Eli Pariser, the young man who co-founded MoveOn.org, is getting a fair amount of attention with his new book "The Filter Bubble." In the book, he asserts (repeatedly, I might add) that the attempts by software giants like Google and Facebook to personalize our Internet experience by serving up more and more accurate representations of what we want might be impoverishing rather than enriching that experience.
The book comes out at a time when many other attempts to deal with information overload are also in our lives--everything from The Huffington Post, to Paper.li, to Flipboard, Zite, DataSift, or even Netflix.
Everyone seems to think we want to see less, rather than more, information. And they are exploring more and more different ways to filter what we see. I'm not so sure.
Steve Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation and himself a curator of video at Magnify.net, maintains that curation surfaces the "long tail" of content that is worthy but might never be seen. Rosenbaum studied the filtering phenomenon by interviewing 75 experts, and is of the opinion that the acceptance of curators, while still controversial, is becoming more common as our information overload gets worse.
Still, today's filters are a far cry both from the time when we accepted the mainstream media as our curators or from the early days of the World Wide Web, when we "surfed" the net for hours, enamored with the sheer process of discovery, each seeking to curate for herself.
Google was probably the most responsible for engineering the change in our habits by training us to go out more purposefully to search for specific information. As our Google searches get more accurate and more personalized, we see more and more of what we "want" and less and less of what's just "out there." Not too long ago, we found out that no two people get the same results when they search for terms on Google. Results may vary by location, by your search history, and by what else Google knows about you. Google is proud of its personalized search, and even more proud of Google Instant, which fills in your search as you type, based on Google's previous data about your interests.
To Pariser this is bad because it is limiting. On the other hand, Paper.li's founder, Edouard Lambelet agrees with Rosenbaum that it's liberating, but for different reasons. Rosenbaum wants to do it for you, helping you discover. Lambelet makes a tool to let you do it yourself. You can see that the conversation on this potentially controversial subject is all over the map right now.
Pariser calls it "stuck in the You Loop," when everything you read reflects your own values, thoughts, and point of view. At its exaggerated worst, the You Loop is a form of censorship, because you are effectively prevented from seeing something in the same way the Chinese government blacks out negative stories about China on CNN.
Naturally, the creators of many of the new curation tools think Pariser is wrong about the dangers of curation. Curation, says Edouard Lambelet, is best when it reflects your interest graph and leads you to more people who share that interest from whom you can learn, and only fails when it relies too much on your social graph (your friends), who may not share all your interests. And Google, Lambelet maintains, isn't really curation because it still returns too many untrustworthy results.
I maintain that the jury will be out on this one for a long time, especially since the underlying question is one of how much individual freedom we want to sacrifice to an algorithm, no matter how accurate. As we approach what some think of as "the Singularity," things begin to remind me more and more of dystopian science fiction.