The Filter Bubble … Response and thoughts on privacy personalization and filtering

On Friday’s Democracy Now! radio program, Eli Pariser (moveon.org) spoke about his new book, “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You” with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales. His new book explores the ways that the internet is increasingly becoming “personalized” to each of its users and thereby shielding us from the diversity that can be otherwise found there.

I’m fascinated by a lot of these issues myself—Internet access, privacy (buzz word that’s becoming increasingly vague to me) and democratization of information. Since the Chiapas protests in the early nineties and their use of the internet to grow an international support base, to the existence of “sound cloud” where any musician can post their latest work to be heard and enjoyed, to the Facebook posts direct from protesters in the Middle East, the internet has seemed to me to be quite clearly an avenue for the most democratic and egalitarian kind of sharing. On the other hand, it is also a place of elitism (access to technological resources) and of filtering (amazon, itunes, and netflicks all select what is and is not available to us). The big danger, it seems to me, is believing that everything is available and forgetting that there is anything outside of the internet. If we never forget the fact that we have to look outside the internet to actually experience everything the world has to offer us, then I’m still hopeful that we can manage some kind of balance.

One of the issues that Eli speaks about in the interview is the issue of “personalization.” That is, the effort of many news sites and search engines to understand who we are (in relation to the products we buy and internet clicks we make) in order to personalize our search results on news and other search engines.

When google was first founded, they made a big deal about the new google algorithms that would democratize the way that we search the web. It would put “anyone” in connection with “anything” and “anyone” else … in fact this is the way we were taught to conceive of the power of the world wide web. But as time has gone by, google has been working to “personalize” our searches. In practical terms that means two different people can enter the exact same search into their search engine and come up with entirely different results. The example that got brought up on Friday’s Democracy Now! is that if Amy Goodman and some other person who really likes to travel both enter “EGYPT” in a google search engine, Amy might come up with lots of links to news about democratic protests in Egypt, and the other person might come up with lots of links to the ancient pyramids and other tourist attractions.

As Eli remarks, on some level this seems very ideal: a personalized web search that tries to find “what we’re looking for.” But on the other hand, it tends to hide the things we aren’t looking for, and therefore doesn’t give us as much information as we could possibly have, and might give a skewed or incomplete picture of the place or thing we are trying to discover.

I think these are all great points, but they did get me thinking a lot about what real solutions look like. As far as I can tell, anytime we do a google search, the first page of results is necessarily LIMITED to about ten results. After that first page, some of us look at the second third and fourth page, but how many of us actually wade through the thousands of results that most searches retrieve? So the question is one of prioritization; HOW will those results get prioritized and WHO will do it? Clearly as we have an increasing number of website available to us on a daily basis, and the google search engine has to be able to handle this increasing about of information. WHICH sites SHOULD they show on the first page? Perhaps one solution could be that the first page contains directions or groups of links in regards to a topic like … click here for more information about tourism, click here for social and arts related articles … click here for books, click here for news related to protests, so that I get an “an equally balanced selection of links from different points of view” available to me on that first results page. But this is difficult because a “balanced set of information” is still relative to the person who is actually doing the search, their location, their preferred language, etcetera. This is no easy task.

Which again leads me back to thinking that we really have to take it upon ourselves to do the research to find the diverse opinions we’re looking for and of course to support the programs that we do feel like give us a more balanced and diverse look at the world’s issues. It also means simply KNOWING and being aware of the filters so that we can make educated choices about what to believe and not believe. This seems like a no-brainer but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Another issue that Eli brings up, which is related to personalization, is “privacy.” In order to personalize, every site has different tactics about how to “get to know us;” in other words, access our “private information.” I put privacy in quotes because I still have trouble believing that capitalist exchange has become such a center of our lives that we actually think of it as our “privacy.” This is another topic but I think it’s very telling about our society at large.

I wish that Democracy Now! could have spoken a little different about privacy, namely that its a classist issue. A lot of conversation goes around about how companies track what we buy and use that information to sell us or try to sell us more of the same. But one thing that gets forgotten in this is that not all people in this world are consumers (some live entirely in self-subsistence and trade or only consume at very local levels). Even if we (those reading this) “never see those people” and “can’t relate to them,” we certainly can understand that not all people have credit cards and not all people live in extreme consumerist societies where we buy gas on a regular basis, use credit cards for most transactions, or shop at target and safeway and other large corporations. Many people don’t have computers and don’t shop online—their clicks are not followed, their preferences are not marked. For people who DON’T do those things, this issue of so-called privacy is not as much of an issue.

That “privacy” is an issue of capitalist consumerism rings true for me in Germany, which is obviously an industrialized Western Nation and yet remains remarkably quite a cash culture. There are many places that still don’t accept credit cards; even our two major electronics stores do not accept credit cards; only direct bank debit cards (which incidentally do not display the Visa symbol). Moreover, I earn most of my money in cash and spend most money in cash.

Lots of people are getting their panties in a bunch about their privacy, but fewer people seem to be talking about how they can choose to not play into the credit card/consumer game (or maybe their voices are being drowned out by the louder media voices and filters of the internet — lol). Eli mentioned some new or projected google app called “google wallet” where basically you do all your banking online on your smart phone and spend your money using your smart phone as your credit card … My question is, if people are buying into these conveniences, why are they so concerned with “privacy”? If they allow an application to “accept their current location” why do they wonder why all these corporations know where they are all the time? More importantly, if we’re socially and upwardly mobile enough to have the choice about buying MAC versus or PC or iPhone versus Android, can’t we use that privilege to become more socially conscious consumers?

If we make a commitment to buying our food locally at farmers markets or buying weekly vegetable baskets from a local farm, we don’t need to worry about Safeway tracking all of our credit card transactions. We don’t have to buy at H&M or IKEA; we can make a conscientious choice to support local artists and designers for our clothing and shoes (and buy less)—most of those people don’t even accept credit cards because it’s too expensive for them to do so. If we don’t want to get profiled about what we read, why are we continuing to order online at amazon? Why don’t we walk down the street to the local bookstore or used bookstore and support that business that doesn’t even have a credit card machine?

If we really want to go off the grid, we should go off the grid. But I’m not holding my breath about our commercially minded reality turning into a “private” place. Whatever that means, anyway. Last time I checked, privacy had to do with being able to take a walk alone in the woods.

We have to make a personal responsibly to understand what our buying power is buying into. And we have to take a personal responsibility that the implications of our buying and clicking lead to personalization and filters. And to know that the internet is filtering and creating elite spaces where we interact with like-minded folks is exactly THAT. In fact, if we look at our friends on Facebook, we’ll probably find out that they’re mostly like us because we filter and select on our own.

We can’t walk into the “World of Books” thinking that every book ever written can be found there. I’m a member of “GoodReads” and half of the titles I’ve read and loved don’t have illustrated thumbnails of the covers because those covers simply aren’t in the database of Goodreads. On some strange level means those books “don’t exist” – just like people not on Facebook “don’t exist.” (ps that’s a joke).

There is always some kind of filtering and we owe it to the underground to do our research to find them. Most performance artists I know have had their sites censored or even deleted by facebook and myspace. Does this mean we should stop using those sites altogether or that it’s impossible to find really underground artists or information about protests through them? Not necessarily, because sometimes the benefits outweigh the negative, and that’s a personal choice that we all make. But we still have to keep an open mind that there is a lot more out there that we don’t see. For all of the democratization of information, there are just as many filters that keep us from seeing.

By the way, I still haven’t read “The Filter Bubble” but I’m sure you can find it at your local bookstore. Or you can order it from amazon (google said so) but maybe you could also buy it through the progressive organization moveon.org … Eli’s organization. Not so sure. I guess I should google that to find out.

link to the interview:

http://www.democracynow.org/2011/5/27/eli_pariser_on_the_filter_bubble


Kathryn Fischer aka Mad Kate
Writer & Performance Artist
+49 160 975 32 702
http://www.alfabus.us

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