Here’s a scary thought — the internet is a system of control that is increasingly designed to present a myopic view of the world, using your personal data against you to ensure you get exactly what you want, fulfill all your desires and interests in exchange for ensuring you never encounter any material that is challenging or presents a counter narrative to your preferences.
Currently, the range of preferences seems limitless, but inevitably myopia will result in tunnel vision and the fear is that rather than being a force to unite people, the internet will be an alienating force, dividing people, quantifying them into digital groupings and tribes who only interact with themselves and the information they wish to consume. You may already be trapped in a ‘filter bubble’ on Google or Facebook without knowing it, or perhaps knowing it and loving it, but left woefully devoid of perspective. To quote Mark Zuckerberg here: “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa”.
Sounds ridiculous? Let me play the devil’s advocate and take a look at the philosophy that drives The Express Tribune’s website: social friendly, give the consumers what they want, let them have a say in what is important. We have a most popular, most commented and most emailed box, telling others what everyone is interested in. Our blog site is designed so that the top five blogs displayed are automatically chosen based on algorithms around the number of comments on a post. The third party widget at the bottom of each blog that offers other stories “you might like” is built to display related blogs, but its algorithms also aim to show the blogs that get the most clicks. Increasingly, you will see the same blogs appearing in this widget again and again and again. It’s all automated. The editorial selection is, therefore, made by clicks and algorithms, not editors. I freely admit that a fair amount of editorial decision-making on the website is based on real time analytics data that indicates what trends are catching the audience’s attention.
How about taking a look at Google, which is increasingly attempting to make search tailor-made to your user profile. To quote an anecdote by political and internet activist Eli Pariser from his TED talk: “I asked a bunch of friends to Google ‘Egypt’ and to send me screen shots of what they got … when you do read the links, it’s really quite remarkable. Daniel didn’t get anything about the protests in Egypt at all in his first page of Google results. Scott’s results were full of them. And this was the big story of the day at that time. That’s how different these results are becoming”.
Being a fierce internet advocate of the idealistic ‘the internet can do no wrong’ bent, I find it hard to accept that the online space will become a place where we only see what we want to see, not what we need to see; a world where freedom is an illusion maintained by new centres of control. In the battle over the draconian Protect IP Act and Stop Online Piracy Act, I was firmly on the side of Wikipedia, Google, Yahoo, Reddit et al. in believing the legislation was aimed at systematically curbing freedom of the internet, but I had to pause for a second when I read the Recording Industry Association of America’s response to the online onslaught that effectively killed the legislation: “It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information, intentionally skew the facts to incite their users and arm them with misinformation … it’s very difficult to counter the misinformation when the disseminators also own the platform”.
So if online companies — news or otherwise — have political will and are ready to act on it, using it to sway public opinion in their favour, is this the shape of things to come? Will assumed oases like the The Express Tribune website provoke and challenge, or feed into the illusion of a Pakistan based on the profiles of the users visiting the site. It’s definitely not such a black and white online world right now, but it is worth pondering what will happen when we move from organic, human gatekeepers of information to digital algorithms — The Matrix, anyone?
Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2012.
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