Google - Needy & Desperate For Your Attention!
Posted on January 01, 2014
Imagine that you have only one friend in the world. This friend is so desperate for your attention and approval that they tell you everything you want to hear. They agree with every point you make, never tell you you're wrong and somehow they know exactly what you're going to like, before you even know it. Would that friend be worth having? If you think about it, this bestie would initially make you feel great, but after a while, you'd probably turn into Ja'mie King, a self-centered and arrogant know-it-all. Without being confronted by the views of others, you'd never learn how to relate to different people. Everyone outside this 'awesome twosome' would grow to hate you.
You might remember experiencing this when you were at school, but think that you've grown out of it as you became more mature. Scarily enough, you're actually more vulnerable to it than ever. Now, the ego-inflating bestie who thinks we're 'totally quiche' is Google, and the situation it creates is known as the filter bubble. Activist Eli Pariser explained this phenomenon in a TED talk in 2011. The way it works is that Google and other major search engines such as Yahoo News and Amazon gather information about you based on the products you've purchased, links you click on, where you're located, your likely sex, age and so on. Fed into algorithms, these pieces of information provide highly personalised search results and more accurate recommendations. This is very convenient if we're after a take-away joint, if we google 'Fish and chips' we're given nearby restaurants instead of general information. However, if you're searching for something political or controversial, it becomes a lot more sinister. Pariser gave an example of two friends in New York who googled 'Egypt'. On the first page of results, one received news about current political protests, the other only found travel information. The filter bubble can also explain why conspiracy theories are so popular in an age of such democratic and easy access to information. Click on a conspiracy theory link and the next time you Google the historical event it ties into, you'll be greeted with more 'evidence' that reinforces your suspicions. Consider climate change, the common line from politicians and journalists, is that about 95% of climatologists agree that humans are the primary cause.
If you were a sceptical person, you might decide to test the hypothesis that most scientists are in agreement by googling different opinions on carbon dioxide emissions and noting the proportion of scientists on each side of the argument. By simply trying to observe different opinions, you would influence how many subversive ones are subsequently shown, which distorts the data. Perhaps we shouldn't write off climate change sceptics as 'nutjobs' but sympathetically view them as victims of confirmation bias. So can we protect ourselves from this insidious bubble? Well the good news is there are computer scientists working on it. A team from Yahoo has built a recommendation engine that points you to content that other people are reading which opposes your views. To give you an incentive to read something you might disagree with, they ensure that you have at least one thing in common with the person who read the conflicting content. Instead of relying on these advances, there are things you can now do to burst your filter bubble. Frequently clear your browser's cookies or enable private browsing (such as 'Incognito' mode in Google Chrome) when you're reading news or doing research. This prevents sites from placing cookies on your computer, however it won't stop them from remembering your habits if you are logged into a web portal. If you want to be as private as possible, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) such as Tor or Private Internet Access to access the web. These services will fake your IP address and location, completely disabling attempts to track you. Most importantly of all, just be mindful that your perception of the world as viewed through an online lens, is not necessarily the same as someone else's.