Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Filter bubbles and the limitations of automation in selective search – 2

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on July 29, 2011

Earlier this month I posted a brief note on the issues of search personalization as an unfortunately accurate example of the law of unintended consequences (see Filter Bubbles and the Limitations of Automation in Selective Search – 1.)

The basic issue here is very simple. When search personalization is being carried out by the world’s primary search engine of choice and it is only returning to you search results selectively chosen to “meet your interests” according to an automated, algorithmic analysis of what you seem to have clicked on, the best you can ever expected to see from it is a very slanted, incomplete, biased view of the larger internet as a whole, and of what is actually out there. Under current circumstances, Google’s selective filtering is set up and parameterized without your consent and without your active involvement, and without giving you an option to opt-out and simply see whatever raises to the top according to their old more universally applied organic search algorithms. Even by the standards of seeking to effectively help you find what you are looking for, this of necessity introduces error in what it can offer you through sampling error if nothing else, and it does block your efforts to reach out to the new, and sometimes even if you make a concerted effort to do so. And Google is only one of many sites that have fallen into the trap of limiting its visitors to automatic, algorithm-driven filtering and personalization.

I briefly outlined this increasingly prevalent phenomenon in Part 1 and return back to this set of issues to make note of a particularly disturbing trend in political discourse that appears to have arisen in synchrony with the switch to personalized filter bubble search engine practices – a particular form of political extremism. And I cite American politics of Left and Right, and of increasingly strident and extremist Left and Right as I write this.

Tea Party extremists and MoveOn extremists hold little in common, one hewing to the far Right and the other to the far Left. But there is one crucial detail they do share in common. When members of these political factions, increasingly influential in Republican and Democratic Party politics respectively, search online with tools such as Google, they only find search results that mesh with their own particular political views.

• When two different people perform the precise same searches using the precise same search terms and queries they get different results, selected for them and without their consent or approval by Google. Here this creates not just problems for the individual but societal problems as a whole.

I see a reason why otherwise smart people self-identified as Tea Party or MoveOn members by preference, keep making public gaffs as to basic facts. The links and web sites that their search queries bring to the top for them are selected for agreement with their presumed interests and biases, and not for any criteria that would more specifically filter for accuracy or objective reliability – except perhaps as a secondary consideration. Political search becomes ideologically filter driven. And this simply fuels greater divisiveness and extremism because search keeps confirming extreme positions, and without any leavening dissent.

One of the overarching points I have repeatedly made throughout this blog is to note ways in which we are facing fundamental change, and fundamental challenges. We cannot successfully transit this and avoid falling into serious, avoidable problems if we try to do so wearing blinders. This is true for our participation in political discourse and political decision making processes. This, I add, is also true in the business world and in the marketplace, and in social media and other online forums, and in our creating and sharing value in our more personal lives.

Automated search personalization becomes a trap that blinds when it is the only option available. The entire premise behind ubiquitous computing and communications is that it truly be from anywhere to anywhere, and at any time, at least as a working goal. Search limited to the scope contained within individual, personalized, internally mirrored bubbles denies the possibility of that. So like it or not, we are currently facing a cross roads and a fundamental decision point. Should we simply follow a path of least resistance and fractionate into disparate, disconnected little personalized factions or should we seek to keep the doors to New and Other open to us, and the differences we offer open to others as well?

This and other, related postings can be found at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time.

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