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For Sale

I spent part of this past weekend reading Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble. The book is about the personalization of the Internet—about how companies like Google and Facebook and Amazon (to name just a few) are buying and selling information about us in order to “customize” search engine results, provide “recommendations” based on past purchases and assumed preferences, to suggest links and articles, to “connect” us with like-minded people or potential romantic partners, etc. Pretty thoughtful of them, right? I thought so too.

None of this is particularly revelatory to many of us, I suspect, even if it is thoroughly depressing and unsettling. The Filter Bubble simply articulates, methodically, persuasively, and disconcertingly, that what most of us suspect to be true is in fact true:

  • Our every click online is being tracked and scrutinized.
  • Powerful, faceless corporations have invested enormous sums of money to learn about our web browsing and purchasing habits.
  • We are the targets of highly specific, carefully researched advertising designed to correspond with the profile that we are developing (and sharing) every day online.
  • Important people who know far more about us than we do about them about are using what they think interests, inspires and, most importantly, unlocks our wallets to increasingly custom-design as much as they possibly can about our online experience.

I think most of us are sort of vaguely aware that these are some of the tradeoffs that we must make to enjoy the benefits of the web. And so we somewhat grudgingly and unwarily provide all kinds of information to the powers that be in Internet-land. Sure, we’d rather that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have access to our vacation photos and political opinions; sure we’d rather that Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t have access to our credit card information and know, well, pretty much everything about us. Sure we’d rather that our online habits weren’t being auctioned off to greedy legions of advertising executives as they mount their next assault upon our wallets. But, hey—the Internet is pretty cool! Where else could we see cats do so many cool things?! Where else could we participate in so many varieties of cheap sloganeering and petty sniping and preening, er, I mean “public debate?” Where else could we brand ourselves so comprehensively and effectively (and publicly!)? All this lack of confidentiality is a small price to pay for such treasures, to be sure.

Sarcasm aside, I have been struck by two things during my reading of The Filter Bubble. First, it is truly ironic that the very tool that was supposed to usher in this new era of global awareness, community, and the democratization of knowledge seems, in fact, to be making us even more myopic, selfish, and ignorant of the world around us. In the filter bubble, where our online experience is increasingly being crafted according to our preferences and tastes, where we are overwhelmed by the sheer amount and variety of data out there and thus tend to filter our consumption according to what we already like/understand/prefer/agree with, we are, in effect looking into a mirror. Rather than the Internet opening up the world to us, it is very often simply reflecting us back to ourselves. And it’s not always very pretty or inspiring viewing.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the filter bubble is giving us, I fear, a horribly skewed picture of who we are and what we are for. Our online habits and the innumerable personal preferences they bespeak are not being collected out of any concern for who we are as human beings or how we might be equipped and emboldened to become better versions of ourselves. The Internet doesn’t really care about me, no matter what Facebook might like me to believe (“What’s on your mind, Ryan?  Please tell us… Mark Zuckerberg really cares about you and wants to know!”). The rock bottom reality behind the whole show is the desire to sell us stuff. In the filter bubble, human beings are (mostly accurately) seen to be restless, dissatisfied units of consumption to be manipulated for economic gain. The “personalization” of the Internet ironically depends upon a view of humanity that is impersonal, manipulative, and coldly calculating, and which can quite easily have the effect of shrinking and reducing us as human beings.

And, in a final triumph of irony, I will now post these grumblings about what the Internet is doing to us on the Internet, thus providing another juicy bit of usable data for Mark, Sergey, Larry, et al. I hope they use it well. I’ve been getting a little sick of the advertising fare that has been served up for me lately anyway…

In fact, why don’t I just help them out? I wrote this post on an aging, wheezing Macbook (sell me a new one!) while listening to Arcade Fire, drinking Fair Trade coffee, after reading an article about the state of bilingualism in Canada from CBC News (which I found by clicking a link on Facebook). I wrote it with the following items in view on my desk: an apple (not sure if it was produced ethically or not, but I’m pretty sure this qualifies me as “health-conscious”), a stack of books ordered from The Book Depository in the UK (because it’s cheaper), a bible (placing me in the “religious” demographic) and the keys to my 1997 Volkswagen Jetta (reinforcing my cheapness and, I hope, a kind of retro-coolness). I trust this will give you all enough to go on for a while. I look forward to suitable changes being made in my targeted advertising in the not-too-distant future.

And if it’s not too much trouble, dear Internet, please include a few personal touches along with my next batch of advertising. Ask me how I’m doing or what’s on my mind, maybe? It would mean a lot just to know that the Internet cares.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ryan,
    I fear and even greater problem is that we are choosing of our own free will to narrow our information input down to a single, narrow and ideological stream that is in a sense a sort of voluntary brain washing. The North Koreans have Kim Jun Un to feed them a steady diet of narrow rhetoric – we choose to the same on our own – who needs a tyrannical dictator when we can tyrannize ourselves on a steady diet of Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore, depending on your favorite diet. Then its just turn your “enemies” into broad abstractions so you can heap contempt on them. They aren’t our neighbors any more, they are “left wing liberals”, whatever that means.

    May 28, 2013
    • Yes, the ultimate irony is that we are choosing all of this for ourselves. At least we think we are.

      If one wanted to be really cynical, one might say that the same forces that are monitoring our clicking and spending habits have a vested interest in keeping cultural discourse at a certain level of shallowness and polarity because this turns out to be quite profitable for those who sell us things. Uncritical, sensationalistic, easy narratives of darkness and light—these are all much more marketable than their opposites.

      May 28, 2013
      • mike #

        …really great point,Ryan. I would go on a step further with your thought and say that we are intentionally being lulled to complacency (obedience?) by a very subtle variant form of Hypnosis. Ultimately I would pose this question: What is the nature of the force(s) BEHIND “the whole show”…?

        May 29, 2013
      • Any ideas? 🙂

        May 30, 2013
  2. mike #

    Outstanding Post, a very accurate characterization of the exploitation of both us and the internet by those who lay awake at night devising ways and means to profit from the weakness’s in Human behavior.
    I think if we are willing to step back and look even deeper we can see that there is something of a war of influence taking place for control of the hearts and minds of all of us,be it political,religious,economic. More and more we find ourselves basically under heavy siege from every direction by those who would own us.

    May 28, 2013
    • On one level, I suppose it has always been thus. History affords innumerable examples of the powerful seeking to control, exploit, influence, and manipulate those who do not enjoy the same power.

      Influence, manipulation, and control take on much more subtle forms in the digital age—not least because, more often than not, we are all-too-willing participants in the process.

      May 29, 2013
  3. I love those last three paragraphs. Wonder what that’ll do to MY internent profile?

    May 29, 2013
    • Maybe you’ll start getting ads for therapy. I’ve been seeing a lot of those over the last day or so….

      (Just kidding :).)

      May 29, 2013

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