Social media has the power to surprise us, amuse us, shock us, anger us, and disturb us. As we surf through YouTube, Pinterest, Google+, and other sites, we’re looking for the “wow” factor—for things that grab our attention and make us want to share. But what happens when the “wow” gets programmed out by the algorithm? What happens when the sites we frequent anticipate our natural inclinations and tastes in order to show us only things we already know and love? When our past interests and acts determine what tomorrow will bring? What happens when the 57 signals monitored by Google to tweak and personalize results create a “filter bubble,” as Moveon.org founder Eli Pariser calls it? In his words:
The filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online… What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are and it depends on what you do, but the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in—and more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out. This moves us very quickly toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.
In his TEDGlobal Talk on “How algorithms shape our world,” entrepreneur Kevin Slavin argues that we’re living in a world increasingly designed for—and controlled by— algorithms. He shows how these complex computer programs determine everything from espionage tactics and stock prices to movie scripts. And he warns that we are writing code we don’t understand, with implications we can’t control. In our digital world, the algorithm has been elevated to almost godlike status—wielder of infinite power, beyond human understanding, and capable of great acts of destruction. Pariser has called on his fellow netizens to pressure Facebook, Google, and other companies to reconsider their approach and replace current algorithms with those that show us not just what we would likely choose but also things that challenge us and even make us uncomfortable.
An uprising of humanity against the all-powerful computer code. The future envisioned by the sci-fi writers of the last century may finally be upon us.
Excerpted from Euro RSCG Worldwide’s latest Prosumer Report, “This Digital Life.”