Learning Bubbles

Google knows everything about you. Your shoe size, your marital status, whether you have children, how many and their ages. It knows your age, how you spend your free time, what you do for a living and your political leaning.

Google needs to know everything about you. If it didn’t you probably wouldn’t use it as much because search results would not be anywhere near as relevant and, most importantly, it would not be able to target specific advertising to you, which is Google’s main source of income and, arguably, its Achilles’ heel.

In his book The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser offers a bleak vision of how the internet is evolving, with ever greater personalisation which results in bubbles of information that only show us what the web thinks we want to see1.

This is why, when you search for cheap holidays online, you are then followed all over the internet by ads from companies trying to sell you car hire, affordable hotel rooms and travel insurance.

Pariser’s filter bubble has greater, darker repercussions than just being followed by annoying ads. In order to service this quest for ever greater personalisation, companies have sprung up that buy and sell information about you in automated transactions that take place in less than a second. This way Nike knows when you are most likely to buy some trainers and can bombard you with highly targeted advertising.

I share a certain degree of concern over this capitalisation of private information, but I also acknowledge that we appear to have a natural tendency to create our own bubbles of information without any help from the likes of Google.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that Anders Breivik, the paranoid schizophrenic who murdered 69 people, mostly teenagers, and injured many more in a quest to save Norway from multiculturalism, had had his extreme views reinforced, not tempered, by his internet viewing habits.

Like all of us, Breivik subconsciously ignored information and websites that did not fit in with his world view and beliefs. He only read blogs and fora which shared his extreme right wing ideologies. Breivik had created a bubble all for himself in which he and those who shared his views were right and everybody else’s were wrong.

You don’t have to be a mass murderer to experience this effect. Anyone who uses Twitter or Facebook, whether they realise it or not, has experienced this echo chamber effect. This is why your views and ideas appear so good and convincing when expressed in the virtual world of online social networks, yet their reception is nowhere near as good when aired in the real world of the work place or the staff room.

I don’t think greater personalisation of the web per se will be as bad as Pariser fears. What’s more, I think a greater degree of personalisation and targeting of information would be beneficial to education.

Imagine a search engine that knows you so well that it knows in what year you are, what subjects you are studying, what topics you are currently researching and which websites might help you with your Geography homework.

Imagine a search engine that worries more about how well you are doing at school than it does about targeting ads to you. A search engine that tailor-makes a bespoke learning bubble just for you, providing you with the right content, in the right context and at the right time.

This is why I remain a little sceptical about Google’s educational credentials, or Facebook’s for that matter. I’ll have much more faith in their good intentions if my students were chased around the internet by links to content that might help them complete their Geography homework, not by ads tying to sell them sport shoes.

What do you think?

Many thanks to Stellajo1976 for his bubbly picture.

  1. PARISER, E. (2011) The Filter Bubble, Viking:London
  • Graham Davies

    I find what the government knows about you just as scary. I just renewed my driving licence online – as I am coming up to 70. I was offered the choice of updating my photo, so I did. The website immediately grabbed my most recent photo and my signature from the UK passport site, checked that I was happy to use them – and that’s that!

    • http://www.josepicardo.com José Picardo

      It’s not the fact that Google know so much about us that worries me. It’s what they do with that information.

      Thanks for your comment Graham, as ever.

  • Steve Smith

    Interesting reflection, José. The paragraph about the echo chamber effect rang particularly true for me.

    • http://www.josepicardo.com José Picardo

      When it comes to airing opinions, Twitter can be very much a bubble. Then reality comes along with a pin and pops it.

      Thanks for your comment Steve.

  • http://twitter.com/cordym Michelle Cordy

    Thank you for this blog post. Echo chambers and bubbles are a concern. I am glad this is up for discussion, we must be conscious, as much as possible about the ways the Internet is developing and how that effects our own thinking and ideas. David Weinberger http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/ has also talked about the Echo Chamber in his book Too Big Too Know. This is a natural human tendency, called ‘homophily’ according to Weinberger’s research and contacts with social theorists. This happens with and without the internet. The Internet, as with most things, amplifies this. The Internet has great potential for being democratic and open and there is also great risk for extremists – which is really the end point of the echo chamber. So, what is to be done? Well, I like that Amazon recommends books for me. I like my tribe. But, we must seek friends, networks and contacts to act as our pins to our bubbles. We must seek out a wide range of ideas, just as we always have. It’s just getting more important now. As a teacher, I am very concerned about how we are (or are NOT) teaching these skills. . . this ‘infotention’ and ‘crap detection’ as Howard Rheingold calls it. The question is, according to Weinberger, are we losing the habits of mind to be open-minded, fact-oriented, and eager to explore other’s perspectives? If so, what are we doing about it. I don’t think logging off is a choice. I think we need to make the Internet what we want it to be by our participation. Again, thanks for your thoughtful writing and for inspiring me to think more deeply on the topic. It’s important that we do.

  • Richard Backhouse

    Just as all newspaper readers should choose one the editorials of which they are least likely to agree with (that’s why I read the Guardian), users of Twitter and any online tool which filters information should make sure they get views that oppose their own. Your point about Breivik is well made, but once that point is understood we can all evolve patterns of data collection and analysis that allow us to remain balanced. This is where our teaching young people is crucial – they have to seek (actively) views that they don’t hold, to challenge themselves. Narcissism (see is.gd/04xius) reinforces our natural tendency to use the internet merely as a mirror – that’s the big downside of web2.0

    • http://www.josepicardo.com José Picardo

      I agree entirely that we must teach young people how to operate in this new medium. If we just sit back and accuse social media users of being narcissistic, exhibitionists or any of the other similarly negative epithets we often see levelled at young people in particular (these accusations generally come from users of more traditional media), then we, as teachers, are not fulfilling our primary purpose: to educate.

      Neil Selwyn, for example, points out that young people’s engagement with technology is often “passive, solitary, sporadic and unspectacular, be it at home or in school.” I think that teaching students how to use these technologies effectively for academic purposes is essential if we want them use them appropriately, less sporadically and more spectacularly.