On Google, Dwarfs and Personalization

Many of the people who knew me during my formative years believed I would untimely go into politics. This seemed like a rational conclusion given my interest in politics and current affairs accompanied by highly developed oratory skills. In order to test the feasibility of a political career, I ran for office several times during high school without ever losing an election. As the previous century came to an end, it seemed that the premiership was mine for the taking. At times, I would practice acceptance speeches in my head or draw campaign signs for the 2020 elections on my textbooks.

Ilan Manor- A New Horizon

Seeing as how politics is all about appearances, I began leading a very private life, holding back information that could one day be used against me from family and friends. As the digital age came about, I became concerned with my online privacy. I therefore developed the habit of deleting personal or embarrassing emails, opening fake email accounts with which to communicate with people and routinely altering my browsing history.

But as I entered my mid-twenties, running for office seemed less and less likely. First came the boozing than came the smoking. I grew up in the US and was schooled in American politics, a place where such conditions are sure to surface midway through a successful campaign. Suddenly I was practicing a different kind of speech in my head, one which I would deliver with my beard wife besides me. “As some of you may have learned over the past few days, I am a recovering alcoholic and heavy smoker. I am aware that I have not only let down the people of this great State, but I have also let down my family. And for that I am truly sorry”.

Since politics was out of the question, I felt that I had nothing to more to hide. I created a file named passwords and saved it on my desktop. I left my browser history intact and stopped caring what emails I write to whom.  It got to the point where I felt that if Google wishes to read my mails, screen my text messages, know my location and monitor my receding hairline via satellite they are free to do so. In fact, as I became acquainted with the concept of personalization, I was hoping companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon would monitor my digital footprints. Suddenly, Amazon was offering me great books the minute I logged on to their website. The instant I entered my Netflix account, I was presented with the most exquisite selection of BBC periodic dramas set in the Victorian age

“I need to know now Sir Ilan, may I grasp your buttocks as we stroll through the country unchaperoned?”

In order to increase the effectiveness of my personalization, I even thought of writing Google weekly updates regarding my adventures, habits, likes and dislikes. “Dear Google, this week I read the first and last chapters of the Quran (It’s a doozy!), accidentally stumbled upon a website called sexydwarfs.com. I also deliberately explored Iran’s twitter account. Talk to you next week, Ilan”.

Then something strange happened.  As I stopped logging onto news websites, and settled for the news updates delivered by my Facebook feed, I felt like I was missing out on a lot of information. Even more strange was the feeling that nothing “caught my eye” anymore. There were no articles offering insight into worlds I am unfamiliar with and no interviews introducing me to new authors. As I was limited to what Facebook thought I wanted to know, the freedom to explore strange new worlds was lost. I soon learned that Ignorance is the opposite of bliss.

This led me to wonder if the age of personalization is not also the age of the information bubble. Recently I learned that Google not only monitors my online activity, but it even personalizes my search results  meaning that when I search for Egypt on Google I get completely different results than any of my friends. This means that crucial information may be omitted from my search. Even more troubling is that most people don’t know their information is screened and do not bother to look up the same topics elsewhere.

So what personalization really means is that each one of us gains a different understanding and a different view of the world we live in. Some might never learn about the Arab spring while others may never hear of the Central African Republic. Therefore, a personalized world is also an ignorant one. And even in the age of algorithms, personalization and the internet, taking an active role in our world necessitates hard work. We thought we could finally be lazy and have the world brought to our fingertips. We were wrong.

TED movies always begin with the caption “ideas worth spreading”. I thing this idea qualifies. For more on the age of the information bubble, watch and spread the TED movie below.

About the Author
Ilan Manor is finishing his mass media studies at Tel Aviv University. He has previously contributed to the Jerusalem Post, +972 Magazine, the Jewish Daily Forward and On Second Thought magazine. His Hebrew-language blog has been featured several times in the Israeli press.