April 21, 2011

Bursting the bubble.

Yesterday, quite a few people were freaked out by this news story, which dominated the Guardian's homepage. In essence, it’s been revealed that an iPhone not only keeps track of your location but keeps that data stored on the phone and syncs it to your computer when you plug your phone in. Many people were outraged, leading to lots of comments on Twitter about how much of an invasion of privacy this constituted. It was also debated this morning on The Today Programme, arguably the country's leading broadcast news outlet. 


What surprisFilter bubbleed me was how much people were suprised by this, until I remembered that I've already read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser, published by us on June 23rd, and the subject of which is exactly this: the data companies gather and store about you through the internet and what they use it for. For major digital corporations such as Google, Facebook and increasingly Apple, information is their bread and butter; by gathering lots of information on a person they are able to make their advertising space more attractive to advertisers and therefore charge more money for it. Eli Pariser says that former Google CEO Jeff Schmidt likes to point out that "if you recorded all human communication from the dawn of time to 2003, it’d take up about five billion gigabytes of storage space. Now, we’re creating that much data every two days". Where you are, where you've visited is all part of this and while the data currently doesn't seem to be being sent back to Apple, it perhaps might be useful for future location-based advertising services. It all ultimately adds up to a lot of information on a given person, much of which is incredibly useful and valuable. It's a fairly simple equation – gather info, work out what's valuable, sell it to advertisers – but it's done to such enormously complex degrees by companies that it boggles the mind of even the people who work there.


This information can lead to some remarkable things, not least personalised search, whereby what appears when you type something into a search engine is tailored to you (simplifying enormously there, of course). The search engine works out what you're interested in and filters out what you're not. Many of us probably see this as a service, an improvement on the way we used to have to trawl through the results to find what was relevant: I simply typed 'iphone location guardian' to find that story just now. When, for example, was the last time you even clicked to the second page of a Google search result? But on the other hand it can lead to what Eli Pariser calls a 'filter bubble', whereby we are no longer challenged or inspired by things outside of our realms of experience or comfort zone. This means politically, culturally, right to down to the restaurants we visit or what bicycle we might buy next. We think we're being shown something just because it's relevant; in fact, it may be that the particular brand of running shoe that comes up has paid to be there should you trigger the right algorithm.


So, having read The Filter Bubble, it doesn't surprise me at all that location data isn't ditched by the iPhone, as it's valuable information for Apple to have, however freaky it may look to see an algorithm track your movements on a map. This isn't to make anyone paranoid, and Eli Pariser isn't an internet sceptic; he just wants us all to think a little more about what we're being presented on the net, where it's come from and what it's based on, and is providing us with the tools to do it. It's fascinating stuff and it'll make you want to talk to people about it, hurl the book (don't do that with your Kindle) across the room in outrage at points, make you think 'I thought that!' at others, and startle you with some of the stats and facts it presents. It'll also change the way you think about something that is part of normal life and that you do unconsciously dozens of times a day, ie, what you put into your search bar. You can't ask more of a book than that.


Joe Pickering

Publicity Manager


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