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Internet excesses

Sep 04 2011, 00:11 IST
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SummaryIs 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.

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, 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....You can get stuck in a static, ever narrowing version of yourself—an 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,

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