Published five years ago, it seems Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You” has never been more relevant. Within the filter bubble – in which algorithms generate personalised search returns or content on online platforms, based on collected details about a user – because Internet users consume information consistent with their own beliefs or ideologies, they are isolated from alternative perspectives and news. In other words, “The new generation of Internet filters looks at the things you seem to like – the actual things you’ve done, or the things people like you like – and tries to extrapolate”.
Two recent observations then come to mind. Pre-Brexit on my Facebook news feed, of my friends who voted, not one of them voted for withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and if one only read their commentaries or posts the result would have been a shock. And if that was also evidence of the disparity between the virtual and physical worlds, the online community in Singapore – especially during the general elections last year – is characterised by competing echo chambers, with little or no interactions between the groups.
But how did this “era of personalisation” come to be? Personalised filters – for the average user, through the Google search engine or the Facebook news stream – are useful as we struggle with the sheer volume of information, yet for the Internet giants the drive for commercialisation is strong. “The more personally relevant their information offerings are, the more ads they can sell, and the more likely you are to buy the products they’re offering”. And such intense personalisation not only limits the content that users consume, but the algorithms could also influence how we seek new knowledge or how we interact with others.
As Pariser emphasised towards the end of “The Filter Bubble”, “Personalisation algorithms can cause identity loops, in which what the code knows about you constructs your media environment, and your media environment helps to shape your future preferences”.
The introductory chapter of the book makes a convincing case from the get-go, and in fact it is also a commentary-like primer summarising the key points of the following chapters. “The Filter Bubble” in this vein is both an easy and important read, and readers are encouraged to think about their reliance on web-based platforms and how this relationship is shaped by the Internet giants. Furthermore, Pariser references researchers and publications, some of whom or which I had previously encountered in classes or discussions about the Internet:
– Political science writer Philip Tetlock, on the dangers of confirmation bias, even for experts: “Experts have a lot invested in the theories they’ve developed to explain the world. And after a few years of working on them, they tend to see them everywhere … It’s not just that experts are vulnerable to confirmation bias – it’s that they’re especially vulnerable to it”.
– Sociologist danah boyd, on the dangers of being too accustomed to our personal ecosystem of information, and therefore undermining broader civic discourse: “Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature … In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole”.
– Privacy proponent Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, on the self-reinforcing relationship between knowledge and power which in the long run hands control of the Internet and its opportunities over to a small group of people, companies, or organisations: “If Sir Francis Bacon is right that “knowledge is power” … [then] what we’re witnessing now is nothing less than a “redistribution of information power from the powerless to the powerful”.
Perhaps the questions now are: how many Internet users are aware of the filter bubble and the algorithms which power it, and to what extent is the new constituency of digital environmentalists – proposed and called to action by Pariser in his concluding chapter of recommendations – cognisant or effective? And beyond the United States, where democratic institutions are active and the citizenry can be mobilised, how should movements in other countries be galvanised? Otherwise, are we condemned to the confines of our own silos or echo chambers?