The distinction between citizen and consumer forms the core of The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You. Are we consumers whose role in society is primarily to purchase and use products, or are we citizens who make informed decisions in an attempt to make life better for ourselves and the world? The Internet, as Eli Pariser convincingly argues in the book, is hurtling toward a consumer model, existing primarily to sell people stuff at the expense of everything else.
Pariser is focused on the “personalization” model, as well as the “filter bubble” that the gives the book its name. The biggest companies on the Internet, specifically Google and Facebook, are changing the Internet to match users’ specific interests, habits, and purchasing preferences, often without us even knowing we’re getting personalized content. Pariser isn’t simply a disgruntled anti-capitalist, though—he lays out the societal and cognitive reasons this particular form of personalization is threatening, using anecdotes, data, philosophy, and social as well as cognitive psychology.
Pariser’s varied approach and thoroughness in discussing possible impacts help The Filter Bubble maintain momentum as a book when the premise suggests that it might be better served as an essay. Pariser also keeps a potentially dry subject compelling, describing complex concepts with brevity and clarity.
He has to be clear, because at a certain level, the personalization he describes sounds like a good thing in many circumstances. And he freely grants that. At a certain level, he argues, personalization’s increasing influence over the Internet intersects with users’ ability to use it to learn and be able to click on what we need instead of what we want. The Filter Bubble’s most straightforward point is that megacorporations filtering the Internet are the new gatekeepers, taking over from newspaper editors and TV producers, but “we’ve given very little scrutiny to the interests behind the new curators.” Part of this is related to the techno-utopian claims that have fueled many programmers. Pariser devotes a chapter to the topic, although he struggles with trying not to overgeneralize while still saying something meaningful.
Although The Filter Bubble can be depressing, Pariser is almost as persuasive at describing potential solutions as he is at finding problems. Twitter is mentioned as a more transparent, user-filterable social-networking site than Facebook, while Pariser also implies that the drive toward automated filtering may be at a high point, and will ebb back toward user control. Like most of The Filter Bubble’s arguments, it’s compelling, but unlike with the rest, there are reasons to hope it’s correct.