Librarians And The Filter Bubble

by Penny G. Mattern on June 16, 2011

You may be living in a bubble and not even know it.

I’ve recently read Eli Pariser’s new book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You. It has many clear connections with the role of libraries (and perhaps their fate).

“If you’re not paying for something [on the internet], you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”
Andrew Lewis, quoted in Pariser’s book, p. 21.

Computers are a great reference tool — librarians use them all the time. They are easy to use from home and there’s all kinds of information in them — that’s both the good news and the bad news.

There’s both too little — not enough in-depth, context-based — information, and too much — too many versions, too many sites and references copying each other to know the facts behind the facts. You have to know a subject area really well yourself to wend your way through what’s out there.

These are just difficulties, the hazards of the search, but there are actual dangers as well, that can only be escaped if you know about them.

In this book Pariser talks about personalization, that is, how some internet services are tracking you and using that information to predict what you’ll want to see — and limiting your results to those things.

While we’re all aware that the internet is huge and we’ve entered the age of information overload, we may not be aware that this trend causes us to see less and less, over time. You may think, as Pariser points out, that every (say) Google search provides the same screens to different people, but that’s not so — as he proved by having friends in different areas, using different browsers, and with different established interests, do the same search at the same time, and then taking screen shots of the results: all the screen shots showed major differences, depending on who did the search.

“By definition, a world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn.” — p. 15.

So, getting beyond the problem of what may or may not be out on the internet in the first place, now many times you’re seeing only what some one, or some automated system, thinks you want to see.

And that is an easy step away from outside control of what you’re allowed to see.

And thus to think what you’re allowed to think.

The danger here is information blinders. It’s narrowing your focus, not narrowing the search. You want to find something out, but the system you’re dealing with thinks you want to see only the kind of things you’ve looked for before. As far as you know, what you see is all there is.

“What I seem to like may not be what I actually want, let alone what I need to know to be an informed member of my community or country.” p. 18.

There are ways to fight this, none of them easy. But Pariser is clear that while Fair Information Practices have been set out since 1973, he also points out that “Nearly forty years later, the principles are still basically right, and we’re still waiting for them to be enforced.” — p. 239.

There is now some movement in the Senate on this issue. A bill has been jointly sponsored across party lines. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that defends rights in the digital world, has this to say about the issue and the bill. To understand the situation, read both.

“In the next few years, the rules that will govern the next decade or more of online life will be written. And the big online conglomerates are lining up to help write them.” — p. 242.

Can libraries help?

Libraries are filled with information about organizations and groups that have interests in protecting the rights of individuals in this arena. Find out who they are and get involved in whatever ways you can.

Or sit back, and just enjoy the show designed especially for you.

The Librarians And The Filter Bubble by Penny G. Mattern, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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