Spending most of my time looking at Google and seeing the various ways in which their all-too inconspicuous personalisation is influencing search results, this book was too tempting to pass up.
The initial concept, that of the Filter Bubble, of an algorithmic editor which only provides you content based on your interests and tastes is one which inspired and intimidated me. Released May 2011, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You is Eli Pariser’s (avaaz.org & MoveOn.org) deeply interesting take on the rise of personalisation and the filter bubble which we find ourselves ensnared in today.
The Covert Filter Bubble
Personalisation is the way in which online services like search, social media, eCommerce etc, tailor who or
what you see and when and how you see them. Personalisation has come about because the more the content caters to people’s tastes, the more of it you will consume and the happier with it you’ll be (ergo, more money for publishers and platform holders). The The filter bubble is what Parsier argues we inhabit as the result of personalisation, a bubble where we only receive highly filtered content, rather than the ‘wider view’ of what is out there.
Central to The Filter Bubble‘s argument is that personalisation to this extent is bad. This is for a number or reasons, but the most salient to me were the fact that a) you will only ever consume information which you would like, hence becoming more close minded and alienated and b) you’re largely unaware this is happening. For many the idea of only being served content you’ll like is going to sound like a largely good thing; not having to sift through large portions of political views you disagree with, programmes you find unappealing and images you may find disturbing. However, the large question which Pariser poses is, what are you missing as a result of this?
What is perhaps more worrying within the issue of the filter bubble is how covertly it operates. Whilst, some people are becoming aware that ad-content is growing more and more tailored to your browsing history, click streams, search queries etc, the filtering process itself is far from transparent. Whilst you can be aware that your content is being filtered, you will never know what is influencing the filter and how it is operating For those who are still unaware that this process is taking place (which is going to be a high proportion of the internet I’d imagine), the sum of the filter bubble effect is that they’re only receiving a very small proportion of content and for the most part not even aware that the personalisation process is even taking place.
Is ignorance bliss or is it potentially damaging in the long run?
I suspect you can already imagine what Pariser’s standpoint on this is (given his politically active past), he makes his point well and for the most part I found myself equally concerned about the filter bubble and how it is influencing my online activities. What is more concerning however, is privacy, another major focus of the book; the personalisation process is informed by the hundreds, if not thousands of pieces of data, sources like Google, Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc gather about you on a daily basis. All of this data is being accumulated and analysed, it is forming its own opinion of you without you realising it and changing the way you can see the world because of it. Whilst our details are worth more than ever, being commodified by advertisers, this constant stream of monitoring and data collection is eroding our rights more and more.
The book does shift between singing the potential praises of this online world, and warning of the path the current personalisation system is leading us down. The campaigning nature of Pariser is present through much of this, and the picture he paints is often bleak even if his optimism for a better future is never too far from the surface. He offers solutions and compromises, to make for a more transparent system which can be better regulated and therefore less exploitative of the everyday user, and whilst the attainability of these goals is yet to be seen, these solutions do give something to work towards, a ray of sunlight through the often black painted sky.
For the hows, whys and where’s Parsier does an excellent job of researching the major advances in personalisation and the players involved this process, producing a rich and a very illuminating read. What was an issue, is that for me the theory of The Filter Bubble is one which could have been explained in a book half its size or maybe even an extended essay. Whilst this will disappoint some, the eloquence of the writing and the richness of the research and information still present a compelling argument and outlines the ways in which the filter bubble could be something very worrying in the future. The content is good, but it feels as if the core message is a simple one; one worth reading nonetheless.
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