Do you exist in a Filter Bubble?

The birth of the Internet gave us great hope for the spread of ideas and for uniting previously separated parts of the human family. Some of us look to the Internet to spread beneficial news ignored by other media — news and ideas such as the New Energy Movement and inventions introduced in our book Breakthrough Power.   We didn’t expect that corporations would use the Internet to segregate people each into their own isolated echoing world. I certainly didn’t understand how much hidden “personalization” is on the Internet until I read parts of a new book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You.

Eli Pariser’s book reminds us that Google isn’t the only gatherer of information about our likes and dislikes, though it started customizing our search results at the end of 2009. We’re constantly being profiled as target markets. But did you know how much Facebook is also controllig and limiting the information we see? Facebook prioritizes the links it decides will appeal to you and lets you see those links!

The author of The Filter Bubble writes mainstream op-ed articles and was executive director of MoveOn.org, one of the largest citizens’ organizations in American politics.  Apparently the book not only shows how personalized filters are putting each of us in a bubble that reflects our likes — creating individual universes of information for each of us – but it also tells what we can do about it. (I’ll have to buy the book to get to that part.)

You probably realize that data companies track your personal information to sell to advertisers, but have you thought about those invisible filters on search engines that increasingly give us a personalized world? If I “Google” a phrase, for example “free energy”, I’ll get quite a different list of websites than my sister would see. The same would happen if we each searched for an innocuous phrase such as “radio programs about animals.”

If the practice continues, we’ll be fed only news that is familiar or pleasant and confirms our beliefs, and we won’t know what is being kept from us. What kind of society emerges when masses of people start to live a filter-bubbled life? How will a culture’s creative people come into contact with the mind-blowing experiences and ideas that shatter preconceptions about the world and themselves?

Some of us want to be aware of a diverse array of options and lifestyles instead of allowing companies that build “filters” to choose which options we’re aware of. On a broader world stage, the human family needs to build bridges between its separated branches or groups. The global village doesn’t happen when all we do is bond with virtual neighbors who look and think just like us. According to Eli Pariser, to create a global village we need a bridging space where we address problems that transcend our niches and narrow self- interests. “In a personalized world, important but complex or unpleasant issues— the rising prison population, for example, or homelessness— are less likely to come to our attention at all.”

Regarding the metaphor of a global “metabrain” Pariser points out that personalized filters sever the synapses in that brain. “Without knowing it, we may be giving ourselves a kind of global lobotomy instead.”

Consumers do benefit when irrelevant and unlikable choices are blotted out, he admits. “But what is good for consumers is not necessarily good for citizens. What I seem to like may not be what I actually want, let alone what I need to know to be an informed member of my community or country.”

“From megacities to nanotech, we’re creating a global society whose complexity has passed the limits of individual comprehension. The problems we’ll face in the next twenty years— energy shortages, terrorism, climate change, and disease—are enormous in scope. They’re problems that we can only solve together.”

Pariser says “We need to understand the economic and social forces that are driving personalization, some of which are inevitable and some of which are not. And we need to understand what all this means for our politics, our culture, and our future.”

The Filter Bubble is out in hardcover (ISBN 9781594203008, 304 pages, published by The Penguin Press.)

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