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Filter Bubble

September 21, 2012

[I'm planning on a couple of trips in the next few days and I might not be blogging regularly, depending on various things like wifi access. Not to worry!]

I just finished reading “Filter Bubble,” by Eli Pariser, which I enjoyed quite a bit. The premise that the multitude of personalization algorithms are limiting our online experience to the point that, although we don’t see it happening, we are becoming coddled, comfortable, insular, and rigid-minded. In other words, the opposite of what we all thought would happen when the internet began, and we had a virtual online international bazaar of different people, perspectives, and paradigms.

He focuses on the historical ethics (and lack thereof) of the paper press, and talks about how at the very least, as people skipped the complicated boring stories of Afghanistan to read the sports section, at least they knew the story they were skipping existed and was important; he compares this to now, where a “personalized everything online world” allows people to only ever read what they want to read (i.e. sports, or fashion, or tech gadget news) and never even know there’s a war going on out there.

Pariser does a good job explaining the culture of the modeling and technology set, and how they claim to have no moral purpose to their algorithms when it suits them. He goes deeply into the inconsistent data policy of Facebook and the search algorithm of Google, plumbing them for moral consequences if not intent.

Some of the Pariser’s conclusions are reasonable and some of them aren’t. He begs for more transparency, and uses Linux up as an example of that – so far so good. But when he claims that Google wouldn’t lose market share by open sourcing up their search algorithm, that’s just plain silly. He likes Twitter’s data policy, mostly because it’s easy to understand and well-explained, but he hates Facebook’s because it isn’t; but those two companies are accomplishing very different things, so it’s not a good comparison (although I agree with him re: Facebook).

In the end, cracking the private company data policies won’t happen by asking them to be more transparent, and Pariser realizes that: he proposes to appeal to individuals and to government policy to help protect individuals’ data. Of course the government won’t do anything until enough people demand it, and Pariser realizes the first step to get people to care about the issue is to educate them on what is actually going on, and how creepy it is. This book is a good start.

  1. Adam Pearce
    September 21, 2012 at 8:02 am

    Just a heads up – Twitter’s data policy has changed significantly since that book came out.

  2. September 21, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Could you do a piece on Richard Stallman’s (GNU) approach, especially with regard to online education?

    http://stallman.org/articles/online-education.html

  3. September 21, 2012 at 10:33 am

    I’m not sure that Romney, if he would have had access to a less personalized data policy (i.e. other than his circle of exploitive cohorts), would have found investors for Bain excluding vicious, corrupt Central American criminal elite families. If there had been a filter for his use to seek out more ethical investors, they probably wouldn’t have been interested in his vicious, formerly outlawed business model.

    I wonder if a stochastic component to a data policy would randomly introduce at least an occasional ethical aspect? However, I already find so much random, often irrelevant, information (90% ?) come back, that I’m not sure such a component would change anything.

  4. jeremiah757
    September 21, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    A few years ago, there was a YouTube short proposing a “personalized information construct,” with the same idea. Referring to Google News, the idea was that we would each develop our own biased news echo chamber. Link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AT9ho2G0N_Y

  5. Charles
    September 21, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    You may be interested by duckduckgo.com, a search engine designed around the “no filter bubble” constraint.

  6. George Cooley
    September 24, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    For another example of “what is actually going on, and how creepy it is” check out this story:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/

  7. November 16, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Meh. I can still look at “Twitter Trends” and see what normal people in areas completely different to mine are talking about. I also found a woman with opposite book tastes to mine: http://t.co/s2Tnz6XX

  1. January 17, 2013 at 8:13 am
  2. May 11, 2013 at 7:08 am
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