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The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You

Is the Internet actually narrowing your world?

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While not exactly a techno-pessimist, Pariser falls into the techno-pessimist’s trap of the Imagined Analogue Past. It is a rose-colored world that always forms the backdrop to books about the effects of the Internet. A world without digital distractions, with enlightening serendipitous encounters, where civic-minded news producers made sure we saw reports about famine in distant lands. In the Imagined Analogue Past we all had meaningful offline friendships, devoid of any superficiality.

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But of course we never really lived like that. If our worlds are echo chambers now, what were they before, when every day we read the same newspaper, with its inherent biases in politics and scope? If the Internet is an echo chamber, what about the churches or progressive book clubs we attend? If you do live in an Internet echo chamber then that’s probably of your own making; in the pre-digital world you would have lived in one too. And anyone who has never experienced serendipity on the Internet has never been on YouTube.

Where Pariser's book is most effective is in deconstructing the myth of “disintermediation” – the idea, popular among techno-utopians, that the Internet
would “flatten society, unseat the elites, and usher in a kind of global utopia,” where we would no longer need gatekeepers such as newspapers, cable television, or even politicians. Pariser eloquently makes the case that we might have gotten rid of a few gatekeepers, but we've just replaced them with new ones (namely Facebook and Google).

“The Filter Bubble” is less clear, though, about what we should do about it. One of Pariser’s proposals – and it's a good one – is for tech companies to make their filtering practices less opaque and be more up front about the way in which they are collecting and using our information. The author goes further, suggesting “filtering systems to expose people to topics outside their normal experience.” But is such social and civic engineering really the job of businesses like Google or Facebook? Paternalism aside, there is an irony in engineering more randomness. Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky,” after all, isn’t based on luck.

Pariser writes beautifully about the new digital world in which we find ourselves but, ultimately, he doesn’t show us a future that seems to be any bleaker than the past.

Luke Allnutt is a Monitor contributor.

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