Friday, June 10, 2011

Eli Pariser: The Filter Bubble

It's a big brother world out there. And not, Eli Pariser of, wants you to know, of the creepy, government looking for terrorists kind of way, but an even more insidious way: every click each of us makes online is being monitored to make the virtual world more about us, because each time we like (and "like") something online, someone somewhere makes money. So each time we click, our online world gets a little more "perfect": we're a little more likely to see something that we like, or that fits who we are, which becomes a cycle (called personalization). Our online world fits us a little better, and we fit our online world a little better, because we're less likely to see anythign out of our comfort zone. It's the online version of The Big Sort. I was thinking this almost from page one of "The Filter Bubble" and was practically dying when Pariser quoted "The Big Sort" mid-way through the book. We are where we live, and we are what we google.

What's the big deal? I like to get accurate search results. It's kind of like predictive text on the cell phone: for the most part, it's really nice that my phone knows that most of the time I'm typing "A's," not "as," and "Mac," not "Max." So it's nice when google knows what I'm searching for. I had no idea that when I search for soemthing, I'm going to get different results than when my roommate searches for the same thing, even though I think we have fairly similar tastes. Pariser gives the example of two friends who demographically appeared pretty similiar: white, left-leaning, and college educated. They both typed in "BP," but one woman got results about oil-spill and one got a promotional ad for the company. Try it with someone you feel close to. Searching becomes a rabbit hole: the more left-of-left links I look at, the more left-of-left links the companies that mine and buy data from search engines and servers are going to send me to. I will continue to receive certain kinds of directed hits, and will have to work harder to see anything different. Until I read this book, I didn't know this: I was ghetto-izing myself (and still will, as the searching stuff is sub-conscious, behind the scenes stuff of strong algorithms). Learningn takes place in the face of new information. New information is withheld in the personalized world of the internet.

Other issues with personalization are more societal. One is disturbing and oxymoronic: stereotyping. As data becomes mroe and more personal, individauls begin to be judged by who they know. If people like me, or people I like tend to have problems with credit, then I might have problems iwth credit, too. This might influence my ability to finance a house, or increase my credit rates, even if I don't have a problem with credit. Decisions we make based on personalized filters can affect us in bad ways, and we don't even know this is happening. "Companies that construct [your life] choose which options you're aware of." More and more, we "like" the personalized world about what our friends are eating or wearing, how to cook dinner, what Weiner is showing to whom, but we miss the big problems of the day. As Pariser puts it, "As a consumer, it's hard to argue with blotting out the irrelevant and unlikeable. But what is good for consumers is not necessarily good for citizens. What I seem to like may not be what I actually want, let alone what I need to know to be an informed member of my community or country."

The take home point for me, is that the richer we get, the thinner our lives become. We can live wherever we want, but where we want to live may not be that great for us. We can move to Celebration, Florida, in the hopes of a Disney-built utopia, but really, we're in the search of a store-bought happiness. We can use the internet to discover all kinds of shit, and I'm not saying we should opt-out, but Pariser is trying to open our eyes to the fact that we may just be digging ourselves further into our own rabbit hole. It's more than the fact that my eyes were just opened to the fact that google is telling me what movie I'm going to like, it's the fact that google is telling me what is news. I opted out of tv and broadcast media a long time ago, and felt like maybe the internet was the answer. Now, Pariser is yelling at us, we need to re-democratize the internet, and take back the personalization of our own lives.