Just “googling it” might not be such a great idea after all
The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser, puts forth an argument that we’re increasingly trapped inside an algorithm that filters our news based on what it thinks is best for us. In this case, IT is an algorithm.
Computers and the algorithms they run are increasingly aware of the things we seem to like. They learn from what we click on and tailor results so we get more of what we like and less of what we don’t like. The equivalent would be parents giving their kids only sugar because that’s what they seem to like. Only parents know better, so they feed their kids what they need first with a sprinkling of what they want. Algorithms don’t. This means that two people googling the same thing are likely to see different results.
The problem with this, Pariser argues, is that you’re not making a conscious choice to have your results filtered — it happens without your knowledge or consent. And that causes a whole host of issues, of which Pariser is primarily concerned with the social and political implications.
When technology’s job is to show you the world, it ends up sitting between you and reality, like a camera lens.
“If we want to know what the world really looks like,” Pariser writes, “we have to understand how filters shape and skew our view of it.” It’s useful to borrow from nutrition to illustrate this point:
Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we should grab them. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.
Consider for a moment where we are headed. If Google knows that I’m a democrat or republican they could now add a filter to my news to show me only the stories I’m predisposed to agree with. Based on their guess as to my education level, they may then tailor the article’s words and language to maximize its impact on me. In this world, I only see things I agree with and writing that I easily comprehend and that’s a problem. Google might know that I don’t read anything about Republican tax cuts or democratic spending so they might just filter those articles out. Reality, as I see it, becomes what the lens shows me.
“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”
— Andrew Lewis
When asked about the prospects for important but unpopular news, Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte smiled. On one end of the spectrum, he said is sycophantic personalization — “you’re so great and wonderful, and I’m going to tell you exactly what you want to hear.” On the other end is the parental approach: “I’m going to tell you this whether you want to hear this or not, because you need to know.” Currently, he argues, we’re headed in sycophantic direction.
Whether you believe the book’s conclusions are wholly convincing or not, it is worth thinking about. If nothing else, it is thought-provoking.
(If you want a search engine that won’t “track you” try DuckDuckGo.com)