The filter bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you..
New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
cloth, 294 p., ISBN 978–1–594–20300–8, $US25.95.
Penguin Press: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/pages/publishers/adult/penguinpress.html
When Google announced personalized searching in late 2009, it mainly caught the attention of a dedicated and watchful section of the blogosphere. In The Filter Bubble, author Eli Pariser brings the issue to a wider audience by exploring in detail the surreptitious but ever–increasing practice of personalization on the Internet. Pariser posits that with that action, Google thrust each and every one of its users into his or her own filter bubble, an online search experience based on the person’s search behaviors. In this “era of personalization” as Pariser calls it, Google alone uses 60 different triggers — the brand of your computer, your location, your occupation — to determine what search results will be most relevant to you. Because the more relevant your search results are, the more you use their product, and the more data they can collect on you to provide you with the most targeted advertisements possible.
Pariser is perhaps best known for his role with the political action organization MoveOn.org (http://front.moveon.org/), having served for several years as its executive director, then as the Board president, a post he still holds today. Though his involvement with MoveOn has no direct connection with this book that I know of, the irony is not lost on me that the success of MoveOn (and its peer organizations on any point of the political spectrum), has relied heavily on the Internet and, in turn, online data–collecting companies have tracked the behaviors of MoveOn followers. Nevertheless, Pariser takes this opportunity to make a convincing case that our online information experiences are being siloed by search engines and popular social networking sites, and that we should be at least a little concerned.
This filtering of our search results — with Google showing us what it thinks we want to see — is one of many strategies the company employs to bring its users to the point of “lock in,” which Pariser describes as the point at which a user is so invested in a technology that even if a superior product is offered by a competitor, it’s not worth the effort to switch. A user with 1,000 Facebook friends who never logs out is not likely to invest in another social networking site, nor is someone who migrated all his Microsoft Office files to Google’s cloud–based suite going to make that change again without some serious thought. Personally, I find myself taken aback by Pariser’s many examples of corporations pulling consumers’ puppet strings, examples that drive home the reality that, when I use products like Google and Facebook, I am often not a consumer. Rather, I am the product. I am being sold, and I am therefore not totally in control of my online experience. Using the drug Adderall — a mixture of amphetamines whose effects on cognitive activity are somewhat unexplained — as an analogy for personalized online filters, Pariser argues that online personalization can hinder creativity and innovation in three ways: it artificially limits our mental capacity to seek solutions, it prevents us from entering unfamiliar environments that are more likely to spur creativity than those that are familiar to us, and — perhaps the most concerning point to librarians — it encourages a more passive approach to information seeking and acquisition.
Predictably, Pariser does dedicate an entire chapter to politics and personalization. He claims filter bubbles suppress dialogue, discourse, and disagreement, effectively crippling democracy, which “only works if we citizens are capable of thinking beyond our narrow self–interest.” There was hope at the beginning of the Internet that it would be the enabler for unleashing democratic principles on the world by connecting all citizens with online access. This was in great contrast to the model of the broadcast media, which employed gatekeepers of information–editors who decided what content the public should be exposed to. Pariser argues that filter bubbles are another example of a gatekeeper, only this time it’s an unfeeling, inflexible algorithm standing between users and a legitimate online experience.
The Filter Bubble is a fascinating read about the intersection of psychology, technology, and financial gain. It is an essential volume for chronicling the development of the Internet and its massive, yet still undetermined impression on you, me, and the rest of the world. Anne Shelley, Illinois State University.
Copyright © 2012, First Monday.
Book review of Eli Pariser’s The filter bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you
by Anne Shelley.
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 6 - 4 June 2012