In his new book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You, former MoveOn.org executive director Eli Pariser lays out in fascinating and troubling detail how websites are collecting data about users and what they’re doing with it. It’s all about personalization and the ability to cater to a web user’s individual likes. But, Pariser argues, by eliminating exposure to news, information and opinions that we might not enjoy or agree with, personalization threatens to significantly narrow our understanding of the world and our democracy.
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You coined the phrase “the filter bubble.” Can you explain what it is and when you first started getting concerned about it?
There’s an array of personalizing computer code that surrounds all of us now. The filter bubble is your own unique universe of information created just for you by the code. It’s invisible. You don’t see it at work, you don’t know what the selection criteria is, and it’s very hard to escape.
One of the first experiences I had with this was on Facebook. I wanted to know what conservatives were thinking, so I made an effort to “friend” some smart conservative folks I know. But I did all this work and then on my Facebook news feed I realized I hadn’t seen anything from any of these people for a very long time. That seemed wrong so I looked into it and learned that Facebook was second-guessing me. They were basically saying, “You say you’re interested in these this, but when we’re watching you, you’re interacting more with the progressive links than conservative ones.”
A person’s Facebook news feed is increasingly important. One in 14 people are on this thing. A lot of younger people are on it. If Facebook is blocking things from your news feed because they think it’s something you disagree with, that’s a big problem.
I continued to look into this and it became increasingly clear that this is not confined to Facebook. It’s happening at Google too. Almost every major website has or is developing personalization.
And recently we learned that our iPhones track us.
It makes perfect sense. The logic of the Internet is to sell more ads to make more money you need to know as much as possible about your customers. Every new piece of data is directly convertible into money. And with the iPhone, it’s not just creepy because they can see everywhere you’ve been, but when you know where someone has gone you know so much about who they are: their age, gender, income level. That’s the way data works—you don’t have to reveal a lot of pieces for them to figure you out.
Some of the technology you write about sounds so awesome at first, but then it starts sounding kind of scary too. Should we be concerned?
I have the same feeling. There’s amazing technology behind all this. I’m not a luddite and I’m not against personalization per se, but the current trajectory is scary. Companies that are pushing it forward seem relatively uninterested in the huge social, political or ethical ramifications of what they doing.
It does scare me for the future of our democracy. If everyone is encouraged to live in their own world of facts and ideas, they’re not encouraged to talk to other people, to hear other things.
It feels really great: a world that totally accords with your own sensibilities. It’s fun. You’re right all the time. Everything you see agrees with you. But it’s a false comfort. To be a good citizen, to make good business and career decisions, you need to have a broad view of the world and know all different sides of a debate. The filter bubble as constructed right now is very bad at providing that. It’s surfing with blinders on.
But these companies have to make money, right?
I’m an idealist. I still believe there is plenty of evidence that businesses can act ethically and can put the good of society ahead of their own bottom line. We live with a media sector that has done that. The New York Times doesn’t create a front page that will sell the most newspapers. They prioritize what they think is important for people to know. Google and Facebook can take up the same kind of ethics and recognize that they can make money and service the society they are helping to shape at the same time.
You describe actions websites, government and individuals can take to lessen the negative impact of personalization. Among them is a suggestion that all of us learn computer code.
A lot of decisions are going to be made based in computer code. You don’t have to a programmer to have a basic understanding of how these things are constructed. Code is tool that can be used to create a lot of change on the societal level and we need to recognize that it has that power.