Eli Pariser and the threat of the filter bubbles


Eli Pariser, executive director of Moveon.org, attends a voter phone party in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. (Helayne Seidman/The Washington Post)

Many true conspiracy theorists I’ve met don’t even bother with Web surfing anymore. . . . From the very instant they first boot up their computer in the morning, their in-boxes comprise an unbroken catalog of outrage stories ideologically tailored to their pre-existing obsessions.

According to the book review, Kay saw the move toward conspiracy theories post-9/11 as indictive of an intellectual collapse of society, as the country moves into right and left camps.

In an echo of this quote, my social media feeds can often feel like a refrain of voices, chanting a common chorus. It’s not necessarily a conspiracy theory, but similar subjects get rehashed depending on my taste. This morning, one oft-repeated phrase was the “filter bubble,” ironically critcizing the tendency to have social media feeds that only serve single subjects.

In a new book launched today and in a TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) talk released today, MoveOn.org founder Eli Pariser explains what these filter bubbles are: they are the gates we erect through which information about the world comes. With Facebook, Google and personalized news services weightingd search results according to our interests, we are living more within filter bubbles than ever before.

Pariser argues that in the old model of publishing, editors played the role of gatekeepers, but the Internet has allowed algorithims to take over. The only problem? Computers “don’t have the kind of embedded ethics that the humans do.”

If we want, we can filter out all the tough, confusing, challenging ideas that often allow us to learn new things. We’re letting ourselves become surrounded by information junk food.

Pariser calls on technology developers to work to encode programs with that kind of responsibility — to offer up information vegetables, as well as information dessert.

While Pariser sticks to the light and inspirational in the speech, the idea of filter bubbles is a dangerous problem — and not just because it allows for damaging conspiracy theories to exist long after they are debunked (see Birthers, for instance). It also means one of the main promises of the web — to tear down the walls of Babel and better unite the world — is not being fulfilled.

It’s also interesting that Pariser is pushing for a more open web, when he built MoveOn.org on the notion that direct e-mail blasts could push his targeted audience to action.

Here's Pariser’s speech:

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