Penguin Press (May 2011)
It's no secret the internet has your number. But it also has everything you've ever searched for, everything you've even hovered a mouse over, what books you've read on Kindle, how long you've spent on each page, what you've highlighted… The internet likely knows your blood type, children's names and ages, what their interests are and how they're doing in school. Likely? Oh, I'm sure it does.
When I was working to earn my M.S. in Library and Information Studies I took a course on intellectual freedom. Definitely the most fascinating topic I've ever studied. That was only two years ago, before several books about the internet's intrusion into our lives were published. Already, many in the class had an idea just how much about our lives was being bought and sold by marketing companies, how much of a trail we were leaving everywhere we went. There were, shockingly enough, naysayers who argued back, but not as vehemently as those of us who didn't know all the details, but had a pretty good suspicion we were being tracked, and not always with good intent.
The naysayers all pretty much had the same naive argument: If I'm not doing anything wrong, why should I care? But we're not talking about doing anything wrong! It's just everyday searching. Maybe you're looking up a malady a friend or family member was just diagnosed with, and it has nothing to do with you. The internet doesn't know that, it just knows you searched about it. Or, say, you're writing a paper, or an article, on drug addiction, internet porn addiction, or anything unrelated to you for which you need to search. Your information is going to go on some list, somewhere, and track you in perpetuity. Did you do anything "wrong"? No! But does the internet know that? Even if you were seeking help for something considered outside "normal" behavior, don't you have the right to?
This is so wrong, in so many ways, but we have no power over this. And it isn't going to stop. Why would it, when someone's making so much money from it?
"In the view of the "behavior market" vendors, every "click signal" you create is a commodity, and every move of your mouse can be auctioned off within microseconds to the highest commercial bidder."
I've blogged countless times on the internet and how it's a blessing and a curse, and I'm not talking solely about the invasion issue. I'm also very, very concerned about the influx of information on the human brain, and how it has and will change the synapses in our brain. I already see it in myself, and I didn't grow up with the internet. My attention is splintered. I often have ten or more windows open simultaneously, from going on tangents while reading – or skimming, rather – on article, leading me to another, then another, and I still haven't finished reading the page that lead me on the wild goose chase in the first place. And did I need to know all this information? Was it something I sought out, looking it up on my own? Often not. But the internet is seductive. Hyperlinks beg me to follow, and very often I do. Is this my fault or the internet's? Ultimately, it's mine. However, as with any addiction the internet can feel as though it's in control of me, rather than the truth, which is vice versa. Or, at least, I think that's the truth.
Eli Pariser opened my eyes to some of the sneaky – because it is, let's not pretend otherwise – ways marketing on the web is customized to each one of us. And I was already suspicious about how we were all being manipulated. Little did I realize how much.
I'd already noticed after I've looked something up online a related ad will pop up next to my email box. I'll even get email from a company offering to sell me something similar to what I've researched. For example: I have a bum knee, one I had surgery on last year to repair a torn meniscus tendon. Last evening I was looking through my Yahoo email and what did I see in the right sidebar? Yep, an ad for knee replacement surgery. Coincidence? Erm, NOT.
"According to one Wall Street Journal study, the top fifty Internet sites, from CNN to Yahoo to MSN, install an average of 64 data-laden cookies and personal tracking beacons each. Search for a word like "depression" on Dictionary.com, and the site installs up to 223 tracking cookies and beacons on your computer so that other Web sites can target you with antidepressants."
But what, exactly, is the definition of the "filter bubble"?:
"The new generation of Internet filters looks at the things you seem to like – the actual things you've done, or the things people like you like – and tries to extrapolate. They are prediction engines, constantly creating and refining a theory of who you are and what you'll do and want next. Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us – what I've come to call a filter bubble …"
There's another problem with all this, one I also argued for in my Master's class. When the internet thinks it knows you, it presents you with like information. So, how much energy and effort does it take to break free from that and explore totally unrelated things? What happens to serendipity?
Personally, I don't worry as much about this for myself. I read rabidly and widely, becoming interested in something new all the time, pursuing much of the information I'm interested in via books and web sites. Frankly, I think the internet would have a fair amount of challenge profiling me, when I'm looking up Victorian novelists one week, and the history of Russia the next. Then again, they'll see history as a common theme. So maybe I'm not as immune as I think.
"It's become a bit in vogue to pick on the human brain." Pariser states. "We're "predictably irrational," … we're terrible at figuring out what makes us happy. Like audience members at a magic show, we're easily conned, manipulated, and misdirected."
Alright. So, being in the Information Studies profession I'm already pretty wary of what is and is not "true" information. I'm a skeptic by nature, untrusting and suspicious. So am I immune from all this manipulation? Not at all. I'm less likely to fall for things, but not at all immune.
But the general public, the average American, let us say, is probably much less skeptical. This would be why sites like Snopes.com exist, sites that pull the plug on untruths. Ever gotten an email warning you about alligators or snakes invading sewer lines, stories about how one person was bitten and how YOU COULD BE NEXT! What about email saying you've won a laptop computer, and all you need to do is CLICK HERE to claim it? A Nigerian you've never met wants to give you money, you say, and all you have to do is give your bank account number? Goofy as this stuff sounds, someone, somewhere is falling for it. If that wasn't so, "they" wouldn't keep doing it.
In his concluding chapters, Pariser outlines what rights we should have regarding the use of our information, from the 1973 Department of Housing, Education and Welfare:
– We should know who has our personal data, what data they have, and how it's used.
– We should be able to prevent information collected about us for one purpose from being used by others.
– We should be able to correct inaccurate information about us.
– Our data should be secure.
Should, yes. But is there any way this will ever happen now? Can ever happen? As Pariser quoted earlier in the book, the genie can never be put back inside the bottle.
Now that you're thoroughly depressed and anxious, I wish I could leave you with some sort of reassuring information. Unfortunately, Pariser's book, the result of deep, thorough research, can't guarantee positive change. We should be vigilant, yes, things shouldn't be this way. But what will make that so?
Figure that out and you'll be a Nobel Prize winner. Best of luck. Meanwhile, give The Filter Bubble a read. It may not change the world, but it has the potential to light a fire under all of us. And that's the first step toward pushing for radical change. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes, and this book goes a long way toward revealing useful information in a readable, non-scientific way. It's for the average reader, those of us without degrees in economics, marketing, etc. Fascinating stuff, even when it's horrifying. Learn these things. You have the right.
Visit Eli Pariser's website.