Google, the “filter bubble,” and the shaping of information

Think of it as a question of how the googolplex of information available online is organized by the Googleplex.

The last post looked at the way search engines like Google are changing our memories and how we use them. This time, we’ll consider two “gatekeeper” issues: control of access to books and their ideas, and the hidden consequences of ever-growing online personalization.

The first, more familiar issue concerns the question of who should control access to information. Since 2004, Google and a consortium of major universities have been working to digitize their libraries, to make some of the world’s greatest collections of books and scholarly journals available online.

Now, one of the key players at one of the most prominent members of the Google project group is spearheading a parallel effort, nothing less than “the digitization of human culture.”

Robert Darnton, director of Harvard’s library system, proposed the idea at a 2010 library conference. His goal is not a mere pipe dream. He already has support from the Sloan Foundation, and, as reported in the Boston Globe, he is convinced that the project is “not the utopian dream of some college professor. This thing actually is feasible.”

Why bother with a new project, since Google’s effort is already so well established and capitalized?

It became clear, as Google’s project evolved, that it would be a commercial enterprise, and in fact an enterprise attached to a gigantic monopoly. A monopoly, perhaps, with the best intentions, but that would not necessarily serve the public good, because of course Google’s primary responsibility would be to its shareholders.

Darnton envisions enlightened citizens, not corporate shareholders, as the true consumers of the new digital culture:

I take inspiration from people like Jefferson and Condorcet and others who thought that providing access to knowledge is absolutely essential to the whole nature of our civilization . . . .The Enlightenment uses this idea of the republic of letters, meaning there would be a kind of literary or spiritual world with no police and no boundaries and no linguistic or disciplinary borders, and that this world would be open to everyone, and equally open to everyone.

And how will we navigate this vast sea of information?

We need librarians who can handle this tremendous jumble of information that is in cyberspace. People think that when you use Google you’re finding exactly what you need, but really you need expert help.

This question — who, or what, will organize and present all this information in ways that we can access efficiently and effectively? — is at the heart of the second “gatekeeper” issue.

With the recent publication of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet’s Hiding from You, luminary Eli Pariser warns of the important  but mostly invisible effects of information  personalizing/filtering/shaping — pick the word that best fits your political POV and your confidence that giant commercial companies are in business to do things that are good for you.

It’s a truism that broadcast TV and radio — the “free” stuff — don’t exist to provide us with entertainment and information. Rather, they exist to provide us, as potential consumers, to advertisers. Get rid of the commercials, and you get cable TV or satellite radio, both of which come at a premium.

Similarly, the open-access world of the search engine — the internet’s “free” stuff — makes its money by linking us to products and services we can buy, or to advertizing about products and services we can buy.

To keep us coming back, search engines strive to make us happy. (Remember, they don’t want to make us happy; they make us happy so that we’ll want to use them, which increases their ad revenue, which is what they want.) To make us happy, they give us content which they can be confident that we’ll like.

Sometimes we tell them directly what we prefer, by clicking on an actual “Like” button. Other times, apparently just about all the time, they take what we’re doing online — on our computers, tablets, smartphones, GPSes, and the rest — and plug our personal data into one or more of their clever algorithms. In we go, and out come our “preferences,” which we view on our “personalized” webpages.

According to Pariser, Google uses 57 different kinds of data to create each user’s personalized profile. Where you live, where you’re logged in, what you’ve searched for, where you’ve clicked, how long it took you to click on a particular link, what links your friends are clicking — it goes on and on, and the bulk of the information Google collects about you (even when you’re not logged in to Google) is nothing that you’ve explicitly given Google permission to collect.

So what’s the problem? Why should you care that Google is making your searches and your news feeds and the advertizing you see more efficient, more “you”? For one thing, Pariser says in an interview with Maria Popova:

The primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.

Pariser’s primary concern is political. If all you ever see is what you’ve liked in the past, and those likes are selected from a filtered list in the first place, by what means are new ideas and new ways of addressing social issues going to get purchase?

What you’re willing to like is a poor proxy for what you’d actually like to see or especially what you need to see. Human curators are way better at that, for now — knowing that even though we don’t click on Afghanistan much we need to hear about it because, well, there’s a war on.

In addition, collecting so much detailed information about millions of people constitutes an enormous threat to privacy. As Pariser notes:

One of the problems with this kind of massive consolidation is that what Google knows, any government that is friends with Google can know, too. And companies like Yahoo have turned over massive amounts of data to the US government without so much as a subpoena.

And the flipside of privacy is personalization. Others have access to all there is to know about you, but through the same algorithms they limit what you know about the world.

Personalization is sort of privacy turned inside out: it’s not the problem of controlling what the world knows about you, it’s the problem of what you get to see of the world. We ought to have more control over that — one of the most pernicious things about the filter bubble is that mostly it’s happening invisibly.

So next time you’re doing what I’m doing now, using a computer online, consider this, expressed on ComputerWorld by Mike Elgan:

The Internet is increasingly turning us all into dictators and divas. Like the entourages of Saddam Hussein or Jennifer Lopez, the Internet tells us what we want to hear, feeding us a version of the world that feels good, goes down easy and doesn’t challenge us.

Think you’re on the Internet right now? Well, you’re not. You’re on your Internet. The exact version of the online world that you see is available only to you.

Does that make you want to click your “Like” button?