Information, Filters, and Power

Today, I finished my grading of this semester’s 5 sections’ worth of students.  96 in all (although I only had to grade 94, since 2 of them basically failed themselves by ditching class for far so long…)….

In any case–it’s time to start NOM’ing again–and I’ve been accumulating many different ideas that I hope to add to this haphazard blog in the near future.  Some of these topics include finishing a description of the Days of our Lives (mainly Thursday and especially Wednesday), a discussion about the permanence in some Indo-European root words as well as the mutations in others, more analysis of the Thomson book on personality types, and also a sketch of a new way of modelling MBTI types in a more graphical way.

All of these topics have come up in the last months and I have wanted to add them to the Philosophy of NOM, but I have lacked the time and energy.

Today, I have time and energy–but a new topic has arisen–and so I’m gonna talk about that first, while it is fresh.

That topic concerns information, filters, and power.  Interestingly enough, this topic was brought to my attention by the same individual who generated the title for this blog–and especially the byline about whether we should all be eaten by bears.  Respect! for said individual.

In any case, the topic begins here, with this youtube video.   In the video, Eli Pariser points out an ongoing, but growing stronger, trend in the modern version of the web that is creating an ever stronger filtering of information.  In a nutshell, these filters–which are often hidden from us and generated by relatively autonomous algorithms–are creating little “filter-bubbles” of self-reinforcing and inward-looking information.

As I noted–a friend pointed this video out to me (make sure you go watch it) and asked explicitly for my response.  This response was the following:
What is driving this phenomenon is the commodification of the web/internet.  To elaborate–when the web started–back in 1991 when I got internet–all you used it for was sending chunks of information back and forth that you personally created in some sense–this information–emails, usenet posts, ASCII drawings was obviously eclectic, non-comprehensive and it was text driven.  

Shortly thereafter–the WWW was hatched that made the web a lot more visual.  This was cool.  I embraced it and created some online geography quizzes using CGI scripting back in 1995—I learned how to do some unix programming and learned some pearl scripting in the process..

This was the beginning of the web that he talks about…

One thing I’ll say about this beginning was that it was a very sparse and lopsided affair.  Up through like 1998—whole areas of information–such as historical data–was entirely absent on the web.  Using things like Lycos as one of first search engines–I could note how sparse such things were–so we were left with the task of creating such things ourselves… and many of us geeks did.. If you google “celtic history kundert” now–you’ll find a bunch of pages that are just a list of links to various history pages–and one of these was a page I created by reading a couple of books.  This page was hosted on a server that probably hasn’t existed in a decade… but that was what we had…

So–back then–this kind of filter that he was talking about didn’t exist at all–because the pickings back then were so sparse that you didn’t even need a filter…

By around 2000–things had started to change.  Two things happened that were most important in my view…

1. This was the start of information being pumped onto the web wholesale as everyone started getting involved–and that was a great thing… Google came into existence… and the idea that there was now so much information on the web that you would need filters or algrithms to search and select for it started to have relevance…

2. Web business finally started to take place for real.  Yes–the boom was in the late 1990’s–but it wasn’t until the bust went and killed off all of the non-business savvy geeks who didn’t know a sensible business plan from a hole in the ground–that you started to see the serious growth of e-business and similar stuff.. With e-business you have a very different attitude towards the web.  Web information is now not just stuff you put up there–but it now is under selection pressure–because businesses are in competition. 

Together–you take these two trends–the rise of filters needed to deal with too much information–and the rise of an attitude of competition for your attention in order to sell you something–and you get the kind of stuff that he is talking about.  The web is now being changed into something that tries to make you comfortable–to make you happy–so that you’ll feel at home there and you’ll be more likely to do business there..

The internet has basically moved from a paradigm of connectivity to a paradigm of consumption… The original web of links has–as time progressed–become so saturated with so many links–that you don’t really have a web–but more of an irregular quilt–and these new filtering algorithms are just attempts to re-arrange the lumps in a way–sort of like fluffing your pillows–to make you lie in a certain direction that you find pleasing…

There is nothing “wrong” with this–it’s a natural progression of things.. It’s no different than a group conquering a frontier area–and having only sparse links at first to civilization that are mostly functional and survival oriented–but that which then become richer, thicker, and change purpose once civilization arrives and builds everything up… Think of the difference between a telephone line from a frontier town to the existence of telemarketers… different applications of the same technology at different times for different goals…and one is not “more appropriate” than the other…

In any case–Information is almost always filtered.  Scratch that. It IS ALWAYS FILTERED.  We have our own built in cognitive filters when we look at shit–but all second hand information has always been filtered in various ways.  We have varying degrees of power over these filters–dependent not only on our position in society–but also (quasi-dependent on that society) on how aware of the existence of the filter.  The more aware you are of something–the greater the chance you have to take counter-measures, however effective those counter-measures may be… (Basically–if you are totally unaware of a filter or someone’s power over you–then you have no chance to attempt to thwart it–and so controlling awareness of people’s choices and knowledge is one of the deepest and most effective applications of power out there–this is not my thoughts but comes from Steven Lukes Power: A radical View–which I think you would really like to read…)

So.. what this guy is doing is good–he’s making us aware of the filters and how they are changing in ways we may not have known before–this is an exertion of power upon us–in important but also subtle ways.

We can try to thwart this power by doing weird stuff.  Algorithms are just programs executing commands–they cannot think.  If we just decide to start clicking on links at random–we can widen the curve of choices… and perhaps that’s what we need to do… Or perhaps there is a market for the creation of personalized counter-bots that you have on your computer that go and analyze what the filter results in various systems are–and then go and click on opposite links or that you set off with some key words and they go link clicking on their own to muddy the data… I think there is some cool stuff to be had here–and I’m sure that people who are hardcore hackers–Anonymous type folk–have been already doing such stuff for years… I say this because the idea doing such stuff was considered an information theory type of problem that–if you believe authors like Neal Stephenson writing Cryptonomicon in the late 1990’s–was being dealt with back during WW2…

Anyway–those are my early morning thoughts–and seeing that you raised this issue–I’m totally stealing all of this and putting it as a NOM (after editing, of course.. :)) )

Way to go, B…
Now.. to elaborate on a few more points…

1. Steven Lukes and Power.  Lukes is an author and I read his short book about power–in the roughly political sense–for a class I took about the history of American Capitalism.  The book is small, but it is jam packed full of analytical goodness. You should read it.  In a nutshell, it tries to tease out just what the fuck “power” actually is.  Along the way it does a very nice job of distinguishing different ideas of of “power” and it talks about a “One-Dimensional View” of power that focuses on the behavior of people making decisions on issues in which there are conflicts of interest.  This one-dimensional view posits “power” as a question of group A getting group B to do something that they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Then Lukes goes on to complicate the situation by talking about a “Two-Dimensional View” of power that is a qualified critique of the first view and complicates the issue by noting that power also has a role beyond just the obvious areas of conflict over various political issues and making a decisions–to also include the the realm of actions (and inactions) that determine just what issues are actually addressed and which issues are ignored.  It is definitely an element of power, he notes, in the ability to get a society or actors to address a problem, but perhaps it is an even more powerful ability to shape the discourse so that certain problems are just never addressed at all.

Finally–Lukes moves onto the “Three-Dimensional View” of power–and this will become relevant here–in that he finally notes that perhaps the most profound–if subtle–kind of power is the ability to shape the environment, culture, discourse, whatever–to the extent that people’s overall perceptions of what even constitutes an issue or area of possible conflict is pre-determined  (to a great extent at least) along the lines that the people who hold this power want..  This kind of power is crucial in that not only does it tell you what to do, it tells you what your possible options/alternatives are in advance and even seeks to establish all the possible alternatives you perceive and even might imagine are debatable..

Now.. that’s some pretty bad-ass power.. and I think that’s what really is at play in the situation raised by Eli Pariser.  When these kinds of algorithms are playing a role in the kinds of things that we see–when they are making decisions–based on programming that we (at least most people) don’t have access to and upon which most people rely without realizing that they are constructed in a particular and subjective way, then there is an exertion of Three Dimensional Power going on, and, over time, this exertion can have a profound and fundamental effect on how we perceive and then act upon the world.

2. Interestingly, one can also note that a primary way in which these filters seem to work is by implementing routines that produce outcomes that resemble those of negative feedback loops.  Although such feedback loops have been discussed on this blog before–namely here and here–it is worth mentioning that the basic premise of a negative feedback loop is that once you begin to deviate a bit away from the ground state, the difference between new state and the base state is “punished”/eliminated/minimized in ways such that you tend to quickly return to the original/desired state.

Although this is not exactly what is going on here–as I understand Pariser–these FB and Google search algorithms are producing limited outcomes–the filter bubbles–that gradually come to resemble the results of a control system using negative feedback loops.  They look at your prior searches and then use that information to start excluding things.. They narrow down/cut off options based on prior behavior so that they can more quickly give you the “most optimal” solution to what you are looking for..  The longer this goes on–the more likely and more quickly they hone in on a group of outcomes that show fewer and fewer deviations..

Now–negative feedback loops are awesome things.  Without them, all kinds of things would become quickly unstable and would blow up (See the governors on steam engines, amongst other things, for examples of negative feedback loops)…

However–one should note that the prime purpose and goal of negative feedback loops is to provide stability and control by limiting activity.

Please reread that last sentence and now think about what these filters are doing with regard to the information you are perceiving.

By their very nature–such things are limiting the content that you receive by stabilizing it within a particular realm or range.  Whether that is overall a good or a bad thing–and that may depend on the situation–what it definitely entails is the expression of certain kinds of values and beliefs about how one approaches and acquires information.  Importantly, one should–and this is where Eli Pariser is doing very good work–question and know whose values and beliefs are being expressed.  If they are not your values, you might want to think about whether you need to take counter measures or not.

3. As I allude to above, I think the metaphor of the world wide “web” is actually a misnomer now.  What we have is not a “web” in any way that we normally think about webs.  Webs are made by spiders.  They are individual strands that connect one location in physical space to another and these connections can follow various patterns and convey certain kinds of information–or they can be more haphazard in nature.

In any case–what people using this technology now seem to experience is anything but a web.  It is more like a quilt as I mention above—or even more so–like a kind of landscape/surface that one places oneself onto.  Often this surface has hills and valleys to the extent that certain things are or more or less obvious depending on where one is.

Now–it is still possible to wander around this landscape if one wants–although the situation that Pariser is talking about seems to imply that this kind of activity is becoming both less and less common–and also harder to do.  If we take Pariser’s view seriously (and also find it to be true) then what is really going on is a process whereby our placement onto this surface tends to involve a kind of “planting/situating” of ourselves, and the actions of these filter bubbles–while coloring in and determining what the immediate landscape around us looks like–also tend to make the surface form a kind of valley/gravity well (similar to what this image of how gravity deforms space time looks like..)

and it keeps us from wandering around the virtual webspace as often as we used to do..

4. Quickly, one might note the changing language to describe what goes on when one interact on the “web”.  Originally, one used to “surf” the web, and even though that’s a really strange image, the idea did make a weird kind of sense in that you moved from page to page in a way that was determined by the links on the pages (the web aspect)–but it was often a kind of constant movement…

Today–the kinds of interaction  are more varied, but what has especially increased is the role of “social-networking” as a kind of activity.  In this practice, one doesn’t wander so much, but instead you create a particular space in the web and load it up with the things that you like.  Whether this is making your own myspace page–or merely just adding yourself to a pre-existing network of hundreds of millions of people–e.g. Facebook–what you are not doing is wandering so much as binding yourself into a place and watching as the pretty flashing photons on the screen are brought to you. Obviously–you did this in the early days of the web if you made a homepage–but the amount of time spent by most people making their homepage was a lot less than they spent wandering between different pages..

Thus, at the very root of the language we use, it is clear that “surfing” implies a very different kind of activity–namely one that involves the quick transfer of one’s self across an ever shifting terrain–than “social networking,” which is much more about accepting the existence of an established structure/institution–and building your own place within it.

Thus–a metaphor for movement has been replaced by a metaphor of construction and placement.  Our interaction on the web has moved from something that implied a lot of activity, dynamism, and discovery to one that inherently entailed a lot more passive consumption and adherence to a set of established rules and traditions that are gnerally beyond our control.

5. Obviously–this whole analysis can be pushed too far and I don’t mean for anyone to take it too far…but it is something that I got to thinking about today.  As I mention far above in my original response to the video–a lot of this changing dynamic is to be expected with the growth of this technology.  A very fluid situation–like frontier life–became a lot more structured as it was “civilized” and expanded to a much larger audience.  Importantly–commerce has always tended to do this in the various realms it has spread into–and there are good reasons for that… For commerce to be most efficient, rules need to be enforced and structures outlined… and the goals and requirements of commerce are VERY, VERY different than the goals of exploration.  When people were originally “exploring” the web, it was a tool to create connections and to find new things–but when it became commodified… when it became an instrument of commerce (and don’t kid yourselves that FB is anything other than an instrument of commerce)–then you have the goals of business to contend with–and businesses (and the people who are part of them) clearly do not want you to breeze quickly past their pages and wares…they want you to settle in.. they want to keep your attention.. they want you to become still so that they can seduce you in a way and get your attention and money…

That is just how business works. It is not evil–but it is a particular kind of way of living–and we should always be clear about what its intentions and goals are… We should acknowledge the kind of power it has and what it is doing with it…

… and if we don’t like it–we should take counter-measures..


About Prof. Woland

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2 Responses to Information, Filters, and Power

  1. Jay says:

    I’ve been meaning to read “Power: A Radical View” for awhile now.I think I’ll pick it up and read it over the summer. (nothing like some “light” summer reading, yeah?)

    There’s a movement within anthropology that wants to replace the concept of culture with the concept of power. These folks claim that culture is, in essence, “…an ahistorical concept which exaggerates uniqueness and difference, portrays such difference as inferiority, and promotes a sense of stability and homogeneity while ignoring conflict, hierarchy, and change and obscuring power imbalances between the West and non-West.” Essentially, they blame “culture” for the creation of “the other”, (as if this was purely a Western idea) and that anthropologists should be focusing on various concepts of power, such as hegemony and discourse. It’s an interesting idea, one that should be further explored, but I can’t help feeling that their definition of culture is very narrow, whereas “culture” represents such a broad topic.

    The more I study anthropology, the more I see various theories and concepts as nothing more than “tools” to place into my anthropological tool chest and that ideology has no place in anthropological thought.

    • tricstmr says:

      Two things to say..

      1. Trying to eliminate “culture” and replace it with “power” seems like someone is trying to eliminate “hammers” and replace them with “wrenches”….. Both are just possible theoretical concepts/tools that can be used to approach the data and some tools are better suited to handling certain kinds of data than other tools and vice versa…

      2. Yes–use your theories and concepts as tools–but know that all such tools always carry aspects of ideology within them. Claiming that you can escape ideology entirely is a fallacy. At best–we can try to be aware of the ideological frameworks and elements that are built into our tools (and our own perceptions) so that we can try to balance out or minimize their distorting effects… but we can never be rid of them entirely…

      Another way of saying this is–Anyone who claims that they are objective and non-ideological and this is the truth that they are presenting–well.. that’s the clearest sign that they have just buried their ideology within their framework well and/or are unaware of how ideological they actually are…

      PS–get the Lukes book. It’s like 60 pages long.. You’ll finish it in a day or two.. (It’s really dense.. but not obscure…)

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