Filter bubble and school bubble

Screenshot anime Narue no Sekai (featuring Kanaka)

What is wrong with this country’s education system? Well, first and foremost it is populated with people who are different from me. That can’t possibly be good!

In my previous post, I mentioned the MOOC I am taking from NTNU about technology and social development. Now for the bad part. We got an assignment to write about the Filter Bubble. The text by the professor was a one-sided reference to Eli Pariser and his claims that Google search result are filtered to conform to each person’s ideological and other views, so that a conservative and a liberal would see completely different pages when searching for a politically charged topic, for instance.

The problem with this shocking revelation is that it does not repeat when tested. This is mentioned in the Wikipedia article, and I took the time to test it for myself. At home I tested with one page signed in as myself (an avid Google user over many years, also using other Google services such as Blogger, Google Docs, and not least Google+, their social network.) ┬áBut a search for a very “me” topic while logged in to Google gave very nearly the same result as a search from an anonymous Opera window – some sites were a little higher on one than the other, but not so much that one would have noticed without looking for differences.

Now you may counter that both of the browser windows were on the same computer and so had the same IP address, so Google might be able to guess that I was the anonymous browser. (Then again this would not explain the small differences that were, and it would put Google in hot water if spouses, siblings etc borrowed each other’s computer and suddenly found themselves in a different filter bubble.) Just to make sure, however, I ran a new test later at work, using a tablet where I was logged in to Google and a work computer that is not used with my private Google account, is occasionally used with another Google account, and goes through a server farm in which we log on to a different terminal server each time we log on, and of course also has a different IP. Once again, the differences were trivial, with a little more prominence to sites I had visited in the past.

My conclusion is the same as those who have disputed Parisier’s claims. The facts do not even remotely resemble his description, at least in its Internet meme form. (I have not bought the book, so I can’t speak for that, and given the outcome of my tests the book would be a waste of time and money. I would not be shocked to the core of my tender soul if it turns out that selling his book and possibly related goods was the reason for the claims in the first place.)

The rest of the students uncritically accepted the claims and expressed their deep concern. One of them corroborated the claim by mentioning that he had found the answer to an iPad problem in a few seconds by searching on Google, while his friend who had the problem had not found the answer, despite being an educated man and mentally sound. I have no doubt that this is true, but it is not the filter bubble. It is called “Google-fu”, the art of using Google. In order to verify or falsify the claims of a filter bubble, you have to do an identical search, within a reasonable time of each other, and in the same geographical location if geography is involved. (The coverage of Hurricane Sandy is obviously different in New York and Paris, for instance, or even New York and Seattle.)

I was rather discouraged. This is tertiary education. University students were among us. Isn’t questioning at the heart of higher learning? Shouldn’t a university-level student pause in the face of extraordinary claims that can be tested in the convenience of your home, rather than respond emotionally in conformity with the claims? Am I truly the only person down into which the overwhelming brightness of a higher consciousness has shone to endow me with the ability to think twice?

After this, I lost part of my enthusiasm. I still intend to complete the course, though. Probably. Some day.