Why Customized Content Isn't as Great (or as horrible) As It Seems

Once upon a time, when the Internet was young, people like Al Gore called it the Information Superhighway. The nickname was in reference to the massive amounts of information we would have access to, being linked to other people, places, things and ideas from all around the world. According to Eli Pariser, however, that theory is becoming just as antiquated as it’s former pseudonym.

In his blog, speeches, and new book, The Filter Bubble, Pariser sheds light on the fact that as search engines and content hubs get more efficient at giving us the content we crave, they are also sheltering us from information that will help us grow as individuals. We are living in a filter bubble that only gives u the information that the system "thinks" we want. What was once supposed to broaden our horizons is now helping to maintain the status quo.

Some may wonder what the problem is. People seem happy to live in a black and white world of MSNBC and Fox News, Coke to Pepsi, and bread buttered right side up or upside down. The issue is that by limiting access to information based on preferences, location, and other factors, it affects our ability to survive.

It is important for people to be challenged, made a bit uncomfortable at times, or at the very least be able to find news about what’s going on in the world. By limiting access to information, creativity is hampered, which in turn, has been shown to hinder survival skills. Human intelligence is based on being able to see and establish patterns or connections between things. It helps us to better understand not only what’s going on around us, but the physics and mechanics of how it all works.

In medieval times, people lived and died within a 10- mile radius of where they were born out of fear. Even today, in large cities such as New York, people rarely travel more than a 10 block radius from their homes. The Internet was supposed to help change this, edging us closer and closer to new things and ways of thinking. Instead, we're still being led around like horses with blinders on who would be too overwhelmed by everything the world has to offer.

To be fair, customized content isn't this ambiguous, big brother, evil entity. It helps do us research without having to file through a million articles, locate that special pair of socks that our autistic child likes, and find restaurants that are great for vegetarians and carnivores alike. We just need to be cognizant of what is going on with our information, and put more thought into the search process. There's nothing wrong with putting Google or Bing in the driver seat, but every once and awhile you should take a detour and see what lies beyond your comfort zone and first page results.

Written by Ken Hammond on May 27, 2011


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Ken Hammond