Internet: Prescriptive or Descriptive?

Should the internet provide us with new information or cater to our interests?

TED is a nonprofit started in 1984 "as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design." Now it is comprised of two annual conferences, at which people present talks on a variety of topics. Most of those talks are then uploaded and completely accessible to the viewing public.

One of the highlights from its latest conference included Eli Pariser's talk on Internet filtering. Pariser, who helped found and served as its executive director from 2004-2008, is only 30 years old, but already is a huge name in the online organizing industry. In his TED talk, entitled "Beware online "filter bubbles"," addressed the question of whether the internet exists simply to direct us towards issues which we should be paying attention to, or simply to information it thinks we want.

Pariser used a social science experiment to analyze the situation. He asked friends of his to google "Egypt" and took screenshots of the top results. While two of his friends were the same gender, ethnicity and lived in the same area, they received completely different results. Google and other search engines suggest sites based on 57 different sources of information, and a user's search history has a great deal to do with which sites pop up. So, while one friend received suggestions relating to vacationing and tourism, another received current events updates of the protests taking place in Egypt, which Pariser says were the "big news of the day."

This small example illustrates the kind of filtering which Pariser is afraid will hurt society in the long run. While most people regard the internet as an open source of information, since there is so much of it, it relies on algorithms to recommend sites for us and thereby decide which information is the most relevant to us. Pariser is of the mind that the piece missing from this equation is the morals and ethics– algorithms have no sense of civic responsibility, and so he fears that if sites continue to generate search results just based on "relevance," people will only become more attuned to their own ways of thinking, and perhaps less aware of things going on outside of their limited spheres of consciousness.

This argument reminds me of the dispute over whether biased stations such as MSNBC and FOX, which report on the news from a clearly defined political perspective, are detrimental to democracy. While it is true that if people only learn new information from one source they are getting a limited perspective, I think the very concept of democracy supports their right to get that perspective and only that perspetive.

There's a big difference between encouraging people to be open-minded and forcing them to listen to other points of view. I am in favor of the first choice, because I see the media as a product we choose to consume. Since search engine must make a choice of which sites to rank first and which last, they are inherently making a judgment of what you want to see. I think that judgment should be decided as it is now- based on your interests. After all, isn't the point of the site to make you happy, to keep you interested?

Although it would be great if search engines offered you more of a variety of sites- some geared towards social justice, some entertainment, some political- on their homepage, what people really go to the Internet for is to find out what they want to find out. Trying to tell them what they should be looking for is a matter I don't think the sites should be involved in. That's where lobbyist groups come into play.


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Author: elly

Class of 2013 Writes crosswords for the Blowfish Writes sketches for Boris' Kitchen Writes show reviews for Justice Arts Does improv in her free time