Elections and the Internet “Echo Chambers”

Views: 1460

Back in a 2010 blog post, I noted the kinds of “echo chamber” effects that can result from personalization and targeting of various types of information on the Web. That particular posting concentrated on search personalization, but also noted the impact on Internet-based discussions, a situation that has become dramatically more acute with the continuing rise of social media. Given the current controversies regarding how “filter bubbles” and other algorithmically-driven information surfacing and restriction systems may impact users’ views and potentially increase political and religious radicalization — particularly in relation to the 2016 elections here in the USA — I believe it is relevant to republish that posting today, which is included below. Also of potential interest is my recently reposted item related to Internet fact checking.

Search Personalization: Blessing and Trap?
(Original posting date: September 16, 2010)

Greetings. Arguably the holy grail of search technology — and of many other aspects of Internet-based services today, is personalization. Providing users with personalized search suggestions, search results, news items, or other personalized services as quickly as possible, while filtering out “undesired” information, is a key focus not only of Google but of other enterprises around the world.

But does too much reliance on personalization create an “echo chamber” effect, where individuals are mainly (or perhaps totally) exposed to information that only fits their predetermined views? And if so, is this necessarily always beneficial to those individuals? What about for society at large?

Diversity of opinions and information is extremely important, especially today in our globally interconnected environment. When I do interviews on mainstream radio programs about Internet issues, it’s usually on programs where the overall focus is much more conservative than my own personal attitudes. Yet I’ve found that even though there’s often a discordance between the preexisting views of most listeners and my own sentiments, I typically get more insightful questions during those shows than in the venues where I spend most of my time online.

And one of the most frequent questions I get afterwards from listeners contacting me by email is: “How come nobody explained this to me that way before?”

The answer usually is that personalized and other limited focus information sources (including some television news networks) never exposed those persons to other viewpoints that might have helped them fully understand the issues of interest.

An important aspect of search technology research should include additional concentration on finding ways to avoid potential negative impacts from personalized information sources — particularly when these have the collateral effect of “shutting out” viewpoints, concepts, and results that would be of benefit both to individuals and to society.

Overall, I believe that this is somewhat less of a concern with “direct” general topic searches per se, at least when viewed as distinct from search suggestions. But as suggestions and results become increasingly commingled, this aspect also becomes increasingly complex. (I’ve previously noted my initial concerns in this respect related to the newly deployed Google Instant system).

Suggestions would seem to be an area where “personalization funneling” (I may be coining a phrase with this one) would be of more concern. And in the world of news searches as opposed to general searches, there are particularly salient related issues to consider (thought experiment: if you get all of your information from FOX News, what important facts and contexts are you probably missing?)

While there are certainly many people who (for professional or personal reasons) make a point to find and cultivate varied and opposing opinions, not doing so becomes much easier — and seemingly more “natural” — in the Internet environment. At least the possibility of serendipitous exposure to conflicting points of view was always present when reading a general audience newspaper or magazine, for example. But you can configure many Web sites and feeds to eliminate all but the narrowest of opinions, and some personalization tools are specifically designed to enhance this effect.

As our search and related tools increasingly focus on predicting what we want to see and avoiding showing us anything else (which naturally enough makes sense if you want to encourage return visits and show the most “attractive” ads to any given individual), the funneling effect of crowding out other materials of potential value appears to be ever more pronounced.

Add to that the “preaching to the choir” effect in many Internet discussions. True, there are forums with vibrant exchanges of views and conflicting opinions. But note how much of our Twitter and Buzz feeds are depressingly dominated by a chorus of “Attaboy!” yells from “birds of a feather” like-minded participants.

I am increasingly concerned that technologically-based Internet personalization — despite its many extremely positive attributes — also carries with it the potential for significant risks that are apparently not currently receiving the research and policy attention that they deserve.

If we do choose to assign some serious thinking to this dilemma, we certainly have the technological means to adjust our race toward personalization in ways that would help to balance out the equation.

This definitely does not mean giving up the benefits of personalization. However, we can choose to devote some of the brainpower currently focused on figuring out what we want to see, and work also toward algorithms that can help determine what we need to see.

In the process, this may significantly encourage society’s broader goals of cooperation and consensus, which of necessity require — to some extent at least — that we don’t live our entire lives in confining information silos, ironically even while we’re surrounded by the Internet’s vast buffet of every possible point of view.

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I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

Why Google Home Will Change the World

Views: 1719

Much has recently been written about Google Home, the little vase-like cylinder that started landing in consumers’ hands only a week or so ago. Home’s mandate sounds simple enough in theory — listen to a room for commands or queries, then respond by voice and/or with appropriate actions.

What hasn’t been much discussed however, is how the Home ecosystem is going to change for the better the lives of millions to billions of people over time, in ways that most of us couldn’t even imagine today. It will drastically improve the lives of vast numbers of persons with visual and/or motor impairments, but ultimately will dramatically and positively affect the lives of everyone else as well.

Home isn’t the first device to offer this technology segment — nor is it the least expensive — Amazon came earlier and has a more limited version that is cheaper than Home (and a model more expensive than Home as well).

But while Amazon’s device seems to have been designed with buying stuff on Amazon as its primary functionality, Google’s Home — backed by Google’s enormously more capable corpus of information, accurate speech recognition, and AI capabilities, stands to quickly evolve to far outpace Amazon’s offering along all vectors.

This is a truth even if we leave aside the six-month free subscription to Google’s excellent ad-free “YouTube Red/Google Play Music” — which Google included with my Home shipment here in the USA, knowing that once you’ve tasted the ability to play essentially any music and any YouTube videos at any time just by speaking to the air, you’ll have a difficult time living without it. I’ve had Home for a week and I’m finally listening to great music of all genres again — I know that I’ll be subscribing when my free term to that package runs out.

You can dig around a bit and easily find a multitude of reviews that discuss specifics of what Home does and how you use it, so I’m not going to spend time on that here, other than to note that like much advanced technology that is simple to operate, the devilishly complex hardware and software design aspects won’t be suspected or understood by most users — nor is there typically a need for them to do so.

But what I’d like to ponder here is why this kind of technology is so revolutionary and why it will change our world.

Throughout human history, pretty much any time you wanted information, you had to physically go to it in one way or another. Dig out the scroll. Locate the book. Sit down at the computer. Grab the smartphone.

The Google Home ecosystem is a sea change. It’s fundamentally different in a way that is much more of a giant leap than the incremental steps we usually experience with technology.

Because for the first time in most of our experiences, rather than having to go to the information, the information is all around us, in a remarkably ambient kind of way.

Whether you’re sitting at a desk at noon or in bed sleepless in the middle of the night, you have but to verbally express your query or command, and the answers, the results, are immediately rendered back to you. (Actually, you first speak the “hotword” — currently either “Hey Google” or “OK Google” — followed by your command or query. Home listens locally for the hotword and only sends your following utterance up to Google for analysis when the hotword triggers — which is also indicated by lights on the Home unit itself. There’s also a switch on the back of the device that will disable the microphone completely.)

It’s difficult to really express how different this is from every other technology-based information experience. In a matter of hours of usage, one quickly begins to think of Home as a kind of friendly ethereal entity at your command, utterly passive until invoked. It becomes very natural to use — the rapid speed of adaptation to using Home is perhaps not so remarkable when you consider that speech is the human animal’s primary evolved mode of communications. Speech works with other humans, to some extent with our pets and other animals — and it definitely works with Google Home.

Most of the kinds of commands and queries that you can give to Home can also be given to your smartphone running Google’s services — in fact they both basically access the same underlying “Google Assistant” systems.

But when (for example) information and music are available at any time, at the spur of the moment, for any need or whim — just by speaking wherever you happen to be in a room and no matter the time of day — it’s really an utterly different emotional effect.

And it’s an experience that can easily make one realize that the promised 21st century really has now arrived, even if we still don’t have the flying cars.

The sense of science fiction come to life is palpable.

The Google teams who created this tech have made no secret of the fact that the computers of “Star Trek” have been one of their key inspirations.

There are various even earlier scifi examples as well, such as the so-called “City Fathers” computers in James Blish’s “Cities in Flight” novels. 

It’s obvious how Google Home technology can assist the blind, persons with other visual impairments, and a wide variety of individuals with mobility restrictions.

Home’s utility in the face of simple aging (and let’s face it, we’re all either aging or dead) is also immense. As I noted back in As We Age, Smartphones Don’t Make Us Stupid — They’re Our Saviors, portable information aids can be of great value as we get older.

But Home’s “always available” nature takes this to an entirely new and higher level.

The time will come when new homes will be built with such systems designed directly into their walls, and when people may feel a bit naked in locations where such capabilities are not available. And in fact, in the future this may be the only way that we’ll be able to cope with the flood of new and often complex information that is becoming ever more present in our daily lives.

Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that these systems — as highly capable as they are right now — are only at the bare beginnings of their evolution, an evolution that will reshape the very nature of the relationship between mankind and access to information.

If you’re interested in learning more about all this, you’re invited to join my related Google+ Community which is covering a wide range of associated topics.

Indeed — we really are living in the 21st century!

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

Google Search Results and Fact Checking

Views: 870

With so many discussions now raging regarding the impacts of misinformation on the Internet — including in relation to the 2016 election — I’m reposting below a blog item of mine from 17 June 2007 — “Extending Google Blacklists for Dispute Resolutions” — that may perhaps still be considered relevant today.

At that time, I was framing this overall issue in terms of disputed search results — I would later propose this kind of framework as a possible alternative to the horrific EU “Right To Be Forgotten” censorship concept.

We now would likely include most of these issues under the broader umbrella of “fact checking” concepts.

Extending Google Blacklists for Dispute Resolutions
(Original posting date: June 17, 2007)

Greetings. In a very recent blog item, I discussed some issues regarding search engine dispute resolution, and posed some questions about the possibility of “dispute links” being displayed with search results to indicate serious disputes regarding the accuracy of particular pages, especially in cases of court-determined defamation and the like.

While many people appear to support this concept in principle, the potential operational logistics are of significant concern. As I originally acknowledged, it’s a complex and tough area, but that doesn’t make it impossible to deal with successfully either.

Some others respondents have taken the view that search engines should never make “value judgments” about the content of sites, other than that done (which is substantial) for result ranking purposes.

What many folks may not realize is that in the case of Google at least, such more in-depth judgments are already being made, and it would not necessarily be a large leap to extend them toward addressing the dispute resolution issues I’ve been discussing.

Google already puts a special tag on sites in their results which Google believes contain damaging code (“malware”) that could disrupt user computers. Such sites are tagged with a notice that “This website may damage your computer.” — and the associated link is not made active (that is, you must enter it manually or copy/paste to access that site — you cannot just click).

Also, in conjunction with Google Toolbar and Firefox 2, Google collects user feedback about suspected phishing sites, and can display warnings to users when they are about to access potentially dangerous sites on these lists.

In both of these cases, Google is making a complex value judgment concerning the veracity of the sites and listings in question, so it appears that this horse has already left the barn — Google apparently does not assert that it is merely a neutral organizer of information in these respects.

So, a site can be tagged by Google as potentially dangerous because it contains suspected malware, or because it has been reported by the community to be an apparent phishing site. It seems reasonable then for a site that has been determined (by a court or other agreed-upon means) to be containing defaming or otherwise seriously disputed information, to also be potentially subject to similar tagging (e.g. with a “dispute link”).

Pages that contain significant, purposely false information, designed to ruin people’s reputations or cause other major harm, can be just as dangerous as phishing or malware sites. They may not be directly damaging to people’s computers, but they can certainly be damaging to people’s lives. And presumably we care about people at least as much as computers, right?

So I would assert that the jump to a Google “dispute links” mechanism is nowhere near as big a leap from existing search engine results as it may first appear to be.

In future discussion on this topic, I’ll get into more details of specific methodologies that could be applicable to the implementation of such a dispute handling system, based both within the traditional legal structure and through more of a “Web 2.0” community-based topology.

But I wanted to note now that while such a search engine dispute resolution environment could have dramatic positive effects, it is fundamentally an evolutionary concept, not so much a revolutionary one.

More later. Thanks as always.

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I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

Why Google Tops Trump’s Technology Enemies List

Views: 2258

As something of a student of the great Chinese general Sun Tzu, who lived between around 544 BC and 496 BC, I have long agreed with one of the most famous statements attributed to him: 

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

With that truism in mind, I have throughout the last few months of the 2016 election season kept channels of communications open with persons directly knowledgeable of soon to be President Trump’s handlers views on technology policy.

We know that Trump himself is a dilapidated dunce bending in whatever direction the current breezes seem to blow from minute to minute. But the advisers holding his leash — who will ultimately set the policy objectives for this senile swine (no offense meant to actual hogs or pigs!), have very definite views that they intend to push into Trump’s orbit. For all practical purposes, we can expect these to fill the empty vessel of Trump’s skull and become essentially his own.

The laundry list of attacks that they have planned is long and diverse, and is essentially a war against all manner of science, technology, and anybody supporting scientific concepts that conflict with the world view of garden-variety racist, sexual abusing criminals like Trump himself.

Clues about various of these have already been dropped publicly, mostly by Trump’s minions, but occasionally buried within the incoherent rambling rants of Trump himself, which provide for useful verification. 

Pretty much at top of Trump’s technology-related enemies list is Google. The Trump team despises Google with a ferocious antipathy.

Google represents pretty much everything that Trump and his team hates: Information that Trump and his associates can’t control. Intelligent, largely liberal-leaning employees for whom facts and data are not overridden by political exigencies of the moment. Privacy and security teams who won’t bend over and grab their ankles whenever anyone in the government simply says “jump” without appropriate legal authority. And so on.

Trump’s people have a plan to reign in Google. They’ll be going after other service providers as well, but Google would be their biggest prize by far.

The Trump team’s plan to control Google will be on several fronts.

With the assistance of a cooperative GOP Congress and a Supreme Court that will soon have at least one and perhaps three or more right-wing Trump appointees, Trump’s crew will be pressing hard for rules that ban end-to-end encryption, using the usual national security excuse as the main argument, while sweeping aside all “this actually makes us less safe” arguments.

This push will also include the ability for the government to have essentially “on demand” access to any or all server data at Google (and all other significant web firms), based on the models provided by Trump’s master Putin, and to some extent also the Chinese.

Trump has also become incensed at Google search results that don’t toe the line to his own demented and twisted worldview, and intends to push legislation that would permit for government control over search results in a wide variety of circumstances, in this instance using national security, law enforcement, copyright claims, and “save the children” arguments.

The Trump team feels that these efforts will dovetail nicely with broader free speech controls that they plan to aim at mass media, particularly news outlets — there is also talk of attempting to impose horrific EU-style “Right To Be Forgotten” laws here in the U.S. — using this aspect in particular to try suck Google haters over to Trump’s side for the broader legislative efforts.

And if all of this sounds like some sort of fantasy on the Trump side — couldn’t happen with the First Amendment in their way! — think again!

Other than the Second Amendment, the Trumpians are at the best indifferent to most aspects of the Constitution in general or the Bill of Rights in particular.

They believe that they can forge coalitions that will enable them to decimate the First Amendment, leveraging their control over all three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial. They believe that their Deplorables — their voters — will cheer Trump on in his efforts to decimate Google, eliminate what Trump and company feel are “undesirable freedoms” aspects of the Internet, and in general impose a speech regime as close to Putin’s model as possible.

But Trump isn’t president quite yet. We still have a bit of time to work with, and there are some approaches that can limit the damage that Trump can do, at least to various extents.

Some of these we will be discussing on my new Saving Science & Tech from Trump Google+ community.

Some discussions will by necessity need to be more private.

One thing’s pretty much certain, however. Donald Trump and his administration hope to roll back the USA effectively to somewhere around 1950 in terms of color, creed, and knowledge. 

If we don’t wish to see the technological works of our lifetimes similarly decimated, we must take action immediately.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!