Personalization May Be Cute, But…

Check out this episode of Democracy Now in which Eli Pariser discusses the flip side of personalization by internet companies like Google: Eli Pariser on “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You”

(In that book title, Why on earth would ‘the’ and ‘from’ have their first letters in lowercase while ‘is’ has it’s first letter in uppercase. Are people just used to seeing uppercase and lowercase done willy nilly and therefore figure that that’s how it’s done? Good grief! Why can’t people think about what they’re doing? Why, why, why?!!! And Pariser’s use of the term ‘concerning’ in place of many other perfectly suitable adverbs, like ‘disturbing’, is, well, disturbing. Idiocracy has arrived!)

Have you ever been doing a simple search with Google and been floored by your inability to get returns even remotely connected to your search? It could be because these programs have become so sophisticated that they’re stupid. Actually, The people devising and implementing them, while smart in some ways, are stupid. Stupid. Bad. It’s all the same in the long run. Darkness is it’s own reward. You may start off doing bad for gain, but you end up too dumb to tie your shoelaces. Eli Pariser tried to talk to Larry Page of Google about the serious downside to personalizing an internet user’s web browser – where you track his or her usage and (increasingly) tailer subsequent search returns accordingly – who he says basically told him that the subject wasn’t very interesting and ended the discussion. Is that evil? Or dumb? Or both? You tell me.

Here’s an excerpt from the above linked-to discussion that Amy and Juan had with Eli:

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AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how much money is being made off of this. And I mean, just this neutral term of “personalization”—

ELI PARISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN:—it sounds so benign. In fact, it sounds attractive.

ELI PARISER: It sounds great, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s geared and tailored for you. What could be better?

ELI PARISER: Right. And it does rely on the sense of a sort of cozy, familiar world online, where your favorite website greets you and goes, “Oh, hey, Eli, we’ve teed up all of these articles for you. Welcome.” It feels very good.

But, you know, what’s driving this is—you know, in some ways, this is the driving struggle on the internet right now between all of these different companies, to accumulate the biggest amounts of data on each of us. And Facebook has its strategy, which is basically ask people to tell Facebook about themselves. Google has its strategy, which is to watch your clicks. Microsoft and Yahoo! have their strategies. And all of this feeds into a database, which can then be used to do three things. It can target ads better, so you get better targeted ads, which honestly, I think, you know, sometimes is fine, if you know that it’s happening. It can target content, which I think is much more problematic. You start to get content that just reflects what it thinks you want to see. And then the third thing is, and it can make decisions about you.

So, one of the sort of more surprising findings in the book was that banks are beginning to look at people’s Facebook friends and their credit ratings in order to decide to whom to give—to offer credit. And this is based on this fact that, you know, if you look at the credit ratings of people, you can make predictions about the credit ratings of their friends. It’s very creepy, though, because really what you’re saying then is that it would be better not to be Facebook friends with people who have lower credit ratings. It’s not really the kind of society that we want to be building, particularly.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, even more frightening, obviously, is once all of this information, personal information, is gathered, it saves the government, in its ability to surveil its population, a lot of work, because basically the private companies can gather the information, and all the government has to do is issue the subpoena or make the call that “for national security, we need this information.” So, in essence, it doesn’t have to do the actual surveillance. It just has to be able to use it when it needs to.
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