BEELINE TO THE FUTURE: Internet Personalization

Robert Bee
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The co-founder of MoveOn, Eli Pariser recently published The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you. Pariser’s book discusses “Internet Personalization,” which is the tendency for Internet filters to adjust information to topics that you’re interested in and agree with. For example, Facebook has algorithms that filter the information encountered on the service. If Facebook sees that you are interested in rockabilly, it’ll feed you lots of information about rockabilly events in your area. In many cases this filtering is a useful way to connect with topics that interest you, but Facebook also will decide that you’re a conservative or a liberal, and will feed you information about your preferred political perspective, which tends to isolate people from views they disagree with.

Personalization is problematic for a number of reasons. It’s only possible to personalize information because websites such as Google, Amazon, or Facebook can obtain a great deal of information about their users. Every time I go to Amazon, the service suggests stuff I should buy based on what I have purchased or searched for in the past. There are serious privacy concerns here, even though these companies are unlikely to use this information for anything other than selling more stuff.

Pariser discusses the privacy concerns, but his primary focuses are political, intellectual, and cultural. He believes that the filters on Google and Facebook result in an impoverished cultural environment as people only encounter a limited and predictable range of views.

One reason I am concerned about the issue of personalization is that I’ve witnessed it in the most extreme form possible. When I attended a Ph.D. program in English, I naively thought I would be studying great works of literature. Unfortunately, academia, especially in the humanities, is so politicized that for the most part only leftists get hired and tenured. Furthermore, only left wing positions are welcomed and tolerated in many classrooms. So graduate school in English involves learning the proper left wing narratives, largely narratives of victimhood, which are then used to interpret literature. So when you read Shakespeare the primary question is: who’s being oppressed in the text?

Identity politics is the most prominent form of criticism in current humanities programs. The goal of reading revolves around determining whether the text is racist, sexist, homophobic, or imperialist. A critical reading is a politically correct reading that applies the proper left wing positions to a work of literature. I describe these tendencies as personalization because for the most part these left wing positions are the only arguments tolerated in academy; most conservatives, libertarians, and even moderates simply can’t stand this environment long enough to finish a Ph.D., and if they do they have little chance of getting a job. Left wing academia is the most intolerant environment I’ve ever experienced.

Left wing academics are incredibly intolerant because they are convinced of their superior virtue; after all, why would you hire or tenure conservatives or libertarians if you smugly believe they’re all a bunch of racists and sexists? If you disagree with an advocate of identity politics their first response is to accuse you of hating women or African Americans; that argument is virtually automatic if you so much as question a PC position.

Part of the problem is that the average academic leftist is unlikely to encounter anyone they disagree with. They never have to hear a conservative or libertarian argument, which allows them to live inside a self-righteous bubble. Conservatives are these exotic, terrible beings you see on the Fox network and hate with your fellow leftists.

Now Pariser is a lefty himself, so he may not like a discussion of personalization used to criticize the academic left, but certainly academia is the most extreme example of personalization outside of perhaps a cult. The personalization I’m describing is rather different than what Pariser is concerned with. The academic left uses hiring and tenure to protect itself from having to consider any other viewpoint. The sort of Internet personalization Pariser describes just makes this sort of bubble easier to create.

Ultimately, I think it’s beneficial for people to occasionally listen to people they disagree with and learn to debate people who see the world differently. The Internet seems to be a place where a virtually endless variety of perspectives is expressed. I hope that filters don’t shunt us all to websites where we only hear comfortable and familiar views.
On the Internet there are ways to reduce personalization. You can turn off most of the personalization filters on Facebook and Google. Unfortunately, many people may not be tech savvy enough to do so; however, the option is there for the intellectually curious. Pariser feels that an unfiltered web helps with serendipity, or the chance of finding surprising new ideas and approaches to topics, but even a filtered Web will bring you a wider range of viewpoints than a left-wing English department.

Pariser’s solution to the problems that he mentions is questionable. He suggests that Internet companies should not just provide objective search results, but should try to raise cultural literacy by promoting better sources of information. The problem with this idea is that it would create a different type of personalization. Do we really need Google and Facebook trying to make us better citizens by promoting uplifting topics and websites? Google already tries to push “better” and more reliable websites up the search results. Anything more would be worse than the current system. Pariser brings up many important ideas and topics, but his solutions and conclusions are questionable.

A lot of people have recently complained about the new Facebook, which has a more cluttered and confusing appearance. But the primary reason Facebook has dramatically changed its service is to increase personalization, to connect people to media based on their friends list.

If Facebook’s algorithms work well, it will direct us to music and movies that we’ll like. The question becomes: should we appreciate it when Facebook helps us find stuff we enjoy, or should we be upset over the loss of privacy? Is Pariser right that the personalization will lower cultural literacy by pushing us to the same predictable junkfood? Or will we discover great new stuff that our friends are reading, listening to, and watching? Actually, probably a little of both, but I’m still concerned over the possibility of people being shunted more and more to websites that contain only a limited range of comfortable views, which may cause them to lose touch with other political and cultural viewpoints.

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Robert Bee is a freelance writer and professional librarian living in New Jersey. He can be reached at rightrob@republibot.com

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