The Algorithm-Industrial-Complex and Me
Post from the 2011 Conference in Boston
Among the many important and practical ideas that have stayed with me since last week’s Communications Network conference in Boston, perhaps the most penetrating has been one advanced by Eli Pariser in the first plenary. He spoke stirringly about a range of issues revolving around the themes of his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. The idea that really struck me was the connection he made between the mutating corporations controlling information and the great food-industrial complex that has had such an immense impact on our lives over the past 60 years.
My friend and colleague Lucas Held also talked about how this idea hit home for him at the conference. Over the past week, as I’ve clicked “like” several times and chosen which stories I wanted to read online, I’ve done so with Eli’s voice in the back of my head.
Pariser’s food/information corollary is brilliant. The comparison of the food industry and the companies controlling our information intake provides an exceedingly useful means of examining the existential conundrums we face in our daily information consumption.
As a hardcore fitness freak, I must admit that I have been condescending and judgmental toward those who are overweight. Even though I know that there are many elements of our system and policies that conspire against those who are overweight – food policy that makes sugars and grains cheap, transportation policies that keep people in cars, family histories that induce unhealthy diets and sedentary living – I still tend to blame individuals for their poor choices.
We now face a similar set of issues and questions around information intake and how we exercise our roles as engaged citizens. If the links you see and the results of your searches are basically the product of your previous explorations, do we have anyone but ourselves to blame for the quality of the information that these companies present us?
The PR flacks of the food industrial complex have for years told us that they simply produce the products that consumers want. But we’ve come to realize that what they have been selling us for more than half a century is not what our bodies need but what provides instant gratification and maximum profit for the companies. Pariser has performed an Upton Sinclair-like service by illuminating the fact that Facebook, Google, Amazon and the other powers of the Algorithm-Industrial-Complex are in a similar position to impact our lives.
In the past week, I’ve been clicking on more political postings, “like”-ing negative stories that I want more people to read and trying to spend less time online looking at items that are merely entertaining. Still, just as with the food industry, I know that my own healthy choices may have little impact on the rest of the world. So the question is, how can we create a system that encourages healthy information consumption and the exercise of active citizenship without limiting or otherwise “censoring” people’s access to LOLcats, TMZ and Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter feed.
I’ve been giving it a lot of thought since I heard Pariser’s message, but I still can’t offer any viable solutions. I suppose the first thing to do, just like the healthy eating/exercise problem, is raise awareness. But looking at our nation’s success in that realm, I’m skeptical of our ability to make progress through awareness alone. Perhaps we need to get the successful anti-smoking campaign people on this issue. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.