By Eli Pariser
The board president of MoveOn.org warns that more-personalized Internet searching may have hidden side effects.
With little notice or fanfare, the digital world is fundamentally changing. What was once an anonymous medium where anyone could be anyone—where, in the words of the famous New Yorker cartoon, nobody knows you’re a dog—is now a tool for soliciting and analyzing our personal data. According to one Wall Street Journal study, the top fifty Internet sites, from CNN to Yahoo to MSN, install an average of 64 data-laden cookies and personal tracking beacons each. Search for a word like “depression” on Dictionary.com, and the site installs up to 223 trackers tracking cookies and beacons on your computer so that other Web sites can target you with antidepressants ads.
The race to know as much as possible about you has become the central battle of the era for Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft.
In the next three to five years, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told one group, the idea of a Web site that isn’t customized to a particular user will seem quaint. Yahoo Vice President Tapan Bhat agrees: “The future of the Web is about personalization … now the Web is about ‘me.’ It’s about weaving the Web together in a way that is smart and personalized for the user.”
Google CEO Eric Schmidt enthuses that the “product I’ve always wanted to build” is Google code that will “guess what I’m trying to type.” Google Instant, which guesses what you’re searching for as you type and was rolled out in the fall of 2010, is just the start—Schmidt believes that what customers want is for Google to “tell them what they should be doing next.”
The basic code at the heart of the new Internet is pretty simple. 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. They are prediction engines, constantly creating and refining a theory of who you are and what you’ll do and want next. Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us—what I’ve come to call a filter bubble—which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.
The era of personalization is here, and it’s upending many of our predictions about what the Internet would do. The creators of the Internet envisioned something bigger and more important than a global system for sharing pictures of pets. The manifesto that helped launch the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the early nineties championed a “Civilization of Mind in Cyberspace”—a kind of worldwide metabrain. But personalized filters sever the synapses in that brain. Without knowing it, we may be giving ourselves a global lobotomy instead.
Without sitting down next to a friend, it's hard to tell how the version of Google or Yahoo News that you're seeing differs from anyone else's. But because the filter bubble distorts our perception of what's important, true, and real, it's critically important to render it visible. Ultimately, the filter bubble can affect your ability to choose how you want to live. To be the author of your life, professor Yochai Benker argues, you have to be aware of a diverse array of options and lifestyles. When you enter a filter bubble, you're letting the companies that construct it choose which options you're aware of. You may think you're the captain of your own destiny, but the personalization can lead you down a road to a kind of informational determinism in which what you've clicked on in the past determines what you see next--a Web history you're doomed to repeat. You can get stuck in a static, ever-narrowing version of yourself--an endless you-loop.
Early Internet enthusiasts like Web creator Tim Berners-Lee hoped it would be a new platform for tackling these problems. I believe it still can be. But first we need to pull back the curtain—to understand the forces that are taking the Internet in its current, personalized direction. We need to lay bare the bugs in the code—and the coders—that brought personalization to us.
About the Author
Eli Pariser is the board president and former executive director of the 5 million member organization MoveOn.org. This essay is excerpted from his latest book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You. A longer article is scheduled to appear in the September-October 2011 issue of THE FUTURIST.
From The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser. Reprinted by arrangement of The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Eli Pariser.