Internet Personalization, Babel, and Pentecost
A version of this blog was posted previously on Gathering Voices a blog of TheThoughtfulChristian.com.
Consider the following two experiments. First, if you are on Facebook, have you probably noticed that many of your friends are missing from your newsfeed. It isn’t because they don’t post updates. It’s because their updates don’t fit with your preferences. For example, if you tend to favorite and forward news stories that come from sources like FoxNews or The O’Reilly Factor, chances are you will no longer see friends’ posts that highlight sources like MSN or Rachel Madow. Facebook’s filter decides you won’t “like” these posts and thus you don’t need to see them. Go ahead, look up a few of your friends who you know have different viewpoints from your own and see how recently they have posted and what you have missed.
Second, google something like “draught in California” and then ask a friend to do the same thing on a different device. Chances are you will both see very different search results based on your past history. If you read lots of business related news, you are likely to see results that focus on the economic impact of the draught. On the other hand if you click more often on political and educational sites, you are more likely to hear about policy proposals or climate change.
These two experiments demonstrate that when we log-on to the Internet, we are more and more dependent on software platforms that utilize what Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble.” In his book, The Filter Bubble, he remarks “Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us–what I’ve come to call a filter bubble–which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.” (9) In the example of Facebook, the filter bubble limits what you know about your friends and also keeps your worldview much smaller by eliminating competing information. If we compare the diversity of what the internet offers and what real users experience, we find that most of us live in very closed online spaces regarding religion, news, geographic location, and so on. If the promise of the Internet was an open commons where all had a voice, filter bubbles work to the traditional academic canon to select what’s important and what’s not, determining who is in and who is out. Unlike the traditional academic canon, this one is personalized to you!
The filtering software works in a few different ways: it learns about you to predict what you like (e.g. netflix recommendations); it prioritizes information based on popularity (e.g. facebook news feed like button); and it sends unique information to you based on these and other factors (e.g. google search). Pariser shows how these filters lead to online lives marked by homophily (the increased bonding and association with people and ideas similar to us). In other words, the filters not only learn from us, they also shape our choices (which movie we are likely to choose, which friend we know the most about, and which search result we click, since no one goes further than page two). The more I’m surrounded by people and information that is like (or likable) to me, the more I lose the diversity of voices and ideas the Internet encompasses creating a confirmation bias of my own viewpoint.
This confirmation often mimics current ‘real world’ social trends of economic power and partisan news control. The openness of the internet leads to claims of equal voice and opportunity, which is true to a certain extent. Anyone with access to the internet can have a blog, but your blog may never be read without promotion by google, paid advertisements, and high speed connections. As Astra Taylor writes in The People’s Platform, “The openness of the web reflects and even amplifies real-world inequalities as often as it ameliorates them.” (10)
The restricting of our worlds by unseen filtering reminds me of two scripture texts: Tower of Babel (Gen 11: 1-9) and Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-21). Pentecost is often interpreted by Christians as a correction, or overturning of the sin of Babel. If Babel is about God punishing people with multiple languages, Pentecost is read as God erasing the problem of multiple languages so the disciples preaching and evangelizing is heard by all. This reading suggests that early Christians got “sameness” right unlike the builders at Babel. However, as José Miguez-Bonino in a chapter from Return to Babel suggests, Babel is better understood as a story about God’s gift of difference and Pentecost, a story about understanding this difference. In destroying the tower and scattering the people, God denies a false unity based on sameness (one language and one political power) and gives people the freedom of multiple languages, geography, and political power, as Letty Russell explains in Just Hospitality. At Pentecost, Peter Gomes argues in a sermon entitled Beyond the Human Point of View, we did not lose the gift of difference, instead we received “Spirit-induced understanding” as they heard in their our own native languages (Acts 2: 8).
In other words, we are told the Internet is a gateway to the confusion and excitement of Pentecost, while the filter bubble works unseen like the architects of Babel to narrow and create a personalized tower. However, Pentecost and Babel are about the gift of difference, then we are called to celebrate diversity of language, viewpoints, geographic location (maybe even religious approaches to knowing God). Pariser writes, “Habits are hard to break. But just as you notice more about the place you live when you take a new route to work, varying your path online dramatically increases your likelihood of encountering new ideas and people” (223).
Rather than continue to pretend our use of the Internet is “free” we need to unveil the architecture of the filter bubble. The system is already engineered. Astra Taylor argues, “No doubt, some will find the idea of engineering platforms to promote diversity or adapting laws to curb online harassment unsettling and paternalistic, but such criticism ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind: they are designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who want a return on investment, and advertisers, who want to sell us things.” (139). Do we want to continue to build the Tower of Babel with one purpose and claims to God-like power, or do we want to enjoy and be challenged by the diversity of a cacophony that requires spirit-induced understanding?
While we work on pushing companies to change and governments to pass legislation, individuals can take action. Why not knock a few blocks off Babel and learn to listen like Pentecost? Turn off your google search personalization or use a different search engine (gasp). Use twitter instead of facebook to see all updates not just the ones other friends “liked.” Switch your news source daily or read more than one for the headline stories. It would be a bit like adding new readings outside the canon (whether related to feminism or to the church fathers) to a syllabus this semester.