Psst? Wanna know a secret? The Internet is hiding something from you.
Eli Pariser's book The Filter Bubble treads lightly into the realm of the Internet with a book that in lesser hands could have become an unwieldy and complex subject.
Beginning with its cover -- a sly allusion to Joseph Heller's satiric novel Catch-22, which resembles a letter censored by the hand of its protagonist Yossarian -- Pariser accomplishes the difficult task of creating a thoughtful, informative and entertaining text through to its finish.
The book's major premise is that the Internet is not an impartial tool that delivers random content to us as we generally assume it does. Every time you do a Google search, the engine provides recommendations determined by its page rank algorithm and by using fifty-seven different signals, which range from your previous queries, the past links you've clicked on and even the geographic location of where you log in to your account.
Look at Facebook: In a recent TED talk, Pariser noticed that when people posted updates to their wall, friends who had similar political beliefs showed up more in his news feeds than those who had opposing beliefs based on the links he clicked on. Pariser, the progressive founder of MoveOn.org and Avaaz.org, was surprised that he was unable to see the posts of his conservative friends due to this feature of the personalization process.
What is alarming is that these invisible effects of online categorization end up breeding group-think and conformity in the last place we ever think it would: The vast information field on the world wide web.
The personalization process also steers you toward the content that advertisers and marketers think you want so that the apps and websites you regularly use become predictive tools, and create what Pariser dubs a "filter bubble."
"The new Internet doesn't just know you're a dog; it knows your breed and wants to sell you a bowl of premium kibble," writes Pariser.
Is this feedback loop -- or "you loop" as the author calls it -- a good or bad thing? It depends.
A user can comfortably surf through huge volumes of online data without suffering from information overload and personalization can deliver tremendous value for businesses. Yet the other effect it has on users produces a subtle form of influence which Pariser believes to create "a kind of invisible propaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar... [with] less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning."
Pariser challenges a statement made by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when he publicly said "you have one identity." Pariser, for one, believes in the difference between a "work self" and "play self" and even different selves using different online websites. "The Google self and the Facebook self, in other words, are pretty different people. There's a big difference between 'you are what you click' and 'you are what you share,'" he says.
The fundamental difference between these selves is found somewhere in the area between who you aspire to be and the needs of your present self -- which behavioral economists refer to as "present bias."
For example, Pariser cites a research study by Harvard and the Analyst Institute who looked at how people use Netflix. The researchers found there is a "should" and a "want" queue for most users. The "should" queue typically contains a film like Citizen Kane ,which users think they must watch in order to be well-rounded; yet the less aspirational self ends up watching Miss Congeniality for a fifth time on DVD.
"Maintaining separate identity zones is a ritual that helps us deal with the demands of different roles and communities," says Pariser.
If one were to open up a list of a random Internet user's searches and online actions from the past several years, one might believe they could get a decent view into that person's character based on the evidence of information accessed. Yet if a person were to do that, you would have a classic case of confirmation bias created by one's own preconceptions.
Data mining, which takes the person out of the analysis, is also reputed to be able to sift through this raw data and accurately create pattern recognition -- otherwise the process is just imposing form upon chaos. But what if even its predictions are wrong?
Who you are online might be just one aspect of who you really are. Your online self might be closer to a fun-house mirror, where the Internet amplifies and distorts the objective reality of what is really there, while you are interacting in a space that is supposedly omniscient.
Context is the key towards understanding things. Programmers are in the midst of creating new ways to apply context towards analyzing online behavior. However, until that method is foolproof, the results of any kind of process that truly tries to get inside someone's head will yield inaccuracies likely rendering personalization tools flawed.
The Filter Bubble, then, becomes an important part of the debate about the future of the Internet that faces new issues and challenges such as cyberwarfare, net neutrality and -- thanks to Nicholas Carr -- whether or not Google is making us dumber.
Lamentably, the book might be preaching to the converted: The early adopters and heavy technology users are already well-informed about these things, so it is doubtful that The Filter Bubble will fall into the hands of those who could benefit from hearing its message.
While Pariser's argument succeeds, the book itself apparently falls victim to the filter bubble. A quick observation of the bibliography yields a list of thought leaders closely aligned within Pariser's political beliefs -- and likely his social circle.
No surprise here: It is a common tendency of researchers and writers to support the arguments and theses of like-minded colleagues, yet with Pariser's strong statements about the negative impacts of personalization, casting a wider net could have created an even greater perspective about the impact of the Internet and created a more universal text for all readers. One noticeable omission is the book's failure to mention the history of the Internet. DARPA, the creator of the Internet, only gets only two page mentions in the index.
Still, Pariser has created a thoroughly engaging read. While it doesn't completely blow off the doors on what else the Internet may be hiding, it does a deep dive into things that are happening right now in technology that are likely to create ripples in future innovations.
One year into the second decade of the 21st century, as the age of information fades into the age of communication, perhaps the future of the personalization process will begin to produce its finest result: Being able to truly see something from the view of another person.
It would do us all good to step outside our own shoes and look through a different lens at times. If the personalization process can help us find our commonalities we might begin to stop talking past each other and connect with each other a lot more.
Follow George Mocharko on Twitter: www.twitter.com/George_in_DC