Caged In A Bubble

Book: The Filter Bubble – What the Internet is Hiding from You
Author: Eli Pariser
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Publication Date: May 12, 2011

It seems effortless when the first page on Google gives exactly what was asked for, when Amazon returns the list of books one has been looking for and Facebook shows the array of friends whose interests are very similar – all this without doing much of searching around over the internet. World today is surrounded in the comfort of Google, Facebook, Amazon and the likes. Today people are too busy to spend much time on searching what they want. The mantra is ‘Instant Result’. And Internet has the recipe for this need of people. In this mad rush for survival, people are loving this offering of internet. But they fail to recognize the hidden demon in this offering – the demon that has snatched the cultural vibrancy, improved thinking and innovative attitude of people. Eli Pariser deals with the activities of this demon in his book “The Filter Bubble”

Eli Pariser has been a pioneer in online campaigning and has authored articles for New York Times Magazine, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. He has also started online campaigning for well being of citizens across the globe. He is presently the president of MoveOn.org.

Eli Pariser noticed the personalized filtering that Internet provides to its users when just out of curiosity he fond out that two people in different regions of the world with different interests, socially and politically, received different Google search results for the same search word. Another instance was when he stopped seeing the status updates of some of his friends in top news feeds of Facebook. Later he realized that the reason for this filtered top feed list was that the political views of his friends were not matching with his views. Pariser was fast to realize the negative effects of this process on the society as a whole and for the generations to come. Being an activist for social causes, he thought it needful to bring out this issue in a book. And hence he started with The Filter Bubble.

Back in 2009, Google blogged about its personalized search. People did not pay much attention to it. But that meant a lot to the Internet experience of individuals. Google was going to capture the usage pattern of its users and try to figure out the likes, dislikes, and personality of the person. So when next time they search, they will get exactly what they wanted. This was a personalized filter to which author refers to as “The Filter Bubble”. The personalized filters keep people engaged in a world of their preferences, blocking them from what the others in the society are up to. The author has listed three dynamics of The Filter Bubble. First, every individual is alone in their bubble surrounded by their preferences alone. There is interaction between people of other interests, but in a limited and distant fashion. Second the filter bubble is invisible. A person will never know what impression the Internet (Google, Facebook, Amazon etc) has made of them, but still information will be filtered before reaching them. Third the filter bubble automatically engulfs a person, without their knowledge. Every time someone does a search on Google, looks for a book on Amazon, visits a friend on Facebook, reads news on Fox News, there are algorithms and codes working behind that capture the activities of the person. These codes assume a picture of the person and based on that provide information that matches these activities. So one enters the personalized filter bubble unknowingly.

The beginning chapters of the book emphasize on the plethora of hazards that the personalization of Internet experience carries along with it. The amount of information present on the Internet huge and people often get confused as to what to use and what not to use. The same situation exists when watching television, buying a product, reading news – the range of choices is too large to make an easy decision. And the companies take this difficulty of individuals as an advantage. They take the onus of giving out the best result to their customers. Personalization is the tool that suits the requirements of the companies to win over their customers. A vast data market exists all over, with companies like Acxiom and Kayak, where buying and selling of personal data of Internet users is carried out. Companies use these data to capture customers and in turn market share. After all, this run is all about business profits. On the face of it a person might be having interaction with various web portals, but these data markets have made it all integrated in the backstage. One never gets to know which data is handed over to which company.

Parizer has called this Filter Bubble as the new middleman between news and its readers. He says that times have changed from news affecting a person’s behavior to a person’s behavior affecting the news that comes in. and this can also be termed as the personalization effect. The news a person reads is used as a parameter to frame his political inclination. For instance, if you check a lot of news on Anna Hazare campaign, you will be termed as an activist working against corruption. So from next time all the news you see on Google or any other news portal, you will find news on people fighting corruption. May be you want to read the gossips on Jennifer Lopez but the filter bubble makes sure you do not divert from your interests.

Another issue dealt with in the book is the deteriorating trust in journalists and news agencies. This has been attributed to the rising effect of blogging. At times bloggers are given more credential than journalists. But blogging can also frame a mind in a particular way instead of letting people discover on their own. A person blogs by reading different articles and forming a view out of it. But if the news reaching the person is already filtered according to his personal political view, then the blogger loses credential of having an all round view of the situation. This is a serious issue as the views of the people get biased and as one gets more and more inside the personalized bubble, the difference between right and wrong goes deplete. Author is increasingly disturbed by the fact that the filter bubble is not just affecting the way news is processed by people but also has serious effects on the way people think.

Psychologists are of the opinion that the world appears as one sees it. The filter bubble is changing the look of the world for every individual; even if two people think alike, they might not look at the world in the same way because they happen exist in different bubbles. A person interested in child health goes through material on Internet regarding what are the health issues faced by children. Another person with the same interest wants to donate some funds for the cause and surfs information on internet as to how much and where is needed. They are having the same interests but they will find different information on Internet and hence form different views on the issue. The first person will know the variety of diseases in children and geographies affected by that, as that is what he sees every time he does any search on this topic. For this person world might be a place full of troubles. For the other person world will be a place where people help each other as the search results for this person will be how much people are donating for the cause, which celebrity is giving what, etc. the first person might get sad at the extent of troubles, the other person will be happy about the way people come forward and help each other and make humanity proud. Psychologically a person thinks the way information comes to him. Personalization limits the extent a person is exposed to information and hence also limits the view of the world. In the era of globalization, individuals are getting trapped in their personal bubbles sans knowledge of the world outside the bubble.

Paliser reminds that a human mind is designed in a way that there has to be a regular learning from present environment and using the past knowledge for betterment. But filter bubble has disturbed this functioning of brain as the information provided is something people already know and also because the environment is cut off by the bubble hindering the learning of new things. Personalized filters limit the learning opportunity for a person and hence reducing the cultivation of ideas in a person. Lack of ideas in turn dampens creativity of a person. And if all people are caged in a bubble like this, creativity of the entire world can come to a halt at some point of time. Personalized web discourages persons from having a diverse viewpoint. A civilization needs more and more of innovations and discoveries to progress. But if people continue to be engulfed by the filter bubble, progress can come to a halt slowly and people might end up thinking that the bubble in which they stay is their world, completely ignoring the existence of the world outside.

The identity of a person also gets endangered in a filter bubble. It goes like this. Google builds identities of its users based on what they search. So if a person is a doctor and doing a project for their child on endangered species of birds, the person might end being an environmentalist for Google, if he read books on blogging he might be a blogger for Amazon, etc. And another trouble is that an individual can end up having multiple identities. Google defines a person based on the searches, Facebook defines a person based on the likes and dislikes and kind of friends one has, Amazon defines a person based on the books one reads and the way one reads books. Likewise, every web page has its own algorithm and rule to define a person. And in this way one person ends up having multiple identities in the filter bubble and starts seeing the world through that identity. The true identity is not known though. These multiple false identities are marketed in the data market and companies target their products on people based on these identities. So actually an individual also ends up having entirely different products, which might not be suitable for the personality of an individual. But the filter bubble and the marketers force the individual to believe that the product offered is best for them.

The author mentions how China forbids the usage if certain words in the country. It was a political decision, but now the filter bubble does the same, in a different way though. If a word is not used in the search a few times, the personalized filters never let that word be a part of the bubble in which a person exists. So eventually people tend to forget that particular word or issue, whatever it may be. The filter bubble, according to the author, is strong and capable enough to change the political inclinations of people. Filter bubble has the capability to ban the unpleasant things of society from individuals. In short it can affect the entire political process of the world. People might end up having no idea what the governments are up to. Pariser writes that political advertising gains power from filter bubble. Democracy will be successful only if people are capable enough to understand and guide the government. But if people are caged in their bubbles with their personal likes and dislikes, democracy can be at danger too.

The companies create filter bubble by using codes. Engineers create these codes. But one cannot expect a code to understand human behavior and act accordingly. What it does is something very mechanical and routine sans any emotions. Pariser is of the opinion that the engineers need to come up with a code that can create global citizens who are better informed and creative. The author fears that the rate at which personalized filter is growing, it can get problematic for the entire civilization very soon. And hence engineers need to find out a way fast.

The last chapters of the book focus on finding a way out of this personalized bubble. Periser is very much concerned with the vast spread of the filter bubble. The ending chapters of the book are not very convincing when it comes to finding a way out of the bubble issue. It seems like the author himself is groping for ways to come out of the bubble. The future of the personalization bubble is also mentioned in the ending chapters. The author feels that the Future of filter bubble is the usage of pictures of individuals for personalization. He says facebook has tagged almost everyone in the universe, so it might be the next step. Usage of augmented reality is also considered to be one the future inventions of personalization.

The individuals trapped in the filter bubble can miss the wide array of information resource available on the Internet. Perisor says that it’s the individuals to some extent who are responsible for getting trapped in the bubble and the obligation lies on individuals themselves to get out of it. The reason for being trapped is that due to the busy schedules, a person ends up surfing just a few repeated websites daily, which gives a wrong impression to the algorithm behind the scene. So all that is required is to look beyond the usual things – increase the variety of information looked upon.

To burst the filter bubble, author says that one has to change his own behavior. For instance, remove the cookies regularly from the computer or use websites that have transparent personalization rules. But again these are considered to be very limited in their performances the real breakthrough can happen only when the companies filtering information for the individuals understand the hazards of the bubble trap and bring about some change. The companies need to build codes that respect the innovation and development habits of people. On the other hand, the author also wants the governments to develop rules against capturing of personal data by these web sites, something like Do Not Call List. There can be a Do Not Track List for websites. The author is hopeful that very soon there will be rules governing the data capture by the companies and this will help in reducing the strength of filter bubble.

The book is a good read and it really changes the way one works over the Internet. But more was expected in terms of dealing with the bubble issue. It sounds a little vague in the book. Companies like Google and Facebook are in a run to capture customers, gain profits, and improve business. But in the race they are forgetting that the progress of common people, progress of their customers, progress of the entire civilization have been put at stake. Even the people need to take some time out of their busy schedule and try to understand the trap they are getting into. If people are aware, then the trap automatically weakens. It’s the unawareness of the individuals that the companies are taking advantage of.

The book ends with a hope that soon the bubble will be busted and the civilization will move towards progress and innovation and there will be truly global citizens.



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