Silicon Valley, Serendipity, and Cats
Slate/Intelligence Squared debater Evgeny Morozov explains the Internet.
Slate: Except presumably we don’t actually want to do something about Joseph Kony, right? We just feel we should. But what about the argument that personalization makes it harder for us to serendipitously stumble across things we might like?
Morozov: As I pointed out in my review of Eli Pariser's book, one shouldn't confuse serendipity with randomness. Take this example from real life: I love watching history lectures online—mostly on YouTube. YouTube knows this. Now every time I come to YouTube it shows me these history lectures instead of silly videos of cats or Hollywood-related videos that may be popular with other users. Has YouTube shown me cool history videos I wouldn't have discovered on my own? Sure, it has. Of course, I may be an outlier. But the idea that serendipity happens only to us if we start with some kind of a "blank state," where the system knows nothing about us, that idea I find hard to believe in. As Pasteur said, "chance favored the prepared mind." Customization can often help us with the preparation.
Slate: Does it disturb you that the main curators of human knowledge are now profit-driven companies? Are there any good alternatives?
Morozov: Well, the only alternative here is to rely on the state to provide the same services: email, search, social networking and so on. I hear they are trying to do something along those lines in that oasis of tolerance and understanding, Iran. Let's wait and see how they pull it off. On a more serious note, I do accept the argument that there are contexts and activities—digital libraries come to mind—where the state would probably be a more reliable provider than the private sector, as the latter has a very different incentive structure. But this doesn't have much to do with information infrastructure per se but rather with the thorny issues of copyright.
Slate: Personally, when it comes to information gatekeepers, do you prefer codes or people?
Morozov: Let me turn the tables: When it comes to getting around, do you prefer walking or driving/taking public transport? Obviously, there's space for both. Do we know of ill-thought algorithms that might end up feeding us very narrow views? Sure. Do we know narrow-minded columnists or bloggers who do the same? Yes. Both are information gatekeepers. What I think we need to do is to treat algorithms with the same critical stance that we treat human gatekeepers, for, ultimately, algorithms don't normally write themselves—they are human creations.
Slate: Your debate opponent, Siva Vaidhyanathan, claims that one way the Internet narrows us in politics is through techno-narcissism, or the self-serving belief that our digital toys and obsessions (Twitter, Facebook, BlackBerrys) make a real difference in current events. He thinks techno-narcissism leads us to concentrate, say, on the role of social media in organizing protests, rather than the deep, underlying issues behind the protests.
Morozov: Great! Can we do the same with the subject of our debate and instead of focusing on the personalization algorithms, look at some of the "deep, underlying issues" shaping the Internet? In my book, The Net Delusion, I actually discuss this problem at length (I call it "Internet-centrism" though)—yes, there's a tendency to put the Internet and associated technologies at the center of all explanation, whether it's explaining the latest wave of democratic uprisings or the greatest threat to mankind and democracy. Why does Facebook employ filters? Well, because they are making us share more with their "frictionless sharing" crusade and without filters users would use the site less. Why do they do it? The more they know about us, the more they can make in advertising revenues. So maybe what we are talking about is not all about the algorithms or even the "Internet" (a notion that I increasingly find unhelpful in explaining today's world) but about the greed of Silicon Valley?
Many of the companies in Silicon Valley are run by venture capitalists who are as wild about capitalism as your average Viacom investor. The problem with the Silicon Valley crowd is they are so caught up in their own techno-fetishism that they often see a quasi-religious/spiritual dimension to their work. This I find unhealthy.
Slate: What is your favorite thing about the Internet?
Slate: Least favorite?
Katy Waldman is a Slate assistant editor.