Recently there has been much buzz around “The Filter Bubble,” the idea proposed by Eli Pariser in a book of the same name, that in an effort to tailor our experiences on the web to suit us, Google and Facebook, and all the sites that define our experience with the web, are hiding things from us as a side effect of the seemingly desirable personalization of our experience. In effect, we each see a different view of the web, and through it of the world itself because the web morphs to our tastes and expectations.
So when I search for Occupy Wall Street as a right-wing Christian conservative from a small Midwestern city who often visits site that support the conservative frame that capitalism is a flawless system, I’ll get search results that send me to places that reinforce my preexisting perspective about protesters being lazy dirty hippies. If I am a liberal man, even living in that same city, I will see something very different.
This is a real problem.
When the very information streams that flow to me are intentionally altered in a very specific way,—creatively designed using the latest and best scientific principles to convey the most subtle nuance of our knowledge of how to get people to think what you want them to think—how do I ever know what truth is?
How do I know if what I believe is as close to objective truth as possible; just what those who are filtering the information naively misinterpret to by my preference; or the very road to perdition, paved according to a well-designed roadmap that leads only to a horrible dead end. This third path is the preferred future of those with the power to move the filter bubbles; the wealthy, the famous, and the aristocratic elite. They want things to continue as they are, only bigger, even if this path is unsustainable, unhealthy, and just plain no fun at all. They want me to consume more, borrow as much as possible, never question the system or why, and they do not care what happens to me after I follow this path.
Up till recently, the filters had pretty big holes, a lot of truth about mismatches between actual reality and our preconceptions of that reality, leaked through the filter meshes. So we had some inkling when the hypocrites in charge were feeding us a line of bullshit. If we paid careful attention, we could tell we were being manipulated.
Now the filters are so good we don’t even know they are there.
This isn’t your everyday Huxleyian Soma they’re feeding us in our protective little bubbles, it is something far worse. As Google decides I don’t like to see images that might tear down the careful constructions of my delusion, I remain ignorant of their twistings. Like young Truman Burbank I remain blissfully ignorant of the behind-the-scenes production and artifice designed solely to keep me mired in my existing delusion. The prime directive being only to preserve the show, lest a little discomfort bother the advertisers who are really driving everything. What I want doesn’t even enter into the equation.
If we start off ignorant of the troubles in the world, Google and Facebook, like Siddhartha’s father in a naive attempt to give his son what he thought best for him, will shelter us from the uncomfortable news of war, death, and suffering, or of any ideas that might lead us to believe that our own actions have anything to do with.
Even seekers of truth are unable to find it. They will only be sent down the same roads, and paths, and mountain passes they already know to look for, or have already seen.
How do I ever unlearn the biases of my parenting or even know that such a thing exists if I cannot ever see that there are dissenting views? That others, reasonable others, look at the work differently than the town, neighborhood or city where I grew up?
This is no mere trifle. This is an assault on the truth itself.
The Filter Bubble papers over the problems we collectively face as a species or as citizens of our respective countries, and amplifies the divisions between us. The fight between left and right exists mostly because our media amplifies those divisions. Now, when the Internet—that wonderful technology which gives us the potential for finding out for ourselves what is going on—hides the truth from us, how are we to heal the social rifts that paralyze the body politic in this very time of great danger when bold action is needed?
So think about this.
How do you know that what you believe is right? How do you know that you haven’t been missing some critical information, if only because your searches for the truth have been excluding a reality Google didn’t think you wanted to see?
If you think you are safe from this danger, what about the others? What about those who don’t understand what this means or how it might affect their perceptions?
What about them?