End-of-history gurus are known for their eff-ups, but how on earth did they miss all the ideological warfare on the internet? Even offline, there’s no escape. Trying to explain why you’re not on Facebook, for example, is like making your way down an escalator going up: it can be done, but only as a certified weirdo. Never mind that this particular social escalator, which began as a beauty contest on a college campus, is actually an assembly line programmed to shape your identity and slot you virtually the way America Inc thinks fit.
For anyone who refuses to fit in, The Filter Bubble is a call-to-arms issued by Eli Pariser, president of MoveOn.org (yes, it tried). As a web activist, he isn’t just annoyed by all this stamping and slotting of people by internet services, he is outraged. And not just by the conduct of Facebook, which profiles you by what you share online with friends so that it can turn your gang of buddies into a shopping club, but also by that of Google, which traces what you click so that it can personalise your search results and aim only the most ‘relevant’ ads at you.
Of the two, Google Inc is the worse offender. About a year-and-a-half ago, it installed a set of filters designed to enhance ‘satisfaction’ levels with its service. Today, what this search engine serves depends on the sort of stuff it thinks interests you online, and this may be different from what it serves somebody else. Now, while this may seem smart and brotherly, it also ends up tinting your lenses darker and darker as you go along. ‘Left to their own devices,’ writes Eli, ‘personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dark territory of the unknown.’ And before you know it, everyone is Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. Or worse, a closed mind in an open world. ‘Democracy requires citizens to see things from another’s point of view, but instead we are more and more enclosed in our own bubbles.’ In a book that throbs with vitality, Eli uses examples from psychology to show how dangerous that is.
In India, the perils of bubblehood may seem remote. This, after all, is a country where Indians of diverse persuasions laugh aloud, sing songs and shed tears together in the darkened comfort of movie halls. Yet, even Hindi cinema—‘India’s love song to its hybrid self’, in Rushdie’s words—is suddenly seeing its audiences fragment and space for common cinema get cramped, as a yuppiesque sensibility emerges that may seem smart and brotherly, but also ends up tinting your lenses darker and darker as you go along. Indians, let’s admit, are no less at risk of receding into the information-age ghettoes that Eli Pariser warns of.
The idea of personalised news, thankfully, has not yet seduced Indians who think of news as something to think about. And what’s ‘personal’ is not yet for sale here; it is instead the subject of a delightful diversion in an engaging book on Hinglish called Chutneyfying English. Flip through it, and soon after a candid essay (page 176) by Mahesh Bhatt on the survival of languages, the book’s editor, Rita Kothari, asks lyricist Gulzar about his use of the English word ‘personal’ in ‘Aankhein bhi kamaal karti hain/ Personal se sawaal karti hain’.
“You don’t even realise that ‘personal’ is an English word,” responds Gulzar, in defence of his splendid 2005 hybrid hit Kajra Re, so natural does it sound. And his lyrics touch upon the nuances of noseyness and cadences of cosiness so darned redolently that you might even begin to contemplate a blanket ban: not on slipping in words of alleged ‘alien’ origin, but on slipping into the captivity of one’s own creations, online or otherwise.