This is a fascinating little spoken essay over at TED, and as the site boasts, is indeed an “idea worth spreading.” Actually, a bunch of ideas — ideas and observations I’ve made before — although neatly tied together.
Here are some of the things that it discusses:
- The idea of the personal “filter bubble,” which is unique to you and yet — and this is critical — not chosen by you. It’s chosen by the algorithms with which you are interacting, based on information that has been gathered about you. I’m not just talking about the obvious ads you see. I’m talking about — to use the example Eli Pariser uses in the video — if you Google “Egypt,” you don’t get the same information that someone else gets when they Google “Egypt.” It’s like you’re in parallel universes.
- That these algorithms are the things replacing editors like me — the people who made a profession out of filtering the vast amounts of information that is available into something digestible and understandable to a person in the real world with only one set of eyes and 24 hours in the day.
- That instead of empowering you, though — which is the myth of the Internet, that regular folks have been all liberated from us wicked, manipulating editors controlling what they see and what is published — this new, impersonal mechanism is manipulating you, and doing it in isolation, and in a way that you are unlikely to notice. (As I type that, I start to think more and more of “The Matrix.”) Rather than being more connected to the world, it’s like you are being fed a personalized information flow in your own little solitary confinement cell.
- There is, in other words, a dark side to the my-this and my-that way that websites are often marketed to you. I’ve always had a visceral, negative response to that stuff, but I always thought it was because of my communitarianism. And the fact that it spelled the death of the mass media in which I made my living, which depended upon a notion of common space, and common concerns. This has given me another reason to be bugged by it.
- To explore that isolation thing further… back in the 80s, we MSM journalists decried the plethora of specialty magazines that were increasingly popular. People were more and more subscribing to “Left-Handed Gay Bicyclist Journal” rather than publications based in the notion that we’re all in a society together. The Web really exacerbated that tendency. (But that’s not what did in the newspaper industry. What did it in was the business side of that — the fact that businesses started marketing directly to customers and potential customers directly, first through direct mail, then through those little plastic tags on your keychain, then through the Web. That shut out mass media, media aimed at whole communities.) The reason, we kept telling people, that YOU should care was that representative democracy depended upon a sense of shared interests, or at least shared sources of information, to some extent. But at least we thought people were freely choosing this. The fascinating thing about the “filter bubble” is how software is choosing it for you, largely without your full realization.
- This is like 1915 again. Early in the last century, as people started realizing how important newspapers were to democracy itself, you started to see the development of certain ethics about objectivity and fairness, etc. There started to be an assumption of SOME responsibility by editors, rather than just bulling along being shills for this or that political movement — which is what newspapers had been since the founding of the republic. As imperfect as that system of safeguards was, it was at least something. Now we don’t have it. The Internet is the Wild West. If democracy is to be well served, some sorts of standards also need to emerge on the Web.
Something he doesn’t directly address but I will. What’s going on right now — in a tiny way on this blog, in lots of other ways in thousands of other places — is that people are trying to figure out the new business model for news on the state and local level. The old model has collapsed, but there’s still a strong demand for the information and commentary — as strong as ever. The thing is, the old business model wasn’t related to that demand — newspapers were paid for by advertisers, not readers. I believe in markets enough that I believe a new model for paying for newsgathering in order to meet that demand will emerge. But will it be one that supports an informed electorate, the kind upon which a liberal representative democracy depends?
And by the way, this is not about “that bad Internet.” The message is better summed up in his conclusion:
We really need the internet to be that thing that we all dreamed of it being… and it’s not going to do that, if it leaves us all isolated, in a web of one.
Anyway, that’s enough for me. Y’all are all empowered and everything now. Watch it yourself.