Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: Google is making islands of all of us

August 13, 2011

Sheila Suess KennedyMy husband and I just returned from a month visiting various parts of Europe—the sort of vacation that becomes possible only when your children are grown and gone. This trip afforded us the luxury of time for observation and reflection that shorter ones rarely did; I even had time to read some of the books I’d optimistically loaded on my iPad.

So what did I learn on my summer vacation?

One thing that immediately struck me was how homogenized citizens from Western industrialized countries have become—how much we all look and dress alike. Thirty years ago, on our first trip to Europe, cultural differences expressed in clothing and mannerisms made it fairly easy to spot Americans.

Over the intervening years, that has changed. Today, we dress alike, drive the same cars, watch the same television programs, and listen to the same (mostly American) music. iPhones, iPods and iPads (and their various clones) are ubiquitous, as are Facebook and Google. Evidence of the globalization of culture, at least pop culture, is everywhere.

But beneath the surface similarities, there is evidence of quite a contrary trend; as Eli Pariser documents in his recent book, “The Filter Bubble,” the Internet technology that promises (and delivers) so much is moving us into what he calls a “mediated future”—a future in which each of us exists in a personalized universe of our own construction.

In an effort to give each of us what we want, sites like Google, Facebook and Amazon are constantly refining their algorithms to deliver results that are “relevant” to each particular searcher, and they have more data about our individual likes and dislikes than we can imagine.

As a result, two people Googling “BP,” for example, will not necessarily get the same results, and certainly not in the same order. Someone whose search history suggests interest in investment information may get the company’s annual report, while someone with a history of environmental interests will get stories about the Gulf spill.

Similarly, Facebook delivers the posts of friends and family that its algorithm suggests are most consistent with the member’s interests and beliefs, not everything those friends post.

Pariser calls this the “filter bubble,” and points out that—unlike choosing to listen to Fox rather than PBS, for example—the resulting bias is invisible to us.

Little by little, search by search, individuals are constructing different—and disparate—realities. At the same time, traditional news sources aimed at a general audience—the newspapers and broadcasts that required reporters to fact-check assertions, label opinion and aim for objectivity—are losing market share. How many will survive is anyone’s guess.

The implications of both these changes—globalization and individualization—will be especially profound for our political structures. We are already seeing the dysfunctions that result when we elect people with radically different views of reality.

At SPEA, where I work, our mission is to teach aspiring public managers how to govern. This used to mean classes in budgeting, cost-benefit analysis, urban policy and human resource management.

Today, we face more daunting questions: How do public servants govern effectively when there is no commonly accepted role for government? How do public managers communicate with citizens who do not—in any meaningful way—occupy the same country (or in some cases, the same planet)? We have just introduced a new major—Media and Public Affairs—in an effort to prepare our students for these unprecedented challenges.

We’ve globalized commerce, and everyone wears T-shirts and jeans. But personalization and social fragmentation are also global, and we can’t Google the future.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. Her column appears monthly. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com.

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