Eli Pariser has an article in the Guardian How the net traps us all in our own little bubbles, extracting his new book The Filter Bubble examining how the trend of personalisation on the internet – filtering – is changing our lives. Here’s a bit of his TED talk on the subject:
I haven’t in fact, read the book, but it’s an interesting article – a nice primer but will feel like it’s rehashing a lot of covered ground for anyone that’s done much reading on the subject, or involved in the digital industry. It’s expectedly alarmist, reading like a lot of ex-digital utopians, disappointed that the internet didn’t live up to the heady dreams of the early 90s. Unsurprisingly, as most of these ambitions seemed to forget that the net – for all its wonder – was still going to be used by us grubby little humans; it may have changed us, but not before we remade it in our image – which, actually, leads us quite neatly to the basic premise of the article:
[...] personalisation is shaping how information flows far beyond Facebook, as websites from Yahoo News to the New York Times-funded startup News.me cater their headlines to our particular interests and desires. It’s influencing what videos we watch on YouTube and what blog posts we see. It’s affecting whose emails we get, which potential mates we run into on OkCupid, and which restaurants are recommended to us on Yelp – which means that personalisation could easily have a hand not only in who goes on a date with whom but in where they go and what they talk about. The algorithms that orchestrate our ads are starting to orchestrate our lives. [...]
Ultimately, the filter bubble can affect your ability to choose how you want to live. To be the author of your life, professor Yochai Benkler argues, you have to be aware of a diverse array of options and lifestyles. When you enter a filter bubble, you’re letting the companies that construct it choose which options you’re aware of. You may think you’re the captain of your own destiny, but personalisation can lead you down a road to a kind of informational determinism in which what you’ve clicked on in the past determines what you see next – a web history you’re doomed to repeat. You can get stuck in a static, ever- narrowing version of yourself – an endless you-loop.
Apart from the inflammatory language and tendency towards dramatic (but rather nice) phrases, I don’t have a problem with the argument here – in the article, there’s a brief nod to the idea that this kind of personalisation has happened for a long time, and happens all the time in our offline lives. We ask friends for dinner recommendations, we meet potential partners at dinner parties, we borrow books from friends’ bookshelves when we’re round their houses. Somehow, saying that the internet is doing this makes it sound rather ominous, but in the long run and at the moment – the people we have sex with and our politics are probably much more “orchestrated” by our friends than our browsing histories. Or even Time-Warner. Which, now that I think about it, is actually pretty chilling. The idea of “informational determinism”, while less sexy than the idea of Skynet hooking us up with the perfect breeding partner on OKCupid, is actually far more interesting, and potentially disturbing. But let’s get this straight first, the idea that “what you’ve clicked on in the past” determines your future is true – but that’s just the human behind the machine. Divorcing us from the behaviour linguistically is disingenous – we can escape ourselves and what shaped us. What we see is inevitably coloured by that, determined by it. Our pasts shape our future. But we all knew that anyway, right? The fear, I think, comes from the way in which personalisation is making this easier.
But there’s a broader point: should the internet, and the companies and marketers using the internet, be responsible for “bettering” ourselves? Should the internet be helping us to be authors of our lives? Where did this expectation come from? And why are we not expected to do that for ourselves? A lot of this article, I think, reads like a digital complement to the Reithian view on broadcasting – that it should be public service, give people what they need not what they want. High-minded, certainly, and noble in a certain light, but also highly problematic. Who decides what “we” as a community need? In practice, it tends to be the people at the top – I’d much rather have a digital world shaped like me and my friends, than one shaped like corporate executives and internet moguls. Or worse, one shaped by what they think I need. Taste-making’s biggest flaw is that has no faith in people – it’s caught up in trying to justify itself and its existence. “Television is okay, as long as it’s good, wholesome television” – and now we’re seeing the same thing with the internet as people scramble to justify that it’s more than just cat-macros and pornography because we were promised that it would make us better.
Pariser quotes the EFF’s manifesto which talks about the internet and how it’s going to be “civilisation of Mind in cyberspace”, as Pariser notes, “a kind of worldwide metabrain” – and yes, sometimes it works like that. But sometimes we use that worldwide metabrain to source 300 photos of tiny animals holding human-sized objects (damn, I lost you all to cuteoverload there, didn’t I?) rather than solving problems important to the human race. But that’s okay. Sometimes that’s just what human brains want to engage with, meta or not. The internet’s fine – it’s just what we expected of it that’s a bit outmoded.
One of the important things that Pariser talks about is the danger of “invisibility” – that we get this subjective perspective, this filtered view, but it’s not flagged up. We think we’re looking through a window but we’re looking at at a mirror. And that’s absolutely spot on, I think – the problem isn’t personalisation, it’s visibility. But that’s a skill. There’s a deep suspicion of the “marketing mindset” (and I’m guilty of this as well) but the interesting thing about the marketing mindset is that it’s all about demographics – it’s about being aware of different desires and requirements. While we’re in the position of the consumer, we might only see our slice and think it’s the world – but marketers see the world as slices. Every day, they depersonalise, they’re in the business of asking what do you want, and you and you – and the internet is turning us into marketers, not just consumers. We curate our own public images, we tell our friends on twitter when we’ve made a blogpost, we choose the links we share on social networking websites to appeal to different groups of our friends.
We’re not ignorant of how fractured our world has become, and we’re getting really good at operating in this world. And while personalisation draws us further into our own interests and selves, the desire to share (our selves, our photos, our updates, our lunch plans, our ideas) draws us out. We know we’re not the same, and while it’s comfortable to look into a mirror, we’re endlessly, pruriently, gloriously curious – and we’re endlessly vain. We don’t want to create and talk and gossip in an empty room, we want other people to click like and retweet and talk about us – the you-loop is only so satisfying. We want community. And while sharing is partly about “me” (what I think, what I like) it’s mostly about other people (what will make me look good?).
Friedman seemed to have in mind a kind of global village in which kids in Africa and executives in New York would build a community together. But that’s not what’s happening: our virtual neighbours look more and more like our real-world neighbours, and our real-world neighbours look more and more like us.
It’s hard not to see the trend towards personalisation as, partly, a backlash towards this huge expansion of the nature of “community”. The idea of the global village doesn’t work. (And, in point of fact, how many people reading this have ever lived in a village. Or even spent a week in one?) The village works because it’s small. Everybody knows everybody else. You don’t filter because there’s no choice. And now, with the internet, all there is is choice. It’s like looking into the social-network version of the Total Perspective Vortex – we’re social creatures, but it’s never been so clear that you can never know everyone. There are too many cool people posting too many cool links on twitter. There are too many different opinions and perfectly valid perspectives that oppose yours in the world. There is too much context available for you to explore to this news article about Syria. Think about it too hard and the possibility of ever achieving consensus and certainty disappears like a dream. And yet, somehow, we manage to do it – and part of that is compartmentalisation. Reality might be ungraspable, but you can experience it like a shared dream, bolstered by the confirmation of your friends and social networks and community at large (twitter tells you yes, that cat-macro really is cool, the comments at the bottom tell you that no that salon.com article totally missed the point and hotornot.com confirms that 79% of people agree with you that this particular woman is fit).
But, here’s why I’m really not worried about personalisation in the context: it’s possible to @reply Stephen Fry and in the next breath a protester tweeting from Jordan – there is unprecedented and instantaneous communication possible with people with backgrounds and beliefs and ideas and situations that we would have had access to. And if the response to that kind of overwhelming access, is, in the first instance, while we’re wrapping our brains around the idea – to redraw the lines more thickly around our tribes, then I think that’s all right. Because, inevitably, when it comes to humans, there’s leakage and imperfection. Maybe all of your friends are anarcho-syndicalists that you met during various occupations and protests, but what happens when a friend you made from the Game of Thrones appreciation society on Facebook starts talking about the positives of monarchy? Social networking means that we’re exposed to more ideas, more people, more words and concepts and ideas – and even if we try to narrow the focus, a lot more is slipping in through our peripheral vision.
Samsara: April and May, 1757 – an update
27 Jun 2013
Some of the StoryNexus doodles I’ve worked on…
16 May 2013
Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Digital
3 May 2013
Samsara: March 1757 – a new month
5 Mar 2013
The Lost anthology
12 Feb 2013
Samsara: a game of dreams, war and courtly intrigue
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- Samsara: April and May, 1757 – an update
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