense of diversity - big D Diversity - not just gender and racial diversity, though that is important, but also young and old, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, in the U.S. Democrat and Republican …

And this is one of the things I love about Joan. She truly did burst her own filter bubble.

Civil discourse can heal disconnects, build relationships

Joan: Community Action to Living Room Conversations

Have you ever lost connection with  a friend or a relative because of political, religious or other differences in beliefs?  Raise your hand

This year too many people have told me about treasured relationships lost or diminished due to political differences.  I’ve seen people tear up as they talk about family they are estranged from.

Living Room Conversations were designed to begin to heal political and personal disconnects.  They empower smart kind people to connect across differences.  

Living Room Conversation

The process is straight forward- 2 friends with different viewpoints each invite 2 friends for a simple structured conversation where everyone has committed to agreements that include respect, curiosity and taking turns -basically what we all learned in kindergarten. These six people then follow conversation rounds that touch on everyone’s deeper values- before listening to each other talk about their personal connections to the topic they have chosen.  The closing is reflection and next steps. This is a deep listening practice and never a debate - a starting place for connecting across differences - where it goes from there is up to the individuals in the room.

John: Evidence that it works

Anyone can do this. There have been over 1000 Living Room Conversations so far. This is massively reproducible.

Joan: Big complex

Big complex challenges need everyone’s best ideas in the room.  Adversarial problem solving tends to create lose/lose solutions. Collaborative problem solving is agile, creative and tuned to the needs of all engaged parties.  We are not going to fix homelessness, climate change or end world poverty unless we work together.  

School programs for civil discourse and fighting filter bubbles

John: Schools & Mismatch

After lots of interest from teachers, we took what I was doing with technology to free us from information filter bubbles and combined that with what Joan was doing in buildings relationship through conversations to create a school program - So we launched a very basic program and within 4 months and less than $1000 dollars of marketing, we had grown to 42 states in the US.

But how diverse can one classroom be? So we just launched so students can be matched with other students in different parts of the country or around the world with very different beliefs.

The results have been fantastic. 92% of student reports said they better understood the other side or the other student. Over 99% of the students thought the experience was valuable. One student wasn’t so sure.

Impact of civil discourse

Joan: LRC stories

I first started having conversations across partisan lines because I wanted to better understand why a significant number of conservatives were not concerned about climate change. Years later when we tested Living Room Conversations we learned that people found common ground around efficiency and increased production of clean energy.

John: Clean Tax Cuts

Two years ago, Joan invited me to join a conversation about Clean Tax Cuts.

So you know where I am coming from …

I am not a climate change denier but I know people including family who have lost their jobs or their personal property as a direct result of government “solutions” that didn’t seem to help the environment at all.

That’s heartless and cruel.

After the conversation, I wasn’t convinced but was open to this idea of clean tax cuts. Rather than a big government program where the politically connected win, it relies on the free market. And it doesn’t appear to harm the poor or middle class like many other policies tend to do.

Joan: impact of LRC on climate change then LRC

This exploratory conversation was a step in what might be the beginning of a cross partisan Clean Tax Cut initiative. The free market friend I co-hosted that conversation with began working with conservatives and progressives to explore opportunities in this space.  

Finding common ground to act on is great.  That said, I have learned that the heart opening aspect of conversations that are grounded in listening and curiosity is the most powerful benefit of this practice.  Almost nobody changes their strongly held viewpoint on an issue in a single conversation, but we typically learn that we care about each other and then we often start to care about what our friends care about.  

For Jacob, one of my conservative friends - a Mormon, a father of young boys. Climate change wasn’t on his list of worries. He began to have some concern because he cares about me. One day I shared my view that even if we are not sure about the dangers of climate change, even if there is only a 10% chance that we are destroying our planet’s capacity to support future generations, I find that unconscionable. I don’t let my kids play Russian Roulette.

That gave him the space to consider that climate change might be an unacceptable risk. And he caused me to see that climate change is a progressive “end times” story.

This is not a one ­way exchange. We have some remarkably different beliefs, but we have learned to listen to each other with humility and even love.

Civil discourse or free speech?

John: Civil discourse/Free speech

Progressives might call this civil discourse, conservatives might call it free speech done right. But whatever you call it, it works.

The reason it works is because human beings are social beings. We did not find our way out of caves because of our opposable thumbs, though they helped. We evolved and grew as a species because we built communities, worked together and collaborated for the common good.

Look at how we come together during tragedies. Some of my family and property were in harm’s way during the recent devastating fires in Northern California. We were fortunate, others were not. Friends, neighbors and strangers all came together to help each other - it was inspiring.

It is in our nature to come together - especially when we realize that …

We are all in this together.


People spend a vast amounts of money and time to have adventures - intentional conversations with people who have different viewpoints allow you to have a great adventure in the comfort of your own home.

We rediscover that we can respect and even love people we disagree with - and our lives are richer. What a great adventure this is!


So what are you curious about?


What is the conversation you yearn to have?