Note that this review—even-tempered, resisting the urge to amplify the author’s hand-wringing about serendipity—is by a man known for some hand-wringing of his own: none other than Evgeny Morozov, the author of the recently published The Net Delusion (about which more here).
Such selectivity may eventually trap us inside our own “information cocoons,” as the legal scholar Cass Sunstein put it in his 2001 book “Republic.com.” He posited that this could be one of the Internet’s most pernicious effects on the public sphere. “The Filter Bubble,” Eli Pariser’s important new inquiry into the dangers of excessive personalization, advances a similar argument. But while Sunstein worried that citizens would deliberately use technology to over-customize what they read, Pariser, the board president of the political advocacy group MoveOn.org, worries that technology companies are already silently doing this for us. As a result, he writes, “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 dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”
Most important, personalization’s effects on serendipity are far more ambiguous than “The Filter Bubble” suggests. Lacking a stable working definition of serendipity, Pariser sometimes equates it with randomness, sometimes with unexpected exposure to new ideas. But serendipity is a subjective concept that cannot be understood in isolation from the searcher’s own quirkiness and previous search history. By knowing which Web sites you like to visit and bookmark, a search engine might immediately point you to useful links that could otherwise get lost on Page 99 of unpersonalized search results. (In a 2009 study of search habits that tested this proposition, researchers for Microsoft found that “rather than harming serendipity, personalization appears to identify interesting results in addition to relevant ones.”) Building on Louis Pasteur’s observation that “chance favors the prepared mind,” one could see how personalization might augment serendipity by helping us maximize our own preparedness.