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.
- PARISER, E. (2011) The Filter Bubble, Viking:London ↩