In the third year of Facebook’s existence, I sat in the back of an after school Judaica class called Torah High and listened to a rabbi proselytize about the evils of social media. Jews don’t usually believe in the devil, but I suspect he did. The Internet, the rabbi said, was an evil place. Facebook, YouTube and Google were where vice found company; where freaks found freaks, tax evaders found tax evaders, terrorists found terrorists, and Jewish men found Gentile women. It was a world built on individual choice and preference and given every choice imaginable, we were bound to make the wrong ones.
Torah High isn’t exactly Yeshiva, or rabbinical school: a typical afternoon consisted of kosher pizza (looks like pizza, tastes like chicken) and awkward, long-winded lectures in pop philosophy. I imagined the Torah High rabbis as the televangelists Jews never had, stuck interminably with a shiftless, godless audience. But that day our rabbi was onto something—not the iniquity of cyberspace (I was 15 at the time and would have been at home, on Facebook, if I wasn’t listening to him admonish it), but the notion that pursuing your interests to the end of the Earth—even a digital Earth—was, maybe, not ideal for the soul. What our rabbi didn’t know, however, was that the future of the Internet’s most insidious damage lay not in people pursuing their own interests, but in our interests pursuing us.
There is no longer any need to search for what you’re looking for online: start typing the words into a search engine and “Google Instant” will guess what you want before you even finish your sentence. Send a friend an email about your dream about Christian Grey and watch as your sidebar refreshes with ads for sadomasochistic romance novels. Declare yourself single, read some Fox News articles, and behold the deluge of advertisements for websites like ConservativesOnly.com, the American dating site making its way to Canada this month—for singles who’d like to “purge” their “personal dating pool of liberals, progressives, socialists, marxists, communists, feminazis and democrats.” We no longer have to purge the things we don’t like from our lives. The Internet does it for us.
American author and activist Eli Pariser calls this phenomenon “the filter bubble” (he wrote a book of the same name in 2011): otherwise known as the web’s way of narrowing our world view without our consent—regurgitating ideas we like, and leaving out the ones we don’t. Pariser, for example, who is very liberal, noticed his conservative Facebook friends disappearing from view on his newsfeed. Why? Because he wasn’t clicking on their profiles, so Facebook’s algorithms deemed them essentially irrelevant. My current Facebook newsfeed has apparently undergone the same conditioning. Posts align with my political leanings and sometimes my career. (Since I got this job and began posting my articles online, I’ve seen an unusual amount of liberal, gay, Jewish, and journalism topics appear on my Facebook newsfeed, and that’s too niche, I think, to be a coincidence.) It’s convenient, of course, because like most people, I like to read arguments I agree with: arguments that affirm rather than challenge my own opinions. But it’s also narcissistic. And it’s partially responsible for the rising tide of partisan politics on this continent.
It’s interesting then, that we spend so much time talking to kids about Internet privacy by way of keeping their clothes on and their webcams off, but we don’t really talk about what it means from a philosophical or moral perspective. Since I read Pariser’s book I’ve disabled my cookies, enabled all privacy settings, opted out of personalized advertising, and nothing, to my knowledge, has changed. My online world is no less filtered, no less prone to ideological inbreeding. And it will only get worse. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer spoke about her company’s commitment to social graphs and interest graphs, all personalization tools designed to keep us in line with the things we know and love already. Your interest graph gauges what you like based on what you click, which is why advertisers and news outlets inundate you with more of the same. “Whereas once you had to buy the whole paper to get the sports section,” writes Pariser, “now you can go to a sports-only website with enough new content each day to fill 10 papers.” In other words, that story about Mali you would have skimmed or ignored on the front page, but still acknowledged and possibly even returned to? Non-existent when you don’t have to acknowledge it.
When the only way to encounter something that doesn’t interest you is to seek it out, chances are you won’t. It’s funny then that the mantra of this generation is that “we have the world at our fingertips.” It’s the recurring theme in every smartphone ad—something grandparents say over the morning paper while you’re thumbing away on your Android: “Wow, you’ve got the world at your fingertips over there.” The only problem, as Pariser points out, is that it’s awfully hard to see the world when you’re looking in the mirror.