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Who Decides What You Read? Hint: It’s Not You

May 4, 2011, 4:33 PM

Your girlfriend loves reruns of Sex and the City, high heels and champagne. You, on the other hand, like to pour over the Financial Times, drink espressos and debate the pros and cons of raising taxes in the US. You’re an odd couple but a happy one. You believe in the same values, and you understand the world in the same way. Or do you?

If belief systems and consequently behavior are shaped by the information we have, then both you and your girlfriend are growing ever more distant. The reason is that everything your girlfriend “sees” is predicated on what she already likes: Amazon only recommends books to her on dating, marriage and orgasms; Facebook automatically filters her newsfeed so that she only sees updates from friends whose opinions on fashion shows she always comments on; even Google gives her different results for the exact same search that you conduct.

Usually, couples become more similar over time since they influence each other’s thinking. But today, couples that are different will find their differences reinforced by a far more powerful medium: the Web. Every single major Web company observes your interests (for example, the books you buy on Amazon, the articles you read on the New York Times) and then provides you with a buffet of items catered to that interest. You are increasingly balkanized in your own preferences. Eli Pariser rightly believes this is a big problem and in fact contrary to good civic life.

Pariser, founder of the phenomenally popular MoveOn.org which raised millions of dollars for progressive political candidate, is about to publish “The Filter Bubble” later this month. While it looks like an excellent book (we’ve already pre-ordered it), you can get a sneak peak about the content from his insightful TED talk –What the Internet is Hiding From You - on the same topic. He warns that personalized newsfeeds “moves us very quickly toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.” 

Importantly, Pariser points out that these algorithms are based on our impulse clicks – so when given a choice between viewing a quick slideshow of the Royal Wedding and reading about Obama’s energy policy, you’ll probably click the former. That doesn’t mean that you won't eventually be interested in US energy consumption. However, by only focusing on your initial clicks, the information fed to you gets increasingly skewed towards the instant gratification often vacuous information. And as Pariser warns, “instead of a balanced information diet, you can end up surrounded by information junk food.” 

These algorithmic gatekeepers are essentially keeping us away from the difficult and uncomfortable truths that are necessary if one is going to be a responsible citizen. Also, they are preventing us from being innovative creative thinkers because we are constantly exposed to a narrower and narrower slice of the Web. Pariser urged the crowd, especially the heads of companies like Facebook and Google, to make sure that the algorithms were encoded with “new ideas and new people and different perspectives.” He got a standing ovation.


Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute


Who Decides What You Read? ...

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