Thursday, August 11, 2011

Information junk food and bubble filters

It’s entirely possible that the more you use the Internet, the less you’ll really know about the world.
           
What happens over time is that algorithms used by Google, Facebook and other applications set up a “filter bubble” that constricts what you see online. In short, these applications keep track of what you search or talk about and start limiting what you see based on your use of the application.
           
Yahoo News does it. Some large newspaper web sites are doing it. Over time, this is shrinking your world.
           
At a recent Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, speaker Eli Pariser referred to this phenomenon as the emergence of “filter bubbles.”
           
When you use Google and other search engines, your results may differ vastly from those of others Googling the very same thing. What’s happening is that Google is filtering your results based on your previous searches.
           
Yahoo News uses 57 -- 57! -- different pieces of information to determine how it responds to your queries. These include everything from your previous searches to what kind of computer you use and where you live.
         
“This moves us very quickly toward a world where the Internet shows us what it thinks we need to see, but not necessarily what we need to see,” said Pariser.
         
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said it more bluntly: “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”
         
In the world of filter bubbles, “You don’t decide what gets in, and, more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out,” Pariser says. “Instead of a balanced information diet, you can end up surrounded by information junk food.”
           
“What we’re seeing is more of a passing of the torch, from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones. The thing is that the algorithmic ones don’t have the kind of embedded ethics that the editors did.”
           
This happens despite our best efforts to avoid it. You may think you’re really digging through the Internet in search of answers and information. But your search is only as good as the algorithm that drives it, and those algorithms are keeping you in a box.
           
One of the most valuable and enjoyable parts of consuming information -- from newspapers, magazines, television, books, and, yes, the Internet -- is a sense of serendipity. We often learn things we hadn’t set out to search for. That is largely lost on the Internet, despite the sense of the Internet's vastness.
           
“We need the new gatekeepers to encode that kind of responsibility (followed by newspaper editors before the Internet) into the code that they’re writing,” said Pariser, to a standing ovation.
          
(Thanks to reader Robert Wright for alerting me to this presentation.)

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