Life inside the bubble

When the results of the 2016 US elections rolled out, there was utter dismay (and silence) across the liberal world. Everyone (and their friends) took a while to recover from the shock (and by the time they did, we were already into the inaugural attendance controversy).

If I were to look at my newsfeeds across channels, I would never have believed that Trump would win. Nor for that matter did the machine inform me that the BJP would win India with such ease in 2014. Nor did I expect Brexit to happen.

Now, where did I go so horribly wrong in my analysis of trends? From all that I saw, the pundits broadcasting to me got it horribly wrong as well. The truth is that I was isolated from divergent views in my filter bubble, and frankly, so were the pundits.

The internet was designed to bring all knowledge and opinions to one place, made accessible to all. But the fact is that while it is accessible, algorithms have ensured that they are not visible, unless I expressly search for them. According to Pariser, today’s Internet is not designed to bring differently minded people together to engage in debate. In these elections, all of us only foresaw what we hoped would happen, what we would have liked to happen.

This, by the way, is also what went wrong with the Hillary campaign. The entire backbone of the campaign was an algorithm called Ada (named after Ada Lovelace, the British mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage on the mechanical general- purpose computer) which played a vital role in every campaign decision. The problem was that Ada retained the biases her creators had programmed her with.

Instead of generating recommendations to collect new data that might have contradicted and falsified her premises, Ada kept showing what her creators had wanted to see. Ada’s creators were convinced that Pennsylvania, historically and otherwise, was safe. And Ada mirrored that as well. As it turned out, Pennsylvania wasn’t safe.

What is worrying is that our media is also trapped in a filter bubble of their own making. Instead of driving down and talking to people in the teashops and to garage mechanics, they fly around and stay in fancy hotels and publish stories from within their respective filter bubbles. Or worse, they believe that Twitter is a good microsample of a macroworld.

In a process now called cyberbalkanisation, the internet is dividing people into like-minded subgroups each cocooned in the warmth of their own virtual communities. Remember John Donne?

“No man is an island entire of itself; Every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less...”

This should make us cry today (and not just because of Brexit). Cyberbalkanisation will make us islands – will make us opinionated, absolutist islands and perfect, dangerous arseholes.

Smaller and smaller islands

I have a little experiment for you. Ask Google “Is Trump popular?” On another tab, type “Is Trump unpopular?” Take a look at the results.

Ideally the results should give you a clear, unbiased idea of Trump’s popularity. But those two keywords, “popular” and “unpopular” are a sign of your preconceived biases and have completely thrown the machine into a quandary. The results reinforce your biases as a consequence of how the algorithm parses your question. To add to that, the algorithm also takes into account everything that it knows about you and your surfing habits, and frankly, all your preferences. So your results will be different from what I get if I were to try the same questions.

Google is trying to fix this by training its search engine to recognise intent rather than literal syntax. But I think that refinement is a long way off.

I want to put together what two of the leading men in the business said, in different contexts. Marc Zuckerberg once said:

“...a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

He was of course, trying to impress upon the world Facebook’s insistence on relevance being the critical criterion to what users see. Now take a look at what Bill Gates said about social media, that it:

“....lets you go off with like-minded people, so you’re not mixing and sharing and understanding other points of view.”

You put the two together and it ends up painting a pathetic picture. Of not just an island but a really small, lonely island. People who are isolated from the rest of the world, who only see and hear what their like-minded friends have to say, about their squirrels and their yards.

Now, given the fact that for most of our youth the internet is their sole window to the world, this isolationist view could have disastrous consequences for all the pillars that hold up our fragile existence – communities, governments, democracy. And truth.

All of us got sucked into this situation unintentionally. Personalisation, on the face of it, is a beautiful value-add. I am not a conspiracy-theorist to believe that this was a deliberate ploy – that internet giants and their algorithms purposely divided people into subgroups that would become isolated and insulated so they could weaken the very ideas of diversity that our unity is built upon.

But as far back as 1995, Jaron Lanier, the computer philosophy writer, was warning the world about “intelligent agents” (AI-powered personalisation engines) that would customise for you and thereby, make you lesser beings!

We might have come into it unwittingly, but we love it! And we believe in the power of the internet. We really believe that by sharing an article (that we agree with), we will change public opinion when what we end up doing is only reinforcing opinion within our subgroup.

In his interestingly named book The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov rips apart this universal, utopian, emancipatory image we have of the web. He argues that behind our awe of technology is an innocent ignorance that misrepresents the Internet’s power and potential.

Social media believed that Twitter could foment revolution in Iraq in 2009, when all Twitter had in Iran, on the eve of the elections, was 20,000 users. In democracies across the world, we do tend to overestimate social media’s capabilities. If Twitter is to be believed, India is a state in eternal strife – torn between conservatives and liberals. But we often forget that this is the opinion of about 26 million people in a population of 1.2 billion.

Which is why stepping out into the streets once in a while helps. It gives us a good dose of vitamin D and reality.

Excerpted with permission from In ‘Where Will Man Take Us?In: The Bold Story Of The Man Technology Is Creating, Atul Jalan, Portfolio Penguin.