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

What do librarians “do” anyways?

Many librarians and information professionals must field this question. Actually, we are probably lucky when the quizzical look in a friend or relative’s eye is actually transferred to a verbal question, rather than remaining in the murky–and more often than not rather vague–conceptual territory of the mind. Honestly, after two years of graduate school, I still find the question a bit difficult to navigate. I don’t want to be overly-technical and abstruse, and at the same time I want to give enough detail to impart the import (and legitimacy) of the professional contributions of librarians and information professionals* to our cultural heritage.

So that is where I tried to begin the other day, when a co-worker (I work part-time in retail) asked me what it actually is that librarians do. Actually, the conversation began, when she asked if libraries ever housed photographic collections. She seemed surprised to find that they can and do, which is evidence of the preconceptions and stereotypes about what a library is, that abound. Many non-librarian friends of mine are so stuck on books as the sole domain of libraries, when of course, really any information object or resource type can be. And it seems to me that they often think librarians do nothing more than familiarize themselves with current publications–really that is just one aspect of the job of collection managers. Maybe a bit of bitter has rubbed off on me, though. Certainly, we are often specialized!

So, as I attempted to explain the role of stewardship as one of the many aspects of library and information science, I got excited when the response from my co-worker was, “That certainly is an interesting way to look at it.” I thought to myself, I sure am doing well, I’m showing her a new way to perceive of librarians and the job that we do! However, as we all have, I’m sure, experienced, “interesting” is such a loaded word, that can actually mean, “Oh! That sure is cool” or alternatively, “Hmmm, I’m not so sure about the legitimacy of that claim.” So as I started to continue, feeling really great about myself, and ready to move on to the other aspects of librarianship (preservation really is access, you know), she began to tell me a story. She described an assignment she had done for a college course, in which cultural heritage collections–I believe they had a choice of visiting a library, museum, or really any sort of special collection–were observed by students, and analyzed (and critiqued) as reflections of mainstream society, continuing to marginalize the marginal, etc., etc.

Now, as she continued to describe her experience, and the GLBT special collection that she visited, my heart was sinking, and I couldn’t hide this from her (I wear my heart on my sleeve). I found it hard to articulate both that she was right, that yes, libraries and other cultural heritage institutions reinforce a primarily Western-white-wealthy-straight male viewpoint, and that the profession is aware of this issue and that publications and professional associations have dedicated many pages and round table discussions to resolving (or at least to approaching) it.

I wish I had immediately agreed with her, and that I had then went on to describe the problems and subsequent changes to Dewey and other classification systems. But my brain kept ticking through another list of library realities: cut budgets, reduced library hours, hiring freezes, lost jobs, loss of expected grant revenue, and the proceeding general difficulty of actively engaging oneself to represent all of the underrepresented and marginalized.

Nevertheless, libraries, and others in the information industry such as publishing, do have a lot of power over just what is made available to the masses. The information life cycle is certainly not perfect. As a result, I would have to say that during these tough times, it is even more important for librarians to be vigilant, and avoid the easy and passive approach to our work. We must remember that human rights and democracy are an important aspect of the idea(l)s of our profession.

I recently read a chapter by Kathleen de la Pena McCook and Katharine Phenix, Human Rights, Democracy, and Librarians, where passive vs. active librarianship is explored among other aspects of the social responsibility issue. It took me back to my first semester at SJSU SLIS where in the course “Information and Society” I had the opportunity to look at this issue. I find that I am so glad that I have come back to it again.

*I will refer to all information professionals–librarians, archivists, consultants & the like–as librarians, for convenience sake. However, this may be part of the problem, as the word “librarian” is so evocative of “books” which may well reinforce stereotypes and further preconceptions.

de la Pena McCook, K. & Phenix, K. (2008). Human rights, democracy, and librarians. In Haycock, K. & Sheldon B. E. (Eds.), The portable MLIS: Insights from the experts. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.