On my byways, a common thread to
barbershop talk is a displeasure with the recent hate-filled presidential
campaign. In looking for the villains behind this, I came to a disturbing
conclusion. The authors of this national tragedy are I and my geek sidekicks.
Let me explain.
In 2008, Google began experimenting
with personalized website ads based on your browsing habits, as recorded and
stored in what are called cookies. Because of DoubleClick, AdSense, AdChoices,
and many other organizations and software working behind the scenes, you may
have noticed banner ads becoming surprisingly relevant to your interests. Most
people dismissed the slight violation of privacy in favor of information so
much better targeted to their needs and interests.
Over just the last few years, these
personalized ads spread to other websites like social media (ads on Facebook,
LinkedIn, etc.), and then even to website content. News media like Twitter
started presenting information more likely to agree with your world view. If
your cookie's browsing history showed you to be leaning toward Hillary Clinton,
for example, you would be fed information that supported her. This was based on
the simple premise that you would be more likely to click on such bits of
information, more than say an exposé showing the good side of Trump.
Your cookie thus made known that you would click on and buy pumpkins endorsed
by Hillary more than those endorsed by Trump.
Much as effective marketing breaks
you into buying demographics, social media funneled and sifted you into
like-minded factions buying the same ideas.
With your browsing habits
reinforcing your opinions over time as recorded in your cookie, your exposure
to contrary facts are being curtailed as never before. Why? Because the
internet has replaced magazines, radio, TV, newspapers, and every other way to
confront you with facts, and cookies insures that you will only see facts (or
more likely claims masquerading as facts) that support your
Trump understood this better than
Hillary, tweeting regularly to a cult following growing more myopic every day
because of this personalization of information. As Seth Lloyd has warned, "We
have gone from being hunter-gatherers of information to being
So how do we break this cycle, or
perhaps even fix it? The bad news is that we can't. The quick fix of deleting
your cookie buys you little since the data about your preferences has moved. It
is now part of your online profile managed by nameless "big data"
Worse, the system isn't what is
broken; we are. The system is based on the timeless saying of Anais Nin's, "We
don't see things as they are; we see them as we are." And that is what must
If you are a Trump fan, you must
google "Good things about Hillary", and if you are a Hillary fan, you must
google "Good things about Trump". You don't have to read the search results,
but you must at least click on them. That is what will update your cookie and
thus your online profile. That is what will inform the online information
delivery and filtering system that you do not have conveniently myopic
political leanings. Do it enough, and the system will lose its specifications
about what to feed you from a political standpoint. It may refocus the
personalization of your info feeds to what your cookie says are your football
team preferences or your taste in wine.
In short, we must pretend to be the
broad-minded individuals whom we secretly wish to be, and our online profile
will follow along and treat us as one.
Buckingham Fountain going to sleep
A monument to oneself
Chicago Board of Trade
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