Saturday, May 21, 2011

Recommendation: "The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You"

Eli Pariser, of fame, has just come out with a book about how the internet filters information for us—even when we don't know it, and don't want it to. Pariser takes the experience I touched on in The Trouble with Choice, pursues it to its roots, and explains it better than I ever could.

The consequences of this kind of filtering for our political and social life are enormous. Democracy is hard enough when we share the same facts; it is impossible if we are being shunted into parallel universes. 

In March, the TED conference invited him to preview his call for an ethical, open internet. With Bill Gates and Google executives in the audience (!), he made a powerful case: here's a 9-minute video of his talk. It's truly eye-opening.

Pariser's work, interestingly enough, confirms my recent experience of doing internet research for this past week's series on drug shortages.  I found out about the shortages initially through a subscription medical journal, but when I googled to find more widely available reports, I got hardly any useful hits. I found this puzzling, but was even more perplexed when I would perform the same searches again a day later, then the day after that, and so on, and each time get more and more relevant hits that had clearly been there all along. If you've ever noticed this pattern yourself, you've got to watch the video.

And if you haven't noticed this happening, then you really have to watch the video.


  1. Thank you for a very interesting post. As Pariser points out, human gatekeepers also control and manipulate the flow of information, in a way that is anything but impartial. Editors habitually push political, economic, and other agendas, sometimes overtly, sometimes less so. The problem with algorithms customizing search results is a serious one - but the mere fact that Google founders are in the audience, listening to Pariser (presumably sympathetically - otherwise they could have watched the talk on the internet, like the rest of us) is a testament to the open nature of this process; and if there is a groundswell of protest against Google's algorithms, and Google refuses to alter them, other browsers will spring up with different algorithms. Customization of search engines is not inherently bad; perhaps Google should give us the option to customize our searches, allowing us to select from a host of algorithms that present us with different results.

  2. You make an excellent point, too often forgotten, that all communication is edited. From simple conversations to research articles and books, we edit for length, coherence, flow, structure, beauty, and all sorts of qualities that fall well short of agenda-pushing, yet some material must inevitably be omitted. (In fact, I’ve just cut the rest of this paragraph, deciding instead to use it to launch another post. So thank you for prompting the idea.)

    I am not so sanguine as you are about the market’s ability to react to companies like Google and provide alternatives. Not because I think the scenario you present is unlikely—indeed, I think that’s what will happen—but because much damage will have been done by then by the mass deception. (Several years of people unwittingly having their prejudices reinforced.) I would also argue that much damage is done by the very act of manipulation: it degrades the social contract, breeds cynicism. It is akin to the damage that has been done by politicians campaigning “against Washington”: by denigrating the political process itself, they have created a populace that is politically apathetic and believes that there’s no difference between candidates anyway. Far better to have made specific corrupt acts the target of their ire, rather than all political activity.

    That said, your idea about presenting alternative algorithms is an interesting one, though I would still prefer that Google make the process of the algorithm transparent. (After all, any algorithm has to have some process for selection. Back to the editing concept.) But then, where is the money in that? That is the inevitable question of capitalism. And therein lies the problem.

  3. But surely, populace apathy and cynicism predates the internet... In fact, I would argue that the internet is a more adaptable medium than, say, journalism, or book publishing, as the low barrier to entry continuously allows for new people to participate in the debate. The difference, perhaps, is that with 600 years of printing press behind us, we have learned to 'read between the lines,' and understand the biases, agendas (and yes, mere practical editing for length, flow, etc.) of those issuing the message. The internet is still in its infancy; and just as market forces also guided the evolution of printing (handing control to a select few), they will guide the evolution of the internet; but that is not necessarily a bad thing. And those seeking an alternative will create or use alternatives, whether they can be monetized or not. In that spirit, it is important to keep challenging Google, and other search engines, towards greater transparency, as Pariser does, as your blog does.

    And isn't it nice to have a medium where one is no longer limited by word count? Where music can be released in increments of 1 min or 4 hours, and not 75 minutes, as mandated by the length of a CD?