Ever since about 1995, when Nicholas Negroponte, then head of the MIT Media Lab, began talking about The Daily Me, a newspaper that would be built entirely of articles that interested you, the internet's potential to become an echo chamber has been obvious. In The Filter Bubble Eli Pariser — echoing a growing cry among those old enough to remember the early days — says this is not what the internet pioneers promised. They promised an open medium, a new forum for democracy. And now they've gone all corporate and into profits.
Pariser's particular sense of betrayal began when, as the 20-something president of MoveOn.org, he noticed a growing trend. Google announced personalised search. His conservative friends began disappearing from his Facebook newsfeed. Increasingly, he began to realise, every major web site was showing him only what it already thought he liked, hoping to increase their appeal. And they were doing it invisibly. In the physical world, only the Queen lives like this — and as a result, she has no political power.
What's dangerous about the filter bubble is not its capacity to hide the known; it's the capacity to hide the unknown, which can then blindside you. Imagine, for example, that you're a Democratic voter in the US elections, the internet is your only source of news, and every site is the ultimate sycophant, telling you only what it thinks you want to hear. Personalised filters, Pariser writes, can interfere with our ability to understand the world correctly: click a few times on stories about Downton Abbey and the next thing you know, news about country houses and British historical drama crowd out stories about floods in Pakistan or war in Iraq.
Things are likely to get more Minority Report. Pariser points to efforts such as the (failed) Phorm advertising system and efforts to create single sign-on systems (Facebook, Google) that make it easy to expand personal profiling to include the entire web. How comfortable does it make you feel to know that 'don't-be-evil' Google counts the CIA as a fellow investor in the predictive analytics engine Recorded Future?
In an election year (like, say, next year in the US), the consequence of these technologies, combined with the existing ever-narrowing focus on 'swing' voters, may be messages specially crafted just for those voters. As an example of this potential future, Pariser points to the San Francisco-based company Rapleaf, which seeks to correlate the social graph with voting behaviour. That said, Pariser acknowledges that in the last election, although Hillary Rodham Clinton used such micromessaging tactics, Barack Obama won with broad, vague, generalisations. If you're known to vote consistently for a single party and you only get your news from the personalised internet, you might never even know the election was on. As these systems become more complex and more intelligent, it will be harder and harder to tell what we're missing or how their architecture is determining policy.
Pariser's TED talk about the filter bubble caused a major stir. Too often, single talks and magazine articles have too little meat on their bones to make good books. The Filter Bubble is the exception. Now, what are we going to do about it?
The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You By Eli Pariser Viking Penguin 294 pages ISBN: 978-0-670-92038-9 £12.99