Illusion of Choice?

Five or so years ago I was enamoured by Cass Sunstein's 2.0. I was writing a dissertation on the power of the internet over the popular consumption of politics and his book was a goldmine of information. It's a follow-up to his original but published in light of the 9/11 attacks. As such his book primarily approaches the problem of how the internet can be used wittingly or unwittingly as a tool for solidifying opinion, thus fuelling extremism in both the states and in Muslim terrorist organisations leading to ideological clash and fundamentally, the War on Terror.

The point he eloquently made was that if you're interest is spiked by a certain ideal, then you actively seek it out on the internet. The people who construct the sites you seek out, who write the blogs you search for and who tweet the things your interested in themselves link to other sources of similar information and opinion. Rapidly you find yourself in a pool of agreement, natural human confirmation bias takes over and you become convinced that everyone concurs and feels the same way. Sunstein says that this becomes part of an unwitting propaganda war of ideologies. Where once you believed a certain thing because the handful of people you encountered believed that way, you can now search out hundreds, thousands of people who agree with your beliefs.

Ironically, my total belief in this theory was further entrenched by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, who extols the capabilities of the modern search engine to find you exactly what you want, when you want and Jaron Lanier in You Are Not A Gadget who tells of flattened culture where we become trapped in a 'virtual reality' of our own construction. Numerous others; David Eagleman, Brian Christian and Steven Johnson tell us that the internet and the widening of our access to it is allowing us to live out our fantasies through the capability of technology to surround us with the world we want to exist. They tell us that it's our human desire, enabled by this technology that is doing this.

So, this week, I'm interested to read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. Pariser seems to be arguing either a new point or indeed a counterpoint to all the reading I have so far on this subject. He seems to argue that commercial interests are fuelling what we see. Through the vast quantities of meta-information gathered by Facebook to the ingenious abilities of the targeted advertising service AdWords, we're not accessing the information we want, or our subconscious wants to confirm, but are being gently steered by the commercial interests of the web's true owners. This seems somewhat sinister. My girlfriend is always impressed by the Google's abilities to pop up an advert of shoes she was looking at two weeks before, when coincidentally now, it's just after pay day. And both Carr and Lanier talk about Google's unwritten manifesto of quantifying all internet users into discrete, well-labelled consumer bases.

I wrote an unpublished essay some time ago about how unaware of the framework that we structure our web-presence into we are. The standardised Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and so on accounts. The protocols and templates that we construct our personal websites (this one included) around make us all victims of standardisation that the internet promised would be made redundant. Adam Curtis in his fantastic documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace begins by tells us that the driving ideas of the internet's pioneers were to set us free by removing the political framework that we were all subject to. He laments that the internet, and it's current owners have used it to heavily reinforce the status quo while giving us the illusion of choice.