I’ve written about this subject on and off over the past few years. In a virtual existence where supposedly social media and networks encourage us to share everything, in reality there are economic forces which are isolating us more and more – and for entirely pecuniary advantage.
Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble” is a must- read 4 anyone who cares about what the personalized Internet means for public square of ideas.
If I understand correctly the thrust of this idea, this tendency for apparently public spaces on the Internet to actually be very private is a virtual equivalent of a process which has been taking place over many years in the high street. We used to live and purchase in municipal spaces where each person as a subject of the land had every right to be – and where, indeed, the overriding discourse was democracy above all. Nowadays, massive shopping-malls and “experiences” of all kinds have created “private spaces of public use”, where private security guards can throw undesirables out – and people only have the right to park their cars for two or three hours at a stretch whilst the supermarket in question proceeds to empty their pockets.
Forget, if you will, any attempt or intention on the citizen’s part to walk idly and uncommercially down a shaded grove of freely available trees, after passing through the purgatory that is the weekly shop.
But the modern commercial Internet is, possibly, even worse than those “private spaces of public use” I mention above. Whilst the personalisation of our browsing environment is sold to us as a positive virtue, in reality there is a degree of evidence that this personalisation is being used against us. Just imagine if our bricks and mortar shops dared to do what I suggested a couple of months ago:
Let’s imagine the real world equivalent then, just for argument’s sake. Let’s say some massive out-of-town supermarket chain uses its CCTV footage to determine how much its customers should be charged according to how frequently they visit the store. Let’s imagine, for example, that instead of using the aforesaid footage to simply provide a safe and secure shopping environment, this behemoth of our pockets and wallets actually employs such video material to better decide how to position, discount or, indeed, increase the prices of its products.
God forbid that such a thought should even enter their minds. But let’s just try and imagine it does.
Even if it did, it’s clear that these prices would be visible, available to and shared by all visitors to that particular store on that particular day.
Which is apparently – at the very least potentially – not the case in this infinitely malleable and individualised world we call the modern commercialised Internet.
But the very worst of it, if I’ve properly understood the brief reference in the tweet at the top of this post from KatrinaNation, is not in commerce – the very worst of it is in that “public square of ideas” of Eli Pariser’s. That is to say, the very essence of a shared, shareable and commonly understood discourse that leads to real democracy.
If we are all faced with a different experience and exposure to ideas, according to the buttons they encourage us to press and the algorithms they employ as a result, how are we going to be able to reach an agreement over what to discuss – or even, in fact, over what has happened? It’s almost as if, speaking linguistically in this case, we all had an evermore personalising vocabulary which made the overlap of understanding essential to communication gradually more and more difficult.
The baggage of experience, as it is, means we do not have an exactly similar appreciation of the meaning of the words we use. Thus the disagreements and arguments which living together with others frequently generates in our social intercourse.
Just imagine, several decades down the line, where this might lead us in our ability to exchange opinion on matters of great importance.
We see it now as half the American nation is inculcated by Fox – whilst the other half, appalled, finds no common ground.
But it’s also happening on the Internet every day you open that preferred browser of yours and go to your favourite cookie-heavy websites and media. What’s more, the process is, arguably, far more ferocious than in the case of Fox. Partly because it’s – essentially – invisible. Pinning it down is so very difficult. Comparing notes is – by definition – mostly impossible; unless, of course, you choose to surf side-by-side with a friend – each, quite necessarily, on his or her own Internet-enabled device …
And understanding what’s going on is unlikely to occur to most of us because our offline references have assured us to date that ideas are out there for all to see. In reality, meanwhile, what we see when we look down the microscope of the Internet, is not a contagious content we find ourselves obliged to share but, rather, something quite different: a mutating and highly mutable virus of individualised association which means we never know who’s seeing what – nor when.
This then, quite paradoxically, is how nothing on the modern Internet is quite what it seems. How nothing on the modern Internet is comparable to the real world. How nothing on the modern Internet, in fact, is shared any more.
By anyone – except, perhaps, the merchants.