Not long ago I was online looking for a pair of waterproof sandals. My family was heading off to Costa Rica for a wedding the following week, and I’d read that the hiking trails through many of the national parks in that tropical country could get wet and muddy. I didn’t buy or order anything in the end, but, sure enough, whenever I was online during the next few days, there were ads staring back at me for just that kind of footwear. God bless the folks at Google.
This is nothing terribly new. The change began back in December of 2009, when Google, quietly, unceremoniously, began customizing our search results according to whatever information they can garner about us by tracking our online activities. We’re talking everything here from our social media pursuits, to our political leanings, to our ‘window’ shopping. It’s a whole new era where the giants of the online world—Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft—are all engaged in a furious race to gather as much data as they can on us, so that they can then sell it to advertisers.
They’ve created what MoveOn.org board president Eli Pariser calls a “filter bubble” around each of us, and the implications of this process are profound. You’d like to think that there’s an element of objectivity involved when you search for any particular information online. You’re looking to discover the best electric lawnmower, or the dates for the War of the Roses, or how to make yogurt at home, and you assume that Google will simply bring you unbiased info from the most popular, or the most authenticated sites. Don’t be too sure. We are all increasingly living within our own unique information bubble, as determined by the Google algorithm, and that determination is made with money in mind.
It’s an unsettling prospect, especially when combined with what Nicholas Carr first suggested back in 2008 in an article in The Atlantic magazine—that Google is also making us stupid. Carr feels that online reading has essentially become an ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) experience, one where we skim, multitask, skip from one information bit to another, all in a disorderly process very different from the “deep reading” we used to do in the past. Feeling guilty? I confess. I think I may have developed an online reading technique which has me reading mostly just the opening sentence of the paragraph in each article or post I arrive at on the net. ‘Surfing’ may be an old but still perfect descriptor of the process—staying up on the surface of the article, moving fast, perhaps enjoying the ride, but rarely stopping to ponder or examine what lies beneath.
Carr quite rightly points out that science has in recent times proven that our brain is not a static entity, even in adulthood. It regularly rewires itself according to the stimuli or exercise we give it. Therefore the likelihood that, when reading online the way I do, I am training my brain to be skittish, incapable of sustained attention, and very easily bored. The intellectual laziness made possible by the web means that my knowledge base remains shallow, if fairly diverse.
When the Internet first arrived in our lives, it seemed too good to be true, and I guess it was. At least it was too good to last. A medium that originally seemed entirely open and accessible, free of central control, there to simply accommodate the free flow of ideas and information, has since those heady days steadily closed in upon itself. And it has done so under the sustained pressure of commercial capitalism, with all its many rewards and penalties. Alas, just like the days before cyberspace, it seems there is no free surfboard ride. As we skim the surface of the information sea, just like the surfer riding toward both rocks and sand, we should keep our head up. Maybe we should even consider jumping off, into the deeper water, before we hit the shore.