Internet Isolationism

4 May

Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles”

In this Ted talk Eli Pariser offers a counter-narrative on the social impact of the Internet. Because of the selection mechanics behind things like Google Searches and the Facebook news feed, Pariser contends the Internet may be fragmenting rather than unifying the population. He worries that the intense drive towards individual customization will lead to people being isolated in “filter bubbles,” a place where you see only what exactly corresponds to your interests and everything else is hidden. To reverse the trend of fragmentation Pariser calls for search algorithms and other selection mechanics to have “embedded ethics,” a system that will ensure that individuals receive information that falls outside their filter bubble.

I believe Pariser makes a great point. There is definitely a real danger that the Internet will overall be a force of atomization and estrangement. I think right now the Internet already behaves like that in some respects, but it is balanced out by unifying forces, so it can’t yet be said to be a fragmenter. It would be sensationalist to say that the individualization could become so radical that people become completely out of touch with reality, but that doesn’t mean something like that would be impossible; it’s just that now it’s a far-off possibility. I think what is important now is to make sure the Internet doesn’t head in that direction. The question is, what can we do to reverse the trend in that direction? Pariser suggests “embedded ethics” where your customized interests are always paired with an opposite viewpoint. But honestly, I don’t think this would be that effective. If that were to be implemented, what would stop someone from just switching to a website that provides only what they wanted to see?

I think maybe the sort of thing Pariser is talking about is really just a symptom of a wider systematic problem. The isolationism of “filter bubbles” seems to me to be the logical end of the individualism of consumerism as applied to the Internet. Really, if  it does happen we shouldn’t be too surprised. It was sort of inevitable from the start.


One Response to “Internet Isolationism”

  1. octobear May 6, 2011 at 1:09 am #

    Eli says “the best editing gives you a little bit of Justin Bieber and a little bit of Afghanistahn”, but I disagree. Derek, I think mostly I am in cahoots that he has identified this problem but not provided a way to fix it that is responsible or comprehensive. The BEST editing gives you only relevant events that you need to know about to have more chance at affecting change. But this isn’t the solution either.
    Tailoring results is simply going to happen, but I think it cant be so binary as one side vs. another. Instead maybe provide: 1. A result tailored to your online identity 2. The most popular result across the globe and 3. The ‘best’ result. ‘Best’ being determined by most intellectually/globally relevant or most highly rated or trustworthy (likely a medley of these). The talk was too negative I think, we should like the internet. Nevertheless, interesting especially that Google is tailoring results I had no idea.

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