In the modern world you get used to the notion that a big part of your life is influenced, directed, or controlled by invisible, and unknowable, computer code. If you use a computer at work or at home, as many of us do, it’s as much a part of the routine as that essential morning cup of coffee. Every once in a while, however, you realize that, somewhere out in the internet ether, clicks have been analyzed, cookies have been implanted, and huge amounts of data about you have been compiled, and that data is being used to define you and your corner of the world.
I thought about this when I went on Facebook recently, and the first thing that popped up was a Beatles day-by-day post. I like the Beatles and their music, and some months ago someone sent me a link to a Beatles post. It looked interesting, I clicked it, and since then the Facebook computers have served me a steadily increasing diet of not only posts about the Beatles and their music, but also about individual members of the Beatles and their solo careers, and now other artists from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s pretty obvious that some server, somewhere, is trying to test just how broad my interests are and to define, ever more precisely, the exact nature of my existing musical and cultural preferences.
Some years ago we were looking for some new light fixtures. We eventually made our selections and our purchases, but for months thereafter light fixture ads seemed to dominate every website we visited. It was only after months of non-light fixture activity that the algorithms finally gave up and started to probe into other areas. The light fixture data is out there somewhere, brooding yet poised so that a single ill-advised click or search for a lamp could expose us to a new avalanche of ads featuring the latest lighting products.
I’m sure Facebook would argue that this process is a good thing: by learning more about us, it, and Google, and Amazon, and all of the other algorithm users can provide us with targeted information, products, goods, and services designed to appeal to our specific preferences. Of course, that ignores the risk that some bad guy hacks into the database where this wealth of information is stored, and can use it for theft, fraud, and other nefarious purposes. But it also ignores that this process of identifying and targeting interests puts you into an ever-shrinking box, and a kind of thought prison of your own devising. If I’m seeing that daily barrage of Beatles posts, that means I’m not seeing other stuff–stuff I’m not aware of, stuff that might challenge my views or broaden my horizons or shift my perspective. You can see how the algorithms can have a pernicious effect, especially when it comes to information, news, and political thought. Your clicks put you into an echo chamber.
Consider how different this is from the world of the past, when no one or no thing was trying to sculpt the world to suit your expressed tastes. On the school bus, in the newspaper, at the department store, and at the workplace you got whatever came your way. Businesses offered what they thought might appeal to a wide array of consumers–not just you. The world didn’t revolve around you, and the need to cater to your individual tastes. You might actually hear or read about different political views, see products that you weren’t specifically looking for, and so forth. The world seemed to be a much wider place because of it.
Of course, we’ll never go back to that world–at least, not if we’re going to be spending time on computers. But the sense of being confined is worrisome, and now makes me refrain from clicking and responding, just to be a bit of a contrarian and to leave some open questions about my interests, and views, and preferences. I prefer the wider world.
Did I say I liked the Beatles? I was kidding!