MoveOn.org sends me emails... You know, that progressive online grassroots political action committee that helped Obama become president by spreading the word using social networking and web 2.0 stuff? It's funded by everyday people who make very small donations, but want to see things change in this country. Find out more here. They claim to be the largest political action committee in the US. I enjoy MoveOn because they send out a reasonable number of brief emails about political topics of debate in congress that often include invitations to electronically sign petitions.
They sent me a message today with the subject line "What Google and Facebook are Hiding." I opened the email, curious. Today the email was promoting a book written by Eli Pariser, MoveOn's political action executive director, titled The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You.
Check it out here.
The free internet is an issue that MoveOn often makes a fuss about, perhaps because it is the very foundation of their power. Internet filters that remove content based on a user's predicted interests could be devastating to an organization like MoveOn, as it could demobilize the expansion of their agenda. This organization is proof that the Internet holds power as a tool for grassroots organizing. It has been growing it's political agenda along with the popularity of the Internet since the 1990's. Much of their target audience appears to be progressive youth who grew of age as the Internet became an important part of popular culture. This is an important constituency because historically people in their 20s didn't care much to vote. Except young people now actually care, kinda like our hippie parents taught us too, right? We made a big difference in the last presidential election.
So, I've been following the links MoveOn sends me regarding the free Internet and exercising my critical thinking about the present role of the Internet in society. Seriously, some people think the Internet will replace libraries? The future of information and information usage is an important factor in my career choices and life goals. I just finished a degree to be a librarian! I really, really care about helping people make thoughtful decisions for themselves about where they choose to find information that is trustworthy, useful, reliable, and interesting. The future of the Internet is a problem that could determine if I am able to put food on the table in my home. (Sorry, I'm in the middle of reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, oh yeah. But seriously! I want to work, not go hungry.) I think it is absolutely essential that information seekers using the Internet to find important information are highly educated about the nature of the resource they are using. It's fun for the average person to surf, but if the stakes are high, well then, what if the website we choose to trust was wrong?
I agree with MoveOn and Pariser that access to information from balanced perspectives is essential to a healthy democracy. As an avid internet user, I would prefer to know that I am able to quickly and easily access the best of what is out there... As a librarian, I know that this Internet is a pipe dream. A huge number of websites are like asking Joe Schmoe walking down the street about his personal interests. Anyone can publish almost anything without regard to accuracy of content, and to the uneducated information seeker this can be problematic. For example, a friend of mind had a patch of cancerous skin. She looked the condition up online, and discovered websites filled with frightening facts about her type of growth and horror stories about insurance companies refusing to cover expensive treatments. When she spoke to a medical professional about her findings, she learned that her research only served to scare her half to death, not educate her about the truth of her situation.
MoveOn has been claiming for a while now that there are numerous ways that wealthy Internet companies have been manipulating vulnerable American Internet users and that these actions are a threat to our democracy. These manipulations often are financially motivated.
An example that immediately comes to mind and pissed me off was Internet Service Providers limiting users' bandwidth to sites that conflict with their business interests. Basically, Time Warner wasn't allowing bandwidth to users enjoying Skype because they also offer a telephone service... Grrrrrrr. Roadrunner... Lightning Fast! Bleep Bleeeeeep. Hypocrites!
So anyway, the central point that Pariser makes in this video that compelled me to respond is this: The Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, not what we need to see. (Perhaps implying political information is important.)
In other words, the largest business interests online are doing what the major television networks have done to beloved television. They are selecting the best selling information to place as the most prominently available information. If you took the time to watch the video linked above, you remember Pariser claims this is bad for democracy, using healthy eating as an analogy. And what a fabulous diagram he created to show us how we are being carefully sheltered from the best the Internet has to offer based on our typical information searching patterns! All those diversely colored polka dots just beyond the borders of the sphere representing our personal online activity!!! BECAUSE THE ONLY LINKS that "actually exist" in most peoples minds are THE FIRST FIVE and NOT THE OTHER THREE HUNDRED THIRTY TWO MILLION PLUS HITS THAT ARE COMPLETELY IGNORED BY A THE TYPICAL USER SEARCHING "EGYPT" AS HE SUGGESTED. I'm sorry but seriously?! What grade are we in? Where's the freakin' World Book Encyclopedia when we need it, folks? Or perhaps we might refine our search terms? I wonder if Pariser's target audience are those people who think that libraries are a waste of money because everything is online anyway... Is he aiming at the silicon valley? facebook? google? Does he think he's going to change anything? I can't answer these questions without reading his book. I will say this: if people out there actually think the Internet is good enough source to meet ALL their informational needs, then society is pretty much screwed and we'll end up living like the movie Idiocracy.
Folks: There is a solution! The American public needs to realize that the Internet is not the same as television. TV taught us to passively turn off our brains and allow values, ideas, and "entertainment" to enter our thought stream while relaxing and unwinding... in effect allowing ourselves to be programed to think what we are told to think, and rarely think critically about life unless specifically encouraged to do so and then the critically thought out conclusions were placed before us in neat 30 or 60 minute packages, well you get the idea. It's messed up. But now we live in a new age: The Age of Information!!! This Internet thingy has a damn lot of potential to spark the public to re-educate ourselves to think. BUT we must figure out how to USE these new found powers of communication effectively. Good Luck.