The filter bubble: what the internet is hiding from you

Book reviews

Is the Internet keeping vital information from you? Are robots taking over the world? Ah well, you won't care about it when you're dead. Or will you...?

Penguin 

The filter bubble: what the Internet is hiding from you

By Eli Pariser, £12.99, ISBN 978-0-670-92038-9

At first glance, the subtitle that long-time online campaigner Eli Pariser has given his analysis of how website owners control what we see appears a bit odd. Is there really a treasure trove of useful information that they're keeping squirreled away where we can't find it?

Simply putting his name into a well-known search engine returns getting on for a million results, so can there be anything we'd want to know but wouldn't find among them?

As it turns out, it's less a case of hiding things from you as being economical with the facts. In return for screening out the upwards of 90 per cent of stuff that's irrelevant to us, we trade a range of personal information that, 'for our convenience', helps search, retail and other online operators deliver just what we want.

What that means, however, is that the things the Web learns we like are the things it's giving us, so we end up getting more of the same. Having the virtual equivalent of a shop where the things you've bought in the past are all right by the door is handy, but it means you're unlikely to stumble across anything you'd never thought of purchasing.

For shopping that's an inconvenience; in other areas like staying up to date with the news there are more fundamental issues at stake. Search on Google and you get links to the things that Google thinks you want based on the profile it has accrued about you.

Pariser demonstrates this with the story of two similar women living in the same area of US who in the spring of 2010 did a search for 'BP'. One saw pages of investment information about share prices and business deals, and would have been unaware of news about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that filled her counterpart's first results page.

It's this personalisation, which we're largely unaware of, that creates the perfectly tailored but sterile 'filter bubble' of the book's title. We may think we've got a wealth of information at our beck and call without having to rely on media outlets to deliver it to us, Pariser claims, but in fact the disintermediation that the Web promised to bring has failed to arrive.

The arguments are plausible, as is the evidence that as well as keeping you ill-informed, your bubble makes you less innovative and less likely to question the status quo.

Whether you think it's a conspiracy, or just some savvy businesses coming up with clever ways of using the Internet to shape our opinions about things ranging from how we vote to which DVD box set we're likely to buy next, 'The Filter Bubble' will at least get you thinking about the issues next time you automatically follow the first link a search engine delivers to you. DL

Viking

The Most Human Human: A defence of humanity in the age of the computer 

by Brian Christian, £18.99, ISBN 978-0670920808

Brian Christian's book takes a year in the annual Loebner Prize, a Turing Test competition that awards the 'Most Human Computer' title (and also the 'Most Human Human' one).

The scenario is this: invite a panel of judges to interact with another agent via a computer terminal and then let the judges decide (using a rating scheme) if that agent is a human or a machine.

Computer competitors enter their chatbots, bots or chatterbots (conversational machines) and volunteers engage the judges with no parameters set on conversational topics. The prize is inspired by Alan Turing's paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950) where Turing proposed a test for assessing whether machines could think.

Christian begins the book by examining the sentence ('the human being is the only animal that can...'). The only problem is that this sentence has been written hundreds of times, with philosophers, scientists and writers underscoring what they believe makes humans distinctive from machines.

As Christian explains, the game of chess was once considered 'the game of kings' that was until IBM's Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997. Kasparov, incidentally, proposed a rematch but IBM did not oblige, dismantling the computer and withdrawing funding for the project.

To the reader the most fascinating aspect of the book is Christian's role as a participant in the Loebner competition so it seems a shame the actual event is not given more prominence in the pages cutting over to the history of artificial intelligence and reflections on human identity at crucial points in the narrative of the competition.

Christian explains his reason for the book thus: 'Almost everything written at a practical level about the Turing test is about how to make good bots, with a small remaining fraction about how to be a good judge. But nowhere do you read how to be a good confederate.'

In the main he does this in an eloquent, fascinating and engaging manner. KR

The MIT Press 

Sentient City: Ubiquitous computing, architecture, and the future of urban space 

edited by Mark Shepard, £18.95, ISBN 978-0-262-51586-3

There is a downside to futurology. A great deal of it fails entirely to predict how things actually end up turning out. I'm still waiting for the hovercar and meal pill that 'Look and Learn' promised me as a child.

There is, thankfully, also an upside to futurology. Done well, it outlines a set of pathways from the decisions we make today to the futures that they make possible.

'Sentient City' sits firmly in this second camp, as a timely look at the implications of the 'Internet of things'. If Ericsson's prediction that there will be 50 billion connected devices on the planet by 2020 comes true, it seems likely that some of them at least will be buildings, public spaces and even furniture that can sense, remember and correlate data from myriad sources to create new forms of information and even new behaviours.

The book, a collection of essays and case studies, builds on an exhibition organised in autumn 2009 by the Architectural League of New York and editor Mark Shepard. It focuses on what it will be like to live in a city in which computing has spilled over from the desktop and smartphone into our environment, and asks, given the potential of the technology, what kind of future cities we want to build.

The case studies provide examples. In one, students attach GPS trackers to discarded goods to show how many road and air miles are involved in recycling them. In another, street furniture is given so much intelligence that it becomes useless, with rubbish bins spitting discarded cans back on to the street, and park benches tipping overstaying occupants onto the floor.

If some of the ideas in Sentient City seem absurd, their point, and that of the essays from practitioners and theoreticians that are also included, is to do what the best futurology manages to achieve: stimulate debate about what it will mean to live in the future that a technology enables, and how we want to shape that future. LC

Allen Lane 

The Immortalization Commission: science and the strange quest to cheat death 

By John Gray, £18.99, ISBN 978-1846142192

Here's a million-dollar question: is there life after death? It may appear oxymoronic, but trivial it is not. Behind the question lies the sheer inability of humans to get to grips with mortality.

Since time immemorial, humankind's best minds have been trying to challenge death only to succumb to its merciless embrace when their turn inevitably came. In his fascinating latest book, John Gray, one of the English-speaking world's most respected academics-turned-writers, looks back at just two protracted attempts to cheat death.

The two are: a powerful and well-connected movement of Edwardian British intellectuals (Sidgwick, Myers, Gurney) reeling under the impact of Charles Darwin's irrefutably cruel theory of evolution; and the sporadic – and, let's be honest, plain ridiculous – endeavours of some educated Soviet Bolsheviks, the so-called 'God-builders', to create a sort of immortality for themselves in the 1920s.

The latter did not go much further than embalming (in accordance with the decree of the special 'immortalisation commission') the long-suffering body of Lenin, and later that of Stalin, and putting them on display in a specially constructed Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square, from where Stalin was covertly 'evicted' in 1956.

I grew up in the USSR being constantly bombarded with indisputable dictum that Lenin not only was 'still alive' and was 'always with us' (which triggered popular jokes about triple marital beds), but also – thanks to Vladimir Mayakovsky's poetic metaphor – 'more alive than all the living'. Even the ageing Soviet Politburo apparatchiks of the 1970s and 1980s, cynical and senile as they were, cherished a dream of immortality as evidenced by their favourite read – a limited edition of C Northcote Parkinson's 'Secrets of Eternal Life'.

In 'The Immortalization Commission', Gray introduces to the reader a gallery of extraordinary characters: philosophers, academics, professional demagogues, embalmers, dreamers, murderers and mad inventors, many of whom had managed to achieve if not immortality, then notoriety and occasionally fame too.

Like death itself, the issue of afterlife refuses to go away. One of the interesting new voices is Anthony Peake, a talented writer endorsed by many reputable scientists, who in his latest book 'Is There Life After Death? The Extraordinary Science of What Happens When We Die' uses quantum physics and neurophysiology to argue that humans are basically immortal.

So, the conversation – if not quite a debate – on immortality goes on. As Gray's respected publishers themselves assert (rather controversially) in their dust-cover blurb, the implications of his book 'will haunt the readers for the rest of their lives – and perhaps beyond'.

This reviewer , however, would put it much shorter: 'Dead brilliant!' VV

Also out this month...

In the summer of 1938, Germany’s aggressive behaviour finally forced the British Government to react to charges that it had mismanaged its RAF re-armament programme. Production of the new generation of fighter aircraft in the shape of the Hurricane and the Spitfire was months behind schedule, and the country’s defences still rested largely on obsolete aircraft. The Government responded by appointing EJH Lemon of the LMS Railway as director general of production at the Air Ministry. It’s said to be largely a result of the reforms he implemented that when Britain faced the full might of German air attacks in 1940 the RAF was ready. The story of how Lemon, the son of a Dorset labourer, rose to become a vice-president of the LMS Railway is told by Terry Jenkins in Sir Ernest Lemon: The Production Engineer Who Modernised the LMS and Equipped the RAF for War (The Railway & Canal Historical Society, £24.95, ISBN 978 0 901461 58 2). Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he overhauled the way the railway worked, eliminating old and inefficient practices as one of the first proponents in the UK of the ‘scientific management’ business philosophy developed in the USA. This story of his life, both professional and private, with exclusive access to his personal papers, is available from: RCHS Books, 4 Broadway, Lincoln LN2 1SH, or contact: Terry Jenkins, 9 West End Avenue, Pinner HA5 1BH, 020 8866 8549, email bctjenkins@googlemail.com)

Travelling in time is a plot device that has shifted from the realms of science fiction into mainstream stories. Any aspiring author thinking of incorporating it in their plot could do worse than read Time Travel – A Writer’s Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel by Paul Nahin (Johns Hopkins University Press, £13, ISBN 9781421400822). Unlike scientific treatments of physics, this is designed very much as a writer’s guide. As Nahin explains, until relatively recently science fiction authors could pretty much write their own rules, which they did with varying degrees of success. These days scientists have established a lot more about the laws that govern time in the real world, and the public is that much more aware of them. If a TV show like Lost had been broadcast in the 1980s we’d have been much more tolerant of the time-shifting elements of the story that today have many of us shouting at the television. And even if you’re not thinking of adding to the vast quantity of time-travel themed fiction, reading this book will help make that shouting sound a bit better informed. Not to mention raising the important question – why is it always grandfathers that scientists and writers are preoccupied with hunting down if they get the opportunity to go back in time?

In today's unpredictable and chaotic world, we often look to science to provide certainty and answers--and often blame it when things go wrong. The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty by William Byers (Princeton University Press, £16.95, ISBN 978-0-691-14684-3) claims to offer an entirely new way of thinking about science that highlights its strengths and limitations, its unrealised promise, and, above all, its unavoidable ambiguity. Byers believes that our faith in scientific certainty is a dangerous illusion, and that only by embracing science's inherent ambiguities and paradoxes can we truly appreciate its beauty and harness its potential. Addressing contemporary dilemmas ranging from climate change to the global financial meltdown, he challenges our firmest beliefs while showing how the secret to better science can be found where we least expect it--in the uncertain, the ambiguous, and the inevitably unpredictable.

Additional reviews by Dominic Lenton

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