What 10,000 sheep have to do with Johnny Cash, Marshall McLuhan and the evolution of storytelling.
I was thrilled to see my friend Aaron Koblin, presently of Google Creative Labs, take the TED stage earlier this year. I’m an enormous data viz geek, I’m deeply interested in the evolution of storytelling, and have been a longtime supporter of Aaron’s work. This talk is an excellent primer to both the discipline itself and Aaron’s stellar projects within it, but also an insight-packed treasure chest even for those already immersed in the world of data visualization. Perhaps most interestingly, Aaron revises iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan‘s revered catchphrase, “The medium is the message,” to a thought-proviking, culture-appropriate modernization: “The interface is the message.”
An interface can be a powerful narrative device, and as we collect more and more personally and socially relevant data, we have an opportunity and maybe even an obligation to maintain the humanity and tell some amazing stories as we explore and collaborate together.” ~ Aaron Koblin
How the web gives us what we want to see, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Most of us are aware that our web experience is somewhat customized by our browsing history, social graph and other factors. But this sort of information-tailoring takes place on a much more sophisticated, deeper and far-reaching level than we dare suspect. (Did you know that Google takes into account 57 individual data points before serving you the results you searched for?) That’s exactly what Eli Pariser, founder of public policy advocacy group MoveOn.org, explores in his fascinating and, depending on where you fall on the privacy spectrum, potentially unsettling new book, The Filter Bubble — a compelling deep-dive into the invisible algorithmic editing on the web, a world where we’re being shown more of what algorithms think we want to see and less of what we should see.
I met Eli in March at TED, where he introduced the concepts from the book in one of this year’s best TED talks. Today, I sit down with him to chat about what exactly “the filter bubble” is, how much we should worry about Google, and what our responsibility is as content consumers and curators — exclusive Q&A follows his excellent TED talk:
The primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.” ~ Eli Pariser
What, exactly, is “the filter bubble”?
EP: Your filter bubble is the personal universe of information that you live in online — unique and constructed just for you by the array of personalized filters that now power the web. Facebook contributes things to read and friends’ status updates, Google personally tailors your search queries, and Yahoo News and Google News tailor your news. It’s a comfortable place, the filter bubble — by definition, it’s populated by the things that most compel you to click. But it’s also a real problem: the set of things we’re likely to click on (sex, gossip, things that are highly personally relevant) isn’t the same as the set of things we need to know.
How did you first get the idea of investigating this?
EP: I came across a Google blog post declaring that search was personalized for everyone, and it blew my mind. I had no idea that Google was tailoring its search results on an individual basis at all — the last I’d heard, it was showing everyone the same “authoritative” results. I got out my computer and tried it with a friend, and the results were almost entirely different. And then I discovered that Google was far from the only company that was doing this. In fact, nearly every major website is, in one way or another. (Wikipedia is a notable exception.)
In an age of information overload, algorithms certainly finding the most relevant information about what we’re already interested in more efficiently. But it’s human curators who point us to the kinds of things we didn’t know we were interested in until, well, until we are. How does the human element fit into the filter bubble and what do you see as the future of striking this balance between algorithmic efficiency and curatorial serendipity?
EP: The great thing about algorithms is that, once you’ve got them rolling, they’re very cheap. Facebook doesn’t have to pay many people to edit the News Feed. But the News Feed also lacks any real curatorial values — what you’re willing to Like is a poor proxy for what you’d actually like to see or especially what you need to see. Human curators are way better at that, for now — knowing that even though we don’t click on Afghanistan much we need to hear about it because, well, there’s a war on. The sweet spot, at least for the near future, is probably a mix of both.
One interesting place this comes up is at Netflix — the basic math behind the Netflix code tends to be conservative. Netflix uses an algorithm called Root Mean Squared Error (RMSE, to geeks), which basically calculates the “distance” between different movies. The problem with RMSE is that while it’s very good at predicting what movies you’ll like — generally it’s under one star off — it’s conservative. It would rather be right and show you a movie that you’ll rate a four, than show you a movie that has a 50% chance of being a five and a 50% chance of being a one. Human curators are often more likely to take these kinds of risks.
How much does Google really know about us, in practical terms, and — more importantly — how much should we care?
EP: That depends on how much you use Google — about me, it knows an awful lot. Just think: it’s got all of my email, so it not only has everything I’ve written to friends, it has a good sense of who I’m connected to. It knows everything I’ve searched for in the last few years, and probably how long I lingered between searching for something and clicking the link. There are 57 signals that Google tracks about each user, one engineer told me, even if you’re not logged in.
Most of the time, this doesn’t have much practical consequence. But one of the problems with this kind of massive consolidation is that what Google knows, any government that is friends with Google can know, too. And companies like Yahoo have turned over massive amounts of data to the US government without so much as a subpoena.
Companies like Yahoo have turned over massive amounts of data to the US government without so much as a subpoena.” ~ Eli Pariser
I’d also argue there’s a basic problem with a system in which Google makes billions off of the data we give it without giving us much control over how it’s used or even what it is.
Do you think that we, as editors and curators, have a certain civic responsibility to expose audiences to viewpoints and information outside their comfort zones in an effort to counteract this algorithmically-driven confirmation bias, or are people better left unburdened by conflicting data points?
EP: In some ways, I think that’s the primary purpose of an editor — to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.
Is it possible to reconcile personalization and privacy? What are some things we could do in our digital lives to strike an optimal balance?
EP: Well, personalization is sort of privacy turned inside out: it’s not the problem of controlling what the world knows about you, it’s the problem of what you get to see of the world. We ought to have more control over that — one of the most pernicious things about the filter bubble is that mostly it’s happening invisibly — and we should demand it of the companies we use. (They tend to argue that consumers don’t care — we should let them know we do.)
On an individual level, I think it comes down to varying your information pathways. There was a great This American Life episode which included an interview with the guy who looks at new mousetrap designs at the biggest mousetrap supply company. As it turns out, there’s not much need for a better mousetrap, because the standard trap does incredibly well, killing mice 90% of the time.
The reason is simple: Mice always run the same route, often several times a day. Put a trap along that route, and it’s very likely that the mouse will find it and become ensnared.
So, the moral here is: don’t be a mouse. Vary your online routine, rather than returning to the same sites every day. It’s not just that experiencing different perspectives and ideas and views is better for you — serendipity can be a shortcut to joy.
Ed. note:The Filter Bubble is out today and one of the timeliest, most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time — required reading as we embrace our role as informed and empowered civic agents in the world of web citizenship.
Donating = Loving
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:
Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.
Finding practical applications for philosophy, or what Ovid can teach us about sex.
One of our favorite unattributed quotes goes as follows: “Life is a test. It is only a test. If this were your actual life, you would have been given better instructions.”
The good news is that guidance is in fact out there, which is why we’ve put together a short list of reads (and one documentary) that gather the best of what we’ve collectively learned about the tricky art of living. Where the self-help genre can be trite, a byproduct of the latest pop-culture trends, there’s comfort in knowing that these picks go deeper in their quest for human self-actualization.
[A]nyone who hopes to enrich his or her life by experiencing it in the light of classic philosophical and literary works can hope to find something here. Anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing… anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next.”
From Dante to David Foster Wallace, All Things Shining suggests that non-religious westerners look for sacraments in (sometimes surprising) new places. Places like the football field, as one of the book’s authors proposed during a recent appearance on The Colbert Report. Watch him get genially punted about by Colbert here:
Director Astra Taylor has her subjects – and their minds – on the move in Examined Life: Philosophy Is in the Streets. What’s most refreshing about her excellent 2009 documentary is how it portrays today’s greatest living philosophers interacting with the world.
Cornel West expounds on the “funk” of birth from the backseat of a taxi cab driving through the streets of New York; Michael Hardt talks about political revolution while rowing a canoe through Central Park’s reservoir; and Slavoj Zizek holds forth on the Anthropocene while standing in the middle of a landfill. The Real doesn’t get much realer than this.
On the critical issues of justice, Martha Nussbaum (interviewed along Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive) remarks:
The Social Contract tradition is of course an academic, philosophical tradition, but it also has tremendous influence on popular culture and our general public life. Because every day we hear things like ‘those people don’t pay their own way’… So the idea that the good member of society is a producer who contributes advantage to everyone is a very live idea, and it lies behind the decline of welfare programs in this country.”
If their peripatetic musings leave you hungry for more, Taylor also published the complete interviews with eight of our most eminent contemporary minds as a book.
Running on the treadmill is an occasion for the following observation:
So let’s say Foucault is right: the gym is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an overtly friendly club on a covert mission to monitor not just your heart rate but your general regularity as a subject. Now turn that argument on its head: the state wouldn’t need to keep bodies docile if they didn’t hold the power to subvert it, which is to reconceive the body as a political weapon, an agent of resistance.”
What we liked most about Breakfast with Socrates was its absorption in the quotidian aspects of life, since, as its epigraph from the writer Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
In Morning, Noon, and Night something quite personal is at stake; namely, Weinstein’s own reckoning with the passing of time. His readings in the book’s latter half are particularly sensitive to the irrefutable phenomenon of mortality. To wit:
Baudelaire and Freud are cartographers of a special sort: they are alive to the temporal destinies of cities and humans. What they tell us, in their own way, is that humans are also historical monuments, replete with stories, memories, scar tissue, and the living pith of days and works.”
Alongside classics like Ulysses, contemporary works from Marjane Satrapi and Jonathan Safran Foer also appear in Weinstein’s existential exigesis.
THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY
No survey of life lessons derived from luminaries would be complete without a pick from writer Alain de Botton. In The Consolations of Philosophy we get his well-established blend of wit and wisdom applied, most comfortingly, to the aspects of life that cause the most anxiety. In a chapter entitled “Consolation for Not Having Enough Money,” de Botton trades on the legacy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.
Wealth is of course unlikely ever to make anyone miserable. But the crux of Epicurus’s argument is that if we have money without friends, freedom and an analysed life, we will never truly be happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”
Illustrations humorously illuminate de Botton’s other chapters, which draw on Seneca (how to address frustration and loss), Schopenhauer (on healing a broken heart), and Montaigne (for those suffering from feelings of inadequacy).
These five items draw deeply and across disciplines from the humanities and the social sciences, reminding us that we have a lot to learn still from those who have labored, lived, and loved before us. Better yet, we also get to be entertained on this long and winding road to enlightenment.
Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.
Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.
Brain Pickings has a free weekly interestingness digest. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week's best articles. Here's an example. Like? Sign up.
donating = loving
Brain Pickings remains ad-free and takes hundreds of hours a month to research and write, and thousands of dollars to sustain. If you find any joy and value in it, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:
(If you don't have a PayPal account, no need to sign up for one – you can just use any credit or debit card.)
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:
Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps supportBrain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated.