The thesis at the heart of The Filter Bubble is simple: We are what we search for.
It seems obvious that the more able a search engine is to deliver results that most closely match our own personal needs the better it must be. Speed and relevance are the two factors that the searcher will most appreciate, but these attributes come at a price: they are enhanced because the search engine is using a whole range of dataset and filters drawn from our previous activity to customise and limit results for speedier delivery.
The downside is that as we express ourselves in terms of Facebook 'likes' or, more subtly, reveal ourselves through Google searches, we are presenting data gold dust to marketeers.
The Filter Bubble goes beyond privacy concerns arising from internet click trails, and the enormous amount of data routinely being collected and traded by online businesses, to explore more sophisticated scenarios which suggests our very view of the world is being manipulate by those who are trying to sell products and services. From this rich mosaic of potentially highly personal information it is possible to perform what Facebook adviser Dean Eckles calls persuasion profiling; someone who likes this and this, and is friends with that sort of person, is likely to be more susceptible to that framing of a selling message.
Pariser takes these ideas still further. As search becomes yet more identified with the individual it is, for example, possible to see a personalised search based on, say, perceived IQ. In a sentence that might appeal to Edward Bernays, Pariser suggests: "In the wrong hands persuasion profiling gives companies the ability to circumvent your rational decision-making, tap into your psychology, and draw out your compulsions."
At the same time, personalised search can also narrowly focus the breadth of our inquiry and restrict the range of new ideas to which we are exposed. The implications for democracy and pluralism are worrying, with Pariser going so far as to claim: "We are now on the verge of of self-fulfilling identities in which the Internet's distorted picture of us becomes who we really are."
So at the heart of The Filter Bubble there is an interesting paradox. The very urges that that make us want to be promote our individuality though social networks at the same time locate us into ever more tightly drawn market demographics.
As Pariser observes, the conditions that promote 'personalised search' wouldn't be as appealing if it "didn't play to our post-material desire to maximise self-expression."
The more we try to create an individual persona, the more we become integrated into a marketing niche, that is designed to constrain and direct choice: "Algorithmic induction can lead to a level of information determinism in which our past clickstreams entirely determine our future."
The Filter Bubble is a highly readable book which, although stretching some of its main concerns almost to breaking point, raises some very important issues for those concerned with online communication and ethics.
If you are the sort of person who might tap Shirky, Gillmor or Zittrain into Google, don't be surprised to find personalised searching pointing you to Eli Pariser...
- The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser, 294pp, Penguin, £12.99 (Review copy)