Of prisons and bubbles
By Sarthak Shankar
The filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You, Eli Pariser, Penguin Books, Pp 294 (PB), £ 2.99.
Even in our most private moments someone is keeping an eye on us. Whether we know it or not, like it or not, our choices make no difference. Our stories have taught us that the one watching us is god , but the entity described in the pages of Eli Pariser’s explosive book The filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You is far more sinister — the internet.
Believe it or not the information flow that happens when you Google something isn’t the one way street you always thought it was. You aren’t the one getting the information off the web, it’s the other way round. Pariser mentions “most of us assume that when you Google a term, we all see the same results ….. this is no longer true.” Pariser highlights that every word, every mouse gesture, every click is accounted for. This, done in an attempt to give weight to user preferences, is now giving rise to a prison, a “filter bubble.”
Pariser explains that originally this was the fallout of the desire to provide the web users a personalised web experience. It actually sounded like a good thing. Now, one would be able to isolate what one needs much more quickly. But to do this the net would have to track all the behavioural patterns of its users and in effect get near perfect identification of them.
Yet the end result is a filter that clears out all the results that do not appear to align with our views. In the long run it implies that the world we are shown is an incomplete or incorrect one.
Pariser shares with us that the truly scary part, which is, that the information picked up by the web can be sold off to companies for the sake of earning profit. These companies will be able to make you buy more if they understand you better. “As a business strategy, the internet giants’ formula is simple: the more personally relevant their offerings are . . . . the more likely you are to buy the products they’re offering.” And as Pariser points out the information they so desperately need is now being offered to them on a silver platter. Thus the web enters our personal lives, influencing our decisions and outlook.
If all that we see all the time are things that we are interested in, then what happens to chance encounters that change our lives? This filter bubble threatens to stem the creativity that is the very thing that differentiates us from machines. All websites no matter how popular are in on this. Right from Google to Facebook to Amazon, they are always interested in knowing more about us. And to that end they may be willing to compromise on our privacy as well. “Personalization in other words may be driving us towards an adderall society, in which hyperfocus displaces general knowledge and synthesis.”
Earlier the press was the foremost medium of broadcasting information. Even if we just skimmed by the business section, a glimpse of the headlines would, at the very least, give a hint of the market conditions. But now the main source of information is the web, where we don’t even see the pieces that the web thinks is of no use to us. At the present rate it seems even plausible to say that if we don’t give any obvious signs of being interested in crime then a terrorist attack may go unnoticed.
Even in politics, if we seem inclined to a certain ideology, then the web may keep us oblivious to other views. Also the sites have reasons for keeping the politicians happy, so they may even give our political orientation to the bureaucrats that may try to influence our views on an individual level. Says Pariser “its easier than ever to find people who share your political passion. But while its easier than ever to bring a group of people together, as personalization advances it’ll be harder for any given group to reach a broad audience.”
But the filter bubble negates all that. Rather than bring transparency and usher in an era of decentralization it has only served the needs of the rich and powerful. Yet not all is lost, for, as Pariser outlines, we take action at an individual level and the net may succeed in fulfilling its original purpose. Pariser is a pioneering in online campaigner and Senior Fellow at Roosevelt Institute.
(Penguin Books, 80 Strand, London, WC 2R 0RL England)