“Just google it…” That all-pervasive, nearly omnipotent, search engine, Google, has morphed into a common-place verb — we all use it, many of us depend on it simply to keep up with happenings on the ‘Net. Yet it may be time to start demoting Google to a place in “the back seat,” a second-tier position. Bear with me… my reasoning for this is a bit roundabout, but I’ll get to the point as quickly as possible.
A few months ago, I ran into a pretty astounding book on my local library‘s “featured” shelf, and I’ve told whoever’ll listen to me about it ever since: The book is “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You” by Eli Pariser — and, honestly, if I’d’a recognized the author by name as I picked up the book, I probably would have proved its premise by putting it right back on the shelf! Like many (most) of us, I’m living inside my own “filter bubble,” and, burdened with my own notions, likes, dislikes and opinions, had I known who Mr. Pariser was, I’d have exercised my prejudice and thus would have missed reading an eye-opening book! Mr. Pariser is a former executive director of MoveOn.org, and of course, every good capital-C-conservative knows as “one of them” — the despised “other.” Had I known this author for his former association, I would have recoiled from the book with disdain!
Fortunately, I didn’t. Instead, I let the book’s inner-flap “teaser” draw me in, and a quick perusal of the TOC and inside pages cinched it. This was a book I had to read, if only to understand what this “filter bubble” thing was all about.
“The Filter Bubble” is an important book — I recommend that you get it and read it, especially if you care about the impact of technology on your life, for better or for worse, and especially about your personal privacy as you immerse yourself (who doesn’t, really) online. Mr. Parsier and I — and perhaps you — may be miles apart politically, but we can find truly common ground in this issue of personal, informational privacy on the ‘Net.
What’s the big deal here? Well, in the last month of 2009, Google began customizing its search results for each user. Sounds like a pretty good thing, no? Search results tailored specifically for me, me, me…! More specifically, it means that, based on what I like, versus what you like, we’ll each get different, customized search results, given “the same search” (identical search terms). The differences can be based on simple and obvious things, like location (ZIP code) and timezone, or on things much more subtle, like the whole collection of things that I’ve clicked on or you’ve clicked on… what you or I “Like” (note that button in Facebook?), or which search result(s) you or I choose to click and follow.
The prevalent search engines and portals, including not only Google, but Bing, Yahoo, Ask, and others, are collecting a whole lot of raw data about you and about me… and they’re not the only ones. It turns out that lots of websites — social media sites like Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn and more; business and online retailers like Amazon, iTunes, Verizon, your bank; media sites like CNN, MSNBC, WSJ, Fox, and more; heck, I’ll bet even the governmental departments, federal, state and local in nearly every developed country, are in on the game by now — they’re all tracking every click we make, every site we visit, every product we by, every topic we “like”… and more.
Why? Because there’s gold (money!) in them thar clicks! Our purchasing decisions, what grabs and holds our attention, our likes and dislikes — all of this is valuable, nearly priceless, to online merchants, social websites, politicians, and whoever else wants and needs to arrest our attention, perhaps extracting sales, contributions and other lucre from us in the process. Don’t be fooled — our clicks, our attention, is worth billions, even trillions, of dollars to those who can take technological advantage of an enormous mountain of behavioral data. As you might expect, this is a gig for the truly enormous corporations and organizations, the ones with big bucks to spend on technology, CPU power, terabytes of disk storage, bandwidth, and the human capital and talent to develop and exploit it — and it leaves the small business, the entrepreneur, pretty much out in the cold.
Eli Pariser has dissected this, understands it, and describes the problem — which he calls the “filter bubble” — in vivid detail. For him, the filter bubble is a pernicious effect of the “personalized Web,” one which tends to lessen our freedom of experience and choice, rather than to “enhance our Web experience.” For example, with personalization, a web search on Google will try to return results based on what it predicts you’ll like and click on, rather than the best or broadest results.
Pariser explains why this leads to a limitation of your experience and use of ‘Net resources, and ultimately to an ever-increasing polarization of our social interactions and cultures (in most simple-minded political terms, the “D”s and “L”s become more so, and the “R”s and “C”s likewise). Before Web personalization and customization, our searches might (often did) return serendipitous (pleasantly unexpected and informative) results — now, searches are becoming predictable, focused, limiting and eliminating the surprising. The Web is dumbed down, in ways that are perhaps subtle but are highly effective. Face it, this is what sells stuff. Guide the user to what she wants, what he expects, what they like. Cut out all the noise and clutter (the serendipitous)… cut to the chase… get it sold.
Current online technology developments are putting each of us into our own personal filter bubble, an echo chamber in which, more and more, we’re seeing, hearing and experiencing only our own likes, wants and desires — to the unhealthy exclusion of everything else, including dissenting opinions, unexpected discoveries, unpopular concepts and ideas, variety, diversity, difference, the other.
Pariser’s intriguing book cogently covers not only the problem but also offers some direction towards solutions, which, not surprisingly, involve a change of direction for Google, Facebook, online business practice, and the rest. Or, perhaps challengers with a different set of values and priorities…
I do have a bias when it comes to computing technology — I’m a Linux and FOSS (free and open source software) fanatic all the way. And although we’ve used the Ubuntu distro of Linux here at RickerNet Enterprises for several years now, the past year’s flap about the new and radically different, unbendably uncustomizable Unity desktop (GUI, or graphical user interface) has me thinking, like many others in this community, about changing distros. Hmm… The latest Linux Mint 12 is looking promising… And one of the most promising and surprising things about it (no, Google did not lead me here!) is that Mint 12 is using a brand new search engine called DuckDuckGo (www.DuckDuckGo.com , also at short URL http://ddg.gg — see also Mint’s blog about it, and this Wikipedia article which provides much of its philosophical and developmental background). DuckDuckGo seems tailor-made to address many of Mr. Pariser’s concerns about Web filter bubbles, and embodies many of his suggested remedies to the wrong-headed directions that Google and all the others are going.
DuckDuckGo is contrarian to the prevalent trend: It emphasizes your privacy. It does not track you or record your user information (see their Privacy Statement here). It does not put you into a filter bubble (see here about DuckDuckGo’s comprehension of the filter bubble). It is open source (so that a whole community of geeks can check the code and discover any hidden dishonesty or trickiness). It can be made into the “default search engine” on your favorite browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, IE, Opera, etc.) on your favorite PC platform (Linux, Mac or Windows). It provides lots of personal settings so you can customize how it works for your needs. It is clean, sporting no gratuitous advertising, spamming or clutter (e.g., no AdWords). It provides many (and pretty neat) tech-tools, goodies and powerful special search context. It does not limit or lock you out from continuing to use Google, Bing, etc.; instead, it provides optional easy-access to use other search engines to augment and complement your searching.
So: I may get around to trying, and even adopting, Mint 12 as my next Linux distro — but, because of Pariser’s excellent book, I’ve already adopted DuckDuckGo as my default search engine (poetic justice: in Google Chrome, which just recently became my favorite and default web browser!).
Inevitably, if enough of us users, customers, clients and “mere mortals” of the Web make decisions to turn away from Google, Bing, Yahoo and the like, adopting instead online resources, tools and websites which recognize, respect and honor our personal privacy — rather than treating us like commodity sheep to be marketed and sheared — we’ll again enjoy an Internet and World-Wide Web in which serendipity, diversity of information and discourse, and freedom of information again can thrive and reign… putting paid to our personal filter bubbles. Even social media sites like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter can be put on notice — the promising Diaspora Project, still in early alpha development, may do for social media what DuckDuckGo is starting to do for search.
Bottom line: Get and read Eli Pariser’s book, “The Filter Bubble,” either at your local library, or buy it. If his premise and arguments and conclusions alarm and convince you, as they did me, then take steps to turn the tide: give DuckDuckGo a try — it’s free, you’re not locked into it, and who knows… you might like it. But even if it’s not for you, at least become aware of the pervasive and pernicious trends awash on the Internet — vast international online entities are indeed tracking, categorizing and cataloging you, and it’s not really for your own good. You’re in a filter bubble, not of your own choice or making. Learn about what’s at stake — your privacy — and learn how to pop your own filter bubble. Let’s put Google and the rest into the back seat, at least until they recognize that our privacy, our personal information, is truly ours, not theirs.