Nicholas Carr’s book ‘The Big Switch’ (2008) has a chapter on the changes happening to print and radio media with the increased personalization of the web. As a (good) technology journalist, Carr is up to date and very accessible. I find the issue with Carr’s writing is that he sometimes only gets part of a complex issue across. His article “Is Google making us stupid?” is an example of legitimating emotive opinions rather than reporting more empirically tested ‘data’. He would be aware of perpetuating this kind of Gramscian ‘common sense’ based on his better developed opinions in ‘The Big Switch’. This book has far better grounding but the buzzwords make it too easy to leap to the wrong conclusions. And frankly, the whole internet is a big buzzword!
Carr’s chapter, ‘The Great Unbundling’ about the fall of broadcast media models starts on familiar territory. Unbundling leads to greater opportunity elsewhere! More freedom, more choice! Yay, technology! But if you stick with him, that’s not what he’s leading up to. He believes that the opposite is occuring. This is relevant to Digital Research and Publishing, so I’ve summarised from pp157-167 below:
In 1971, the economist Thomas Schelling performed a simple experiment that had a very surprising result. he was curious about the persistence of extreme racial segregation in the country. He knew that most Americans aren’t racists or bigots, that we’re generally happy to be around people who don’t look or think the same way. However, most of us want to be around people similar to ourselves. He wondered if a slight preference was enough over the long run to influence the makeup of whole neighbourhoods.
He began his experiment by drawing a grid of squares, randomly placing black or white markers in some of the squares. He assumed that all wanted a racially mixed neighbourhood but that if the population of similar neighbours dropped below 50%, then a family would have a tendency to move to the nearest unoccupied square. Schelling continued moving pieces and found that soon the grid was completely segregated into black on one side and white on the other.
In 2005 Schelling received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his insight that small incentives can lead to strikingly polarized results. “Social realities are fashioned not only by the desires of people but also by the action of blind and more or less mechanical forces – in this case forces that can amplify slight and seemingly harmless personal preferences into dramatic and troubling consequences.” said Mark Buchanan, in his book Nexus.
Just as it’s assumed that the internet will promote a rich and diverse culture, its also assumed that it will bring people into greater harmony, that it will breed greater understanding and help ameliorate political and social tensions. On the face o f it, that expectation seems entirely reasonable. After all, the Internet erases the physical boundaries that separate us, allows the free exchange of information about the thoughts and lives of others, and provides and egalitarian forum in which all views can get an airing. This optimistic viewpoint is typified by Nicholas Negroponte, of MIT’s Media Lab and Wired.
Schelling’s experiment calls this view into question. In the real world it is too hard to move away from situations in which we are uncomfortable, to just change jobs, houses or schools. On the internet, it’s easy to change communities. The polarization effect is greatly amplified by the personalization algorithms and filters that are so common on the Internet and that are often working without our knowledge or permission.
For example, our Amazon or NetFlix suggestions in the short term seem to expose us to more new things, but in the longer term, the more we click the more we finetune our search results and narrow the information we see. Google has even developed an ambient audio fingerprinting system to identify what tv or radio you’re listening to in background while you browse and to target your advertizing more thoroughly.
Google’s aim is ‘tranparent personalization’. If they have 100% of your data inside its utility, then you don’t have to ask google for information. Google should know what you want. Google doesn’t seem to have a negative opinion about the possible social cost, but as many will point out, Google is only responding to what WE want. We want personalization that gets rid of the rubbish and only gives us ‘the good stuff’. We love the tools that impose order and homogeneity on the internet’s wild heterogeneity.
Carr provides details of a range of recent studies from various universities which back up this thesis, which I won’t attempt to summarise, relating how the ‘balkanization’ of the internet leads to segmented communities who amplify their own opinions rather than reach broader conciliation. ‘Ideological amplification’ is leading to extremism rather than diversity leading to tolerance. In conclusion, not only will the Internet tend to divide people with different views, it will also tend to magnify the differences. In the long run, this could pose a significant threat to the practice of consensus building at the heart of democracy.