Monday, May 16, 2011

Filter bubble

The world is large. There are a lot of knowledge accumulated over thousands of years. There is no way that one could know them all. We could only learn a little. What we learned were selected by others. There are always censorship and filtering of knowledge, perhaps with self-proclaimed good intentions. First we only learned from what told by parents, then only what told by the schools and peers, and then what told by the government. However, for a free person with a free mind, he can always breach the boundary by seeking other knowledge.

Now we have the Internet. Almost all knowledge are available at our fingertips. We would have thought that there is no more boundary of knowledge. But it is not the case. The sheer volume and diversity of knowledge prevent us from knowing them all. We need to be selective in knowing, but we should still have the freedom of choice.

Why is Google so successful? It started by introducing a good search engine of the Internet. The search engine is so powerful that it can give you enormous amount of information relevant to your search. The niche of Google is that it ranks the search results according to its popularity of being hyperlinked. This will give you results which are most circulated in the Internet, or in other words, most other people know.

A more recent development of Google and the customer services of many Internet companies is that services are customized. What they did with the search engine and other customer services is the filtering of the information so that only what you are interested are shown to you. To view it in another perspective, what you are not interested in, or what the companies do not want you to know, are filtered out. As more Internet services are designed based on this concept, one can hardly find information which are outside one's stated preference.

This phenomenon called the filter bubble is observed by Eli Pariser as presented in his TED talk. If you are interested, you may take a look at the video below where he outlined the danger.

Your world is shaped by the filter bubble. It is a catalyst of prejudice. What you sought out more are given to you to the extent that your world shrinks, like a star collapsing on its own gravity. In the past, this filter is man-made in order to frame your mind. If you can see through the conspiracy, you can break the bubble by seeking other points of view. The problem we are now facing is that such filtering is built in as an algorithm in a machine. There is no intention but just number crunching. The filter bubble is created according to your needs and wants. We all know the danger if a person only focuses on his own needs and wants. But the state of play is that the filter bubble is a comfort zone. It makes you indulged on your own belief, without ever knowing that it could be wrong.

To be a free man, we should be free to access all kinds of information. Pariser compared the filter bubble as an information diet to you. To have a balanced diet, one need to have vegetable, meat, as well as dessert. To have balanced information, we need to know things which are relevant and important, and also those which are uncomfortable, challenging and other points of view. One way to do it is to make effort to seek out such other information yourself. Pariser suggested that we should also ask the Internet companies to change the algorithm so that more diversities are automatically included in their services to the customers.

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