A Technical Services Librarian’s Comments on Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You”

Overview of The Filter Bubble

Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You (2011, Penguin) is an overview of the effects of the current trend of algorithmic personalization on not only search results and information feeds online (particularly Google and Facebook), but on the psyche of internet users everywhere–and of course, on democracy.

In a personalized world, we will increasingly be typed and fed only news that is pleasant, familiar, and confirms our beliefs–and because these filters are invisible, we won’t know what is being hidden from us. Our past interests will determine what we are exposed to in the future, leaving less room for the unexpected encounters that spark creativity, innovation, and the democratic exchange of ideas. –Publisher description (full)

I found the book after watching Pariser’s TED Talk (Feb. 2011) on the topic, which is effective and to the point. The book though, is worth the read as it takes the argument beyond the surface, and into the depths: Pariser willingly explores the dangers of this trend to our democracy.

Commentary

Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You got me to thinking about how librarians should respond to the Internet trend towards personalization, and particularly the role of technical services librarians in partnership with instruction librarians. I believe that information literacy education, and perhaps a degree of information activism, are key to responding to personalization in such a way that users are able to meet their information needs online, and that also encourages online innovators to develop the Internet responsibly. Users must understand how they are affected by personalization online, so that they can seek information widely, in an unbiased way and push for services that serve them rather than passively use those that seek first, to advertise to them.

Library users like Google, and expect to use tools like Google (if not Google itself) in order to find the information they need, whether for work or school, home or play. Thus, they need to understand how Google and the other online platforms they use on a day-to-day basis work in ways that affect them. Librarians and other information professionals have a clear teaching responsibility in this regard. We can also advocate for a learning environment in which teaching information literacy is understood to be important. Further, we can partner with information technology specialists and innovators to make sure that the online search environment empowers individuals and thus fosters democracy.

Teaching information literacy, according to the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), “enables learners to master content and extend their investigations, become more self-directed, and assume greater control over their own learning.” And having that control is key. Once control is taken out of the hands of the users, it becomes harder for information needs to be met. It is noteworthy that control can be hidden behind complex technology, coding languages and algorithms at work in online information retrieval systems. In this environment it becomes harder to see that control has been lost at all. Control and information literacy are linked.

An information literate individual is able to: Determine the extent of information needed; Access the needed information effectively and efficiently; Evaluate information and its sources critically; Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base; Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose; Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally. (ACRL, 2000)

How can an individual become information literate if they are not able to meet the above criteria defined by ACRL because the technology involved and search process itself is not transparent enough? Or because we as information professionals aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching information literacy? Or because we aren’t pushing back, and working to change the online information landscape so that it doesn’t become a danger to democracy?

In recognizing the overlap between information literacy and information technology (concepts such as fluency with information technology have been proposed to express this), the effectiveness of information literacy can be improved (ACRL, 2000). Still, I can’t help but wonder if there is a disconnect in the library landscape, between technical services and public services and the teaching of information literacy / information technology fluency. It would be interesting to study whether or not this is so. Because IT and e-resources often land squarely in the domain of technical services, is there a lost opportunity to collaborate with those in public services who are in charge of instruction?

Links

ACRL: Information Literacy Competency Standards in Higher Education (Jan. 2000)
National Research Council. Being Fluent with Information Technology (1999)
Ted Talk: Beware the Filter Bubble (Feb. 2011)
New York Times Review (June 2011)
The Filter Bubble website
Google Books Preview

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