Google’s Gain Is Our Loss: How Eli Pariser and Siva Vaidhyanathan Carried the Slate/Intelligence Squared Debate on the Internet…

Live debates about fascinating and contentious topics.
April 18 2012 4:51 PM

The Web Is Turning Us Into Narrow-Minded Drones

How Eli Pariser and Siva Vaidhyanathan convinced a roomful of New Yorkers they’d been brainwashed by the Internet. 

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Weisberg also drew laughs when he tried to imagine a paternalistic gatekeeper supplementing Google’s algorithms. “What kind of regulation do you want?” he queried Pariser. “If you're searching for a Lady Gaga video, [should] you also have to have a little bit of this interesting study from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office?”

Pariser’s answer, though, took a fascinating turn. He suggested adding an “Important” button on Facebook to accompany the “Like” button. Without coercing or patronizing, this move would make it easier for users to propagate information they didn’t necessarily endorse, such as a massacre in Darfur.

For a debate about something as remote and mysterious as the inner workings of the Internet, Tuesday’s Slate/Intelligence Squared event had the aura of good friends hashing it out at a beer summit. Rarely did the panelists’ bantering familiarity flare into impatience—although Morozov and Vaidhyanathan had some heated moments, such as when Morozov, the author or Net Delusion, mockingly asked his opponent whether he “aspire[d] to one global Utopia where people in China feel like people in India and Iran.”

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“Yeah, that would be really nice,” said Vaidhyanathan.

The exchange crystallized a tension that had already surfaced a few times. If companies make poor information mediators, then what should take their place? Government? Morozov’s remark hinted at the short distance between the beginnings of thought regulation, no matter how well-intentioned, and totalitarianism. And while Pariser and Vaidhyanathan were quick to deny that the Internet should be nationalized, the warning from a Belarusian born in the waning days of the Soviet Union made their idealism sound naive. Vaidhyanathan’s later suggestion that nonprofits spearhead the organization of the world’s knowledge seemed more credible. 

Afterward, moderator John Donvan wondered briefly at the direction the dialogue took. “I thought our focus would be on the quality of political discourse,” he mused, “but people seemed far more interested in the technical details surrounding personalization.” In small ways, the Internet continues to surprise us.