Sunday, May 22, 2011

There Is No More Standard Google Anymore

I watched a TED talk recently by Eli Pariser about filter bubbles, the sorting of information based on personalized criteria and how the internet is becoming less democratic. While the overall message was simple, he explains that online programs are deciding what information becomes available to us based on criteria we don't even know that we are providing about ourselves. On a similar strand, earlier this week I enjoyed learning about the new relationship between Bing, FaceBook and the 'Like' Button in the article And Now Let's See If This Social Search Stuff Actually Works by Jason Kincaid. The talk by Eli Pariser succeeded in grabbing my attention enough that I've reflected on it many times and been inspired to formulate and explain my own response. More than anything, this is because I want to challenge it and because the more and more I see other people referencing it as worth thinking about (at least 3 of my friends on FB have posted it), the more I am surprised at how routine and mainstream we have become in our online habits, our choices and conveniences.

I am always thinking about how I use the internet and the processes that have quickly become habitual for me as I spend more and more time connected to an online lifestyle. Over the past  15 years of discovering a online life, many of us have flowed uniformly into the narrow channel of the internet's mainstream, all using the same programs and applications. In Eli's talk, he explains how he felt about the internet in its emergence as something that was designed for its users, for the public and something that promoted democracy. The internet, to him, was a place that opened up equal access to information. He goes on to explain how the internet is changing. An invisible shift where the information that we consume is sorted based on relevance to criteria about us that we don't even define. Scary thought to some, sure. It's scary because some of us connect strongly to the ideas of exploration and discovery. We want to learn from the unknown and surprise ourselves with revelations. The idea of everything being tailored to our preferences and personalized characteristics scares us because even though we like what we like, we still really like to learn about the things we don't even know we like yet. Also, what defines us now might not define us later, so the sorted relevance could induce a boring consistency instead of promoting growth and development. It whispers monoculture and conformity and suddenly we're all afraid of turning into the same person, or remaining exactly the same indefinitely. Most of us want the serendipidous experience of learning new things in unexpected ways. At the same time, I identify strongly with the opposite side of this argument as well. To some, algorithmic sorting is the best thing to ever happen to our time and our energy expenditure. Sorting the billions of bytes of information that we might be faced with in response to a query, these sorting systems provide a huge advance in productivity and general efficiency for finding what we need when we need it. Interestingly enough serendipity even comes in an algorithmic form these days. For more on this fun topic of personal relevance vs. serendipity read The Myth of Senrendipity by Henry Nothhaft Jr.

As I listened to the rest of Eli's talk, I realized that he kept referring to how the internet is changing, while he only used key examples of the big shots, namely FaceBook, Google and Yahoo. Are these now the primary elements that define the internet? The obvious answer is yes, no matter how badly we don't want it to be true.

What? Wait a minute..... let's pull the brakes on that train of thought for a second.

Does our internet usage really have that much control over who we are and what we do? Does the information we garner online have that much impact on our development and learning? Maybe... If you're a student in a 1:1 school, most definitely. Has the general public become helpless and detached in terms of determining and understanding exactly how we use and interact with the internet? If we have, then it is our responsibility to makes some serious changes. It is our responsibility to educate and model for younger generations the fundamentals of how the internet works and how it is changing. Predominantly in schools, we are teaching kids to search using Google. Are we doing a good enough job of it? Should we be spending more time examining with them the richness and diversity that can be found with other search engines? I believe that our students can grasp the sorting features and their implications if we help them to understand the mechanisms behind them.

So for all of the people out there who consider themselves independent and critical thinkers, deviants from the norm, risk takers, social outcasts, etc. I ask you this, does your online lifestyle and relevant choices regarding technology applications really reflect that philosophy? Do you take the time to source the right sources, search the right searches and utilize the best utilities? Or do you simply follow the flow of the mainstream? Has the internet's status quo snuck into your daily life and defined you as just as normal as everyone else? And if it has, if you're using these mainstream programs and services like I am, then I challenge you to think about how complacent you may be about how they work and what control they have over your internet experience.

At the end of his talk, Eli Pariser challenges Google and FaceBook to consider their use of algorithms to sort the information we consume based on personalization and relevance to who we are what we do. He lays down a sequence of statements beginning with "We need you to..."
"We need the new gatekeepers to encode that kind of responsibility into the code they're writing... We really need you to make sure that these algorithms have encoded in them a sense of the public life, a sense of civic responsibility. We need you to make sure that they are transparent enough that we can see what the rules are that determines what gets through your filters. And we need you to give us some control. So that we can decide what gets through and what doesn't."
And I counter to this, "What do we need from ourselves?" We need to challenge our own responsibility to become more educated about the tools and programs that we use in our daily online lives. We need to seek out the underdogs, the alternatives, the non-conformists who might have something better to offer us. We need to make our own relevant and informed choices, with an awareness and sense of ownership over not just what we're consuming but also how it is delivered to us. We need to stop being so indifferently complacent to all things that are easy, immediate and convenient. Most of all, we need to acknowledge that asking the super powers to change their algorithms and marketing strategies in order to bolster the public's sense of democracy and equal access to all information is not a reasonable tactic towards this goal. What needs to happen is that the public starts taking control over it's own habits, online choices and internet use to the point where we've recreated or at least salvaged what it is that we're looking to preserve.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm still going to use those wonderfully filtered and sorted mainstream programs for the multitude of reasons that I love about exactly what they do. For certain searches, I like that Google sorts my search results based on where I am and potentially who (it thinks) I am. What I want to become better at is using the appropriate tools for the appropriate means. I also want to learn how to help my students understand this and its relevance to their own lives. What we need is to find a balance between using the tailored searches and discovering newness. A balance between fostering our social circle of common interests and community in online places like FaceBook and still going out to meet unexpected people in the real world. A balance between personalized filtering for efficiency and filtering that breeds conformity.

On a side note, I'd want to share another thing I've noticed about TED. During my recent 24 hour spell of heavy rains and lack of commitments, I indulged in a few hours of straight TED talks. I haven't done this for ages, so there was loads of material for me to catch up on. This was wonderfully rich time to spend on a random assortment of topics. One thing I always like (often even more than the TED talks themselves) is reading the commentary which follows the release of the talk. I was surprised to see that not one single newly released talk was free of numerous removed by the admin. messages. Countless comments have been deleted, deemed by the admin. to be offensive or inappropriate for the TED audience. Who is this TED admin. I wonder? What did those commenters say? Wouldn't it ultimately be better to let all peoples' voices be heard, in whatever fashion that they want to express themselves, and accordingly be judged by the global audience as each individual chooses to interpret it? The other thing that I noticed was that almost all the removals came following someone expressing the opinion that the talk was not 'good enough' to be a TED talk. Arguments about what the T.E.D. acronym stands for (Technology, Entertainment (not Education) and Design) and what standards people expect from TED lead to comments about certain talks being less than adequate. This negativity, born out of someone's sense of the status quo or intellectual bar, seemed to have led to most of the negative or offensive comments. And I can't help but ask, "Are people seriously arguing over the merits or inherent value of TED talks?"

If you're also in the mood for a TED catch-up - here is a list of recent talks that I really enjoyed:

Paul Nicklen: Tales of ice-bound wonderlands
Terri Moore: How to tie your shoes
Carlo Ratti: Architecture that senses and responds
Michael Pawlyn: Using nature's genius in architecture
Deb Roy: The birth of a word (although it's argued that they're nothing more than flashy and hyped, I still loved seeing these amazing analytics!)