Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Filter Bubble and Personalization

Imagine this scenario, 

"A personalization device in the sanctuary will read your data from your cell phone as you walk into worship, and will select individualized music for you for worship so you can sing your own song, while others around you sing the songs selected for them that match their preferences, all based on an algorithm developed by, but not understood by, technicians at Google." 

This is not a scenario Eli Pariser describes in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, but it is a scenario I as a pastor imagined as a possibility after reading his book.

Eli Pariser's central thesis is that the development of personalization algorithms on search engines and social networks (his primary, but not exclusive, targets here are Google and Facebook), means that each of us is increasingly (and often unwittingly) experiencing a personalized and filtered bubble of information. And inasmuch as we are doing so, we aren't experiencing the free range of connections and ideas that a true democracy or open system would expose us to.

The book itself is a rather breathless and inspiring tour of the landscape of contemporary media and the digital age. You can read it profitably just on that level, as brief explorations into the development of some of the major institutions and networks that now shape our days. If you've read a bit of history of Google or Facebook, some of it won't be that new, but the stories are well told.

Much of it is new, at least to me. I had no idea that perhaps the largest database of personal information in the world is located in Conway, Arkansas! Acxiom was utilized after 9/11 to find information about the terrorists who flew the planes. They know pretty much everything about you. Seriously.

My two take-aways. First, it's worth knowing that the web is now personalized to you, personally. When you do a Google search for "Lutheran Confessions" from your computer, you will get a different set of results than, say, a person sitting at a desktop computer in a small town across the country who holds different political views than yourself. Each search is personalized based on 59 or so pieces of data about your geographical and social location, including what kind of browser you use, what your past search history was like, and so on.

Second, one of Eli Parisers most intriguing suggestions is that web designers need to build more "drift" and serendipity into the system, and each of us needs to find our own ways to drift as well. What this means in practice is that, instead of getting your news and information from the four or five web sites you visit each day, you may want to venture out into uncharted territory--international newspapers, new blogs written by people who think very differently from yourself, etc. And those who write algorithms shaping where we go on the web should build some of that serendipity into the programs they write as well. 

Somewhat inexplicably, Eli Pariser doesn't point out in his book that you can turn these personalization features off on Google and Facebook. But he is collecting ideas and insights at his web site for the book, so we can all post responses and insights there. In fact, reading the web site, I see he's added information like what I've just mentioned in order to expand on and improve his book. Here's the link: Eli Pariser has written a GREAT book. I recommend it highly.

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