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Democracy and technology

June 11, 2010

I just found the youtube videos of my favorite talks at this year’s PDF.

This first one is by Eli Pariser warning about the effects of increasing personalization on sites such as Google and Facebook where most of us are now getting the majority of our news.  Some of the most important things I found him to say are that:

– Increasing personalization of our news sources is telling us what we want to know not what we NEED to know as citizens and this has disastrous implications for the future of democracy.

-We need to stop assuming that the personalization of the news that we consume is itself democratic.  As he states, “we need to remember that the code, the machines, the software, are designed by people who have ideas about the world and that they incorporate those ideas into the code.  They incorporate ideas about what matters into this software”.

On the whole Eli is right that we need to be intentional in asserting that our online environment and sources of news needs to be heterogeneous.  Further, I agree with him that this is a very solvable problem.  Here is how:

Along the same theme of heterogeneity of our online experiences I also loved the talk by Susan Crawford who is the founder of One Web Day and recently a special advisor to the White House.

Her talk was a much needed warning about the ongoing consolidation of the U.S. communications conglomerates and its dire impact on internet access for the entire U.S. population.  In her words, ” we are in a titanic battle for the future of the internet in the United States, the technology community is radically underrepresented in this conversation and the response ‘i make websites’ is no longer appropriate or sufficient”

Here is more:

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2010 8:08 PM

    Wanjiru –
    I also found Eli Pariser’s presentation to be one of the more interesting and compelling presentations at PdF 2010. He points out what we should all keep in mind: emerging web technologies can have multi-uses from their intended purpose. Here, the intent to open the web to more information via key word search can actually limit our choices to content that is in synch with our typical content viewing habits.
    As viewers, we have the ability to intentionally structure our viewing to only content that shares our specific POVs. This is deliberate. Now, with “Bubble Filters,” the term Eli used to describe search engine strainers, this ability becomes automated as well. Not a good sign to help bridge ideological chasms; moderate different viewpoints; or aide in finding solutions to challenges that affect the whole.

  2. June 13, 2010 9:34 AM

    A lot of positive developments could come out of conversation about the specific impact of web-personalizing on the “saving Africa” debate, Wanjiru. Your June 6 post announces your happiness “to see more questions emerging about microfinance,” hinting by use of the word “emerging” that questions about microfinance–which some people started asking a long time ago–are not readily heard where we can choose to listen only to what we wish to hear.

    Think also of the stifling effect of web-personalizing on, for example, discussion of the Kagame government’s reaction to “genocide ideology” in Rwanda, or of China’s growing presence in Africa. Concerning the latter we hear on one hand from the likes of Dambisa Moyo that the “Chinese are [Africans’] friends” and on the other hand–as happened at last Thursday’s Collaborate for Africa meeting, you’ll recall–that the Chinese are merely “raping the land.” People standing on opposite sides of these issues need to talk with one another as much as possible, but web-personalizing militates against that.

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