Cyberbalkanization and Politics

Perhaps the main reason why I love the web is that I believe it diminishes power unbalance by guaranteeing easier access to information to a larger slice of the population.
In fact, I could argue that most power relationships are a direct or indirect consequence of different level of access to information.

After hearing from Eli Pariser, both on YouTube and in class, I am still very much convinced of the potential of the web (as much as he is), but I share his preoccupation that the direction that the web is taking might foster what some call Cyberbalkanization, defined on Wikipedia as “the division of the world wide web into sub-groups with specific interests, to the extent that a sub-group’s members almost always use the web to communicate or read material that is only of interest to the rest of the sub-group”.

But let me go back to the issue of different levels of access to information first.
I recently had a discussion as to whether most politicians really have an interest in leading a more aware, intelligent and educated population or whether they prosper when people are fairly ignorant.
For me “educating” someone means giving her the tools to judge things as thoroughly and critically as possible. It doesn’t mean imposing (or dryly teaching) ideas, but provide the instruments to come up with always better views and initiatives. In my mind, an educator should feel proud only when his pupil has surpassed him.

While politicians might not have an interest in having people completely ignorant or stupid, for most politicians there is no real incentive in having very aware and intelligent electorate.
In other words, for the incapable politician, there is only to prosper in a world of ignorance. Obviously the rare  capable politician prospers only in a world of knowledge.

This is why I really like the idea of the web making people more aware and ultimately politicians more accountable.
A web that gives the instruments to judge, without judging anything or anyone. A web where true politics, that of ideas, could be rediscovered.

So let’s now go back to Eli Pariser’s comments on what he calls the “filter bubble” or cyber-balkanization.
Without you noticing, algorithms decide what you are more inclined in watching or reading, what people you would agree more with, etc… This is what happens for example with Facebook newsfeed or with Google search. These are certainly very effective and well studied tools and they make the information you see more relevant. In the words of sociologist Mark Granovetter, “Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency”.

Eli Pariser noticed that, despite trying hard to befriend on Facebook people who would not share his political opinion, he would still get a newsfeed that reflected his own ideas.
While it is certainly pleasant to know that in the world there are other people who think like you as this might make you feel less of a lonely wolf, I remember Oscar Wilde’s “When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong”.
Indeed, it is certainly enriching to find out about different people’s opinions. They make you wonder whether you should reconsider what you had given for granted and they help you making your ideas stronger and more consistent.

While when we watch a biased TV show, we are more or less aware of its bias or political orientation, this is not true with Internet algorithms: we don’t see them!
These tools will certainly be very efficient in helping us find the film we are more likely to enjoy or the restaurant that best fulfill out culinary tastes, but it could go against our intellectual enrichment.

Don’t get me wrong.
I still believe the web provides a way better alternative for people to inform themselves and I still believe it makes the politicians more accountable. I still have very high hopes for the web.
But power is definitely going to those who, in Jaron Lanier’s words, are “close to the servers”.
While a certain degree of standardization (i.e. a common platform such as Facebook) has many positive aspects and definitely facilitates interactions and exchange of opinions, we must make sure it won’t end up standardizing opinions as well.

I’m an optimist, for the simple reason that, while I always keep in mind the image of the Utopian world I want to live in, I’m aware that this Utopia can only be reached through gradual improvements.
The web represents an improvement. A great one I should say.
Now it’s up to us to make it the precursor of that “dream-world” for which it was conceived.


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