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Nelson Mandela’s favorite poem was “Invictus,” in which the last verse states “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Perhaps today, Mandela, one of history’s greatest activists, would not believe so much in the words of the poet William Ernest Henley if he knew that, nowadays, his activism would probably only reach those that were already convinced. This is closely related to the concept of the filter bubble.

Since 2009, different users obtain different results from the same search in search engines. Search engines and other artificial intelligence programs are now capable of suggesting the results they consider the best for each individual user, using about 57 indicators (user location, browser being used or recently visited websites) to deduct who the user is and what kinds of pages each user likes. These are what are known as filter bubbles.

In his book “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You” (Taurus, 2017), Eli Pariser highlights how varied search results can be, even for individuals with relatively similar interests.

In 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig caused a spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Eli Pariser asked two friends to search for “BP” in a particular search engine. The results of the two searches were considerably different: one of the users was directed to information about investments relating to BP and the other was shown the news. According to Eli Pariser, we always seek out information means or resources that suit our interests; however, filter bubbles go that little bit further:

  1. Each filter is unique, created specifically for the user based on the user’s interests and priorities.
  2. Filters are invisible: users receive the information the search engine considers of interest to them, but users are not aware of the parameters behind this. For example, Eli Pariser’s friend that received information about investments did not understand why she got those results, as she was not an investor.
  3. Users cannot decide whether to enter a bubble or not; they receive biased information on a default basis. Search engines consider that this is the kind of information the user wants to receive simply because the user has seen such information.

This reality has a double hidden side. On the one hand, there is what Danah Boy defined in 2009 as “the psychological equivalent of obesity.” If our information resources are personalized for us, there is less margin for unexpected encounters, learning and creativity. We constantly reaffirm our beliefs and only observe those aspects of society that entertain and stimulate us, omitting other realities that do not make it into our bubble as they are considered less attractive.

On the other hand, there is the constant flow of information that our data generate in relation to us. We are not aware of the constant traffic of information generated by our data, which companies use to show us personalized advertisements, basing this on our interests and the mood they perceive of us. Companies do this to promote their business without the consumer being aware of the tactic underlying the advertisements appearing subliminally on the internet.

Companies are not unaware of these circumstances that their employees experience. It is more than convenient for them to be aware of the reality on the internet when managing their employees’ training obligations, both regarding the definition of the training contents and the method in which the training is given. The same conclusion can be drawn from possible selection processes delegated in software or conclusions based on data delegated to IT programs.

As Eli Pariser states in his book, for some time, it seemed as if internet was going to re-democratize society. However, according to Pariser, democracy requires dependency in relation to fact sharing, while the internet offers separate parallel universes, preventing us from being the owners of our own destiny because it is our very destiny that defines our destiny and directs internet. Perhaps Nelson Mandela would not have achieved what he did if the only people that listened to what he had to say were those that fought for the same cause.

 

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