Okay, so there are many things in life that we use daily, with ease, but have no idea how they work. At least not all the details, we don’t. For example, we all drive around in cars. But, how do they work, exactly? Few people understand all the details. Yet, not many people have trouble getting into the cars, turning on the ignition and mosey on down the road.
Well, one of those daily-use thingies which not everybody knows how they work, exactly, is the Internet. Specifically, I’m referring to the World Wide Web. Yes, Virginia, they are different things: the Internet is the network of interconnected computers which can access and share information with each other by means of a common protocol of communication. The World Wide Web is just a part of the Internet, where the information is available in documents accessible through hyperlinks. I recommend that you read the Wikipedia articles on both subjects. Here are the links:
World Wide Web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Wide_Web
Anyhoozle… So, as we were saying, the World Wide Web (WWW) has a lot of content. I mean it, tons: It’s a huge collection of data, text, images, videos, and other stuff. How does one find something in it? Well, that’s why search engines were invented. As far back as 1993 there were some valiant efforts in finding ways to navigate through all the information available online. Sure, back then there were just a few thousand things in the Internet, so it seemed easy. But the contents of the virtual world have been growing exponentially, and it becomes more difficult each day to find specific information. In the present time, we all can count on Google to search that huge ocean of data and find things that might be of interest to us. We use keywords, which then Google tries to match to its indexes in order to give us lists of documents which might contain the keyword of our search.
It’s wonderful, but as with many things, how Google finds stuff for you is also widely (and wildly) misunderstood. Many people think that Google shows them everything there is related to their search. False. Google only estimates the amount of documents which just might have the information you are looking for. It has some very complicated and advanced algorithms which determine how many results you could probably find for your search, according to certain restrictions. For example, your location matters a lot. Google has whole buildings filled to the rafters with servers, in order to scour the Internet with their special programs called “spiders” or “bots.” These tiny programs go to any WWW address and start “reading” the page, following all the hyperlinks it finds. That information is stored in something called a “cache.” When you type your keyword in the Google search engine, it takes that keyword and matches it to all the “pictures” it took of documents with its “spiders,” and shows you the list of possible matches. It’s up to you to follow the link in order to connect to the specific server that contains the actual information. So that means that, depending on where you are physically connected to the Internet, Google will find all the probable matches to your query locally.
But that’s not all: Google works actually as a marketing tool, and it records all the interactions you have with its search engine in order to provide a more… personalized experience, to call it something. The reason why it customizes or personalizes the results it shows you is because then it can suggest a few sites where you can buy goods or services, and Google will make money if you follow those links. Have you noticed all those ads on the side bar of Google, and all those “sponsored” sites? Well, Google is really hoping you will visit those sites and buy stuff from them, so that they can make some money.
Is that bad, you ask? Well, not really, except that, in order to customize your search, Google leaves out a lot of information that might be pertinent to your search, and which you would find out only if you were not being targeted for commerce. That is the sticking point. Many proponents of confidentiality, and privacy watchdogs, worry that companies like Google have so much information about their users, especially because hardly anyone realizes they are being catalogued and classified. You might think that Google (or other services on the Internet) cannot possibly know all that much about you just because you used their search engine, but, boy, oh, boy, you are in for a surprise. The “cookies” which are placed in your computer when you interact with an Internet service give them access to many personal details. Not only can they know the kind of computer you’re using, or the Internet provider of your connection, but also they can find out where you live, your phone number, your social security number, your weight, the color of your eyes, and what you dreamt last night… Well, maybe not the last thing…
Or can they? (Insert ominous music here)
The point is, with all this targeted information being directed at you as a potential costumer for goods and services, a filter bubble begins forming around you. Every time you interact with the Internet, your results are being fine-tuned to your preferences, more and more each time, until a moment comes when no information that might displease you or bother you will reach you. You will, in fact, only be receiving information which agrees completely with your tastes. And that’s okay, if you’re not interested in finding out about the real world.
What can be done in order to avoid this filter bubble? I’m glad you asked. There are other services which are not interested in selling you anything. As a matter of fact, there is a website known as “Wolfram Alpha” (http://www.wolframalpha.com/), which is not really a search engine. Instead, it’s a “computational engine.” It accepts your queries and “calculates” the answer. Instead of showing you just a list of documents which might include the information you’re searching, they use a knowledge database in order to calculate answers for you. You can ask not only about the meaning of a Trigonometry function, but also for the results of it. It’s pretty cool, if you’re interested in finding out how things actually work.
And, if you’re worried about your personal information being spied out of your computer so that corporations can sell you things, then you can go to websites like “DuckDuckGo” (http://duckduckgo.com/), which is actually a search engine, but they have no filters and do not store any user information… or at least that’s their claim.
I recommend that you burst your own filter bubble!