Does the idea of someone hiding secretly in your living room, peering out through a little hole in the curtains, watching your every move, taking notes, gathering information they may use against you in the future creep you out a little? Are you starting to recognize a pattern in the results your Google searches retrieve? Does there seem to be a theme to the ads on your Facebook page? Cue the eerie music, and start looking over you shoulder because there is most definitely a Ghost in Your Machine.
Eli Pariser is out with a book today (The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You) describing the discomfort if not the danger of the new ‘highly-personalized’ Internet. Since 2009, Google has gathered information about your online behavior and used it to tailor your search results. Facebook has been doing the same and at this point most sites that serve up information to you are following suit. The idea makes great sense from a marketing standpoint: if they know what kinds of information you routinely seek, if they know what kind of advertisement makes you ‘Click’, they can serve up more of the same to you eliciting even more clicks. It is the ultimate in targeting, something we Help-U-Sell folk know all about.
So, if you are a tea party Republican and visit sites espousing those views and your friend is an eco-friendly liberal and surfs accordingly, when you both Google ‘Obama’ at the same time, you’re going to get very different results.
And that’s the danger. The Internet (read: Google) is serving us a diet made up not of truth, but of what we want to see. And it is a very personalized offering.
I am particularly disturbed by this because if flies in the face of so much I’ve said about the glories of unlimited access to information. Let me see if I can quote myself . . . ‘Instead of sending troops to Afghanistan, we should be flying over and dropping smartphones on the people.’ I guess if we did that and the people immediately started surfing to sites that espouse hatred for the West, Google would establish that pattern and serve up more of the same; hardly the eye opening and broadening effect we might want.
We had so much press about polarizing rhetoric several months ago, particularly after Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot. There was a plea that we turn down the volume, crank it back a notch, become more civil to one another. Now I understand how the language could have become so rigid, so harsh, polarizing. Thanks to the personalized Internet, each side of the debate (any debate) was being buoyed by the constant reinforcement of their own point of view. If all you see is what you want to see you can become pretty rigid in your thinking.
After all, tolerance is a virtue and it is born of empathy – the ability to walk in the other guy’s shoes, live in the other person’s skin for a moment. If all you’re getting is a recycling of your own opinions, how can you ever know what the other guy thinks or feels? How can you ever empathize? How can you become tolerant?
I guess the point is this: you can’t rely on Google or Facebook or any clickable source to serve up truth. If you want truth, you’re going to have to do it the old fashioned way: you’re going to have to dig. You’re going to have to go out of your way to understand the opposing point of view. Bias is everywhere and on the Internet, the bias is YOURS.