Pariser’s argument is that the world wide web isn’t what he thought it was. The search engines and social networks manipulate what you see in ways they don’t tell you about and which make them money. Algorithms which sift for “relevance” create a personal information world for you: a filter “bubble” screens you off from wider, richer possibilities. The new giants which dominate the information networks, such as Google and Facebook, should be regulated so that they can do better for society.
Pariser is right to draw attention to the major, barely-announced shift in the way that Google adjusts search results to suit an individual (although there’s dispute about the extent to which it happens). But his worry is the latest chapter in a long debate over the “echo chamber” effects of the internet. Does the availability of so much information deliver the paradox of people less well-informed because they can choose only to consume material which supports their existing beliefs and opinions? There is at least one piece of recent research which casts doubt on this widely-held belief.
My own sense, unsupported by scientific inquiry, is that “echo chamber” tendencies are probably more than offset by the internet’s ability to allow instant, rich, serendipitous exploration of the world’s digital library. When was the last time you sat down at the screen to check closing time at Waitrose and, before you knew where you were and after several sideways jumps, found yourself browsing, via a signpost in Arts & Letters Daily, a piece in Lapham’s Quarterly on diets which include earth, chalk and hair?