Internet excesses

Written by Shreya Roy | Updated: Sep 4 2011, 05:41am hrs
Is the Internet going to make us dumb Eli Pariser, the 31-year-old co-founder of the progressive public policy advocacy group Moveon.org, believes that it will. In his latest book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You, Pariser attempts to explain how companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon are using personal user data to limit our intellectual and creative horizon, and ultimately threatening the democratic way of life, through excessive personalisation of the Internet.

Internet companies have been giving users free services for years, in exchange for intimate, private information. Thanks to all this information, personalisation is now at the core of every web experience. A search engine can give a user information that it believes is most relevant, based on his prior web behaviour, level of education, profession, political stance and hundreds of other such indicators. Social networking sites know which of your friends you are most likely to want to know about, based on indicators like shared interests, thus effectively filtering out those you may not share much in common with. Online news coverage is often traffic-driven, determined- based on what is most popular, as opposed to what is most important.

As a consequence, says Pariser, individuals are losing out on the opportunity to expand their intellect through contact with contrarian viewpoints. Users are becoming less democratic, as a consequence of never having to interact with those who are different from them. The world, in his words, is being compressed into tiny filter bubbles for individuals.

When you enter a filter bubble, youre letting the companies that construct it choose which options youre aware of. You may think youre the captain of your own destiny, but personalisation can lead you down a road to a kind of informational determinism....You can get stuck in a static, ever narrowing version of yourselfan endless you-loop, says Pariser.

Growing up in America during the 90s, Pariser was raised on utopian notions of early techno-optimists of the Internet democratising the world, empowering individuals with better information. The book reflects his disillusionment with the way the Internet has evolved, from being a harbinger of transparency, to a shallow money- making game.

Naturally, his fears extend to what companies can achieve with the amount of information it gathers about an individual as a byproduct of personalisation, reigniting the debate of data privacy. Besides retailers, who pay a premium for targeted advertising, this information, argues Pariser, could directly shape your life. Employers could decide the fate of employees based upon career trajectories determined from LinkedIn data. The US army uses Internet behaviour to identify possible recruits. Banks could decide not to give you a loan, if you are Facebook friends with defaulters, because logically, you might be a dead beat as well. Whats more Companies, like Google, for instance, are attempting to be sophisticated enough to be able to give you not just factual information, but answers to queries such as which college should I go to

His greatest fear, however, seems to be that by presenting to the user only what he wants to see, the new web toys with serendipity, thus restricting discovery, innovation and creativity.

In the filter bubble, theres less room for chance encounters that bring insight and learning...If personalisation is too acute, it could prevent us from coming into contact with the mind-blowing, preconception-shattering experiences and ideas that change how we think, he says.

Individuals, Pariser believes, need to give the personalisation codes more breadth to work with by stretching your interest in new directions and confuse Google with a schizophrenic web personality, if you will. Alternatively, you could simply delete your cookies regularly! Although there is a sense of eminent doom through out, in his final chapter, Escaping the city of ghettos, he offers plausible, slightly utopian rehabilitative measures to be taken by companies, and governments as well.

At times, it appears as though Pariser views the Internet user as an individual locked up inside a room with nothing but broadband and a computer as though he has no presence in the physical world, and no intellectual influence from anything outside the Internet. How many people would like to use the Internet for serendipitous adventures, while trying to get work done, is debatable.

He is also condescending and a tad bit elitist, in judging peoples ability to efficiently choose what they should know and learn. Left to their own devices, he seems doubtful that people would choose to learn things of significance. While he mentions that he has gone out of the way to befriend people with opposing viewpoints to learn from them, he presumes that everyone else on Facebook only interacts with their own clones, which again restricts them in this bubble of oblivion.

The book is chock-a-block with information and names, some of which one may wish he had a filter for. Parisers repeated tackling of the serendipity issue is also annoying. However, the narrative is free flowing. The insight into the functioning (albeit a dagger-in-cloak representation) of entities such as Google and Facebook is captivating and thought provoking. The multidisciplinary references he uses to illustrate his points draw from subjects as varied as psychology, sociology, urban planning and folklore, and make for an interesting read.

Most of all, the book is very easy to relate to for any web user. And whether or not you suspect yourself of being a mindless drone with a near narcotic dependence on it, The Filter Bubble will make you rethink the way you use the Internet.