Last month I pondered the extent to which the Arab Spring and Occupy Everything are socially-driven acts of creative destruction. Creative destruction is defined as a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” The mutation, in this case, is reactionary responses to established interests, mostly driven by or assisted by social media. Governments and power structures are falling, but the replacements aren’t immediately ready in the wings. Continue reading New Economies
Last month, I wrote about the government. I asserted that we need to get business interests out of government or we’ll keep making decisions based on next quarter’s profits instead of the health of the next decade. This month, I want to talk about a whole industry that seems to be falling victim to short-term thinking, at least in America and Europe.
As anyone reading this knows by now, I like TED talks. One of my recent favorites, and one which I shared with friends and even showed to staff at work, is Eli Pariser’s brilliant talk about Internet filter bubbles. A few days ago at the World Science Fiction conference in Reno, I was on a panel about social media, and I mentioned the talk. Cory Doctorow was also on the panel and he added that Eli has a whole book on the topic. I stopped by Amy Cat’s book booth in the dealer’s room and grabbed a copy. On the long drive home to the Seattle area, the book became a topic of conversation. We read through the introduction out loud in the car and stopped every few paragraphs to talk about it.
Please bear in mind I have NOT finished the book, but I think it’s an important conversation, and so here are my thoughts after hearing the talk and reading the introduction.
I’ll start with a very short summary, but I actually recommend watching the talk, which will be worth the nine minutes of your time that it will take. My summary will not do it justice. But here goes:
The major online players including Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others are filtering content so that we get content directed for us. This includes ads, product recommendations, and even news. For example, if I regularly click on and visit Internet sites associated with liberal views on climate science, then related search results, product offerings, and even social information from like-minded friends will increase in availability and opposing views will decrease. The information I see on the Internet will be tailored to me in a self-referential fashion. Eli’s point is that this is largely bad, and may further cement the polarization of people into silos of belief.
Here are the primary points from our somewhat Worldcon-bleary discussions:
First, we agree that it’s happening to a great extent. Certainly Amazon doesn’t bother to present me with sports books, which I wouldn’t buy if it did. This is largely good. It wastes neither their bits nor my time. When it gets to news, it’s not so good. However neither of us uses only one news source. The New York Times is a favorite read of mine and my partner, Toni, almost never reads it. We had many examples of diversity in news sources between us, and yet we share lives, share many beliefs, and even have similar jobs. We decided that personalization benefits us far more than it hurts us (which is not that same as saying there is no harm).
One of the things Eli says in his introduction is that “In the filter bubble, there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning.” I suppose this would be true if there were only one way to learn. If I simply used search engines, and they all filtered with similar algorithms based on my own clicks, whole blocks of information would be effectively “hidden” from me. But that’s not our behavior, and I suspect it is not the behavior of most people. For example, in my social networks I follow political topics, and sure, those look right back at me by mirroring my own beliefs. But I also follow a wide swath of writers, and they have different political leanings as well varied points of view on many other topics. They live all over the world. Toni follows competition dog lovers, and they diverge even wider across the political spectrum. Then, because we have a joined subset of social media contacts that reflects things we’ve shared with each other, I hear about dogs (and the dog lover’s politics) and Toni hears about writers and bloggers (and their politics). The Internet as a whole has done more to widen our beliefs than to narrow them.
We tried to imagine a world where people who followed something more like pop culture than we do might live; say a reality TV addict. I suppose that if there are people who are only interested in the Kardashians and Brittney Spears, than they might be stilted even further by filter bubbles. But we tried to name some. Even though I have an old friend who has Fox news on every day (and is thus closer to my shuddering image of the “average” American), they have wide interests and it would be unfair to say that they aren’t encountering new ideas daily. If nothing else, they have social media conversations with me where we genially argue topics we are on opposite sides of. This enriches both of us. In other words, I couldn’t name a single individual so shallow that they allow the filter bubble to encase them in a wall of information that does nothing but mirror their own beliefs back to them. There is an archetypical “Joe Six Pack” who doesn’t really think about much and lets life come at him as he perches on the couch in front of the TV and drinks beers after work. I’m not sure that person exists. Yes – I‘ve read appalling comments on web articles that tell me there are some narrow thinkers out there. But we couldn’t name even one by name, even though I could certainly identify a few on the internet given a minute or two. Most people are more interesting and capable.
Lastly, the people who create content – like me and everyone else who posts here, like almost all writers and painters and poets and musicians — are generally curious and somewhat intellectual beings. We actively search out deeper information than that found on the front page of Fox, CNN, or MSNBC. I know, because I know what gets shared with me in internet social circles.
Eli ended the introduction with a comment that I believe is completely correct. He says, “…it’s critically important to render [the internet filter bubble] visible.” I agree with that. We should know as much as possible about how choices are being made about the content that we see. We should be smart enough to know what not to trust, just like we know to mistrust TV ads. I’m a strong advocate of all kinds of transparency. I do believe there are inherent dangers in the bubble as well as gifts. But there’s a lot of unformatted and difficult data on the Internet, and content filtering helps me far more than it hurts me. Maybe that’s because I have such varied interests that no algorithm can pin me to sports books or the Kardashians. The point is, almost everyone else does, too.
Unless, of course, I’m buried so deeply in the filter bubble that I truly can’t see outside.
What do you think?
Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!
I’ve lost the attribution note for where I found this piece, so apologies for the lack of source (it’s been sat in my Evernote inbox waiting to be read for a couple of weeks now), but given Monday’s mention of EVE I thought it well worth dragging out into the sunlight, even though it’s a few months old. So: gamer blog Rock Paper Shotgun did a long interview with an EVE player known as The Mittani – CEO of Goon Fleet, the Something Awful forum’s in-game clade – shortly before his election as chair of the Council of Stellar Management, which is CCP’s mechnaism for enfranchising EVE players as stakeholders in its long-term development, and it’s well worth a read.
If you’re thinking “why would I want to read an interview with some MMO ubergeek?”, I hazard to suggest you’re making a category error; The Mittani is more than just a player of games, he’s the figurehead and autocratic leader of a virtual corporation comprised of over ten thousand real people… and that corporation has, it would appear, engendered a significant cultural shift in the imaginary galaxy where it resides, as well as in parts of the real world in which that virtuality is embedded. He is shamelessly cocky yet also disarmingly modest, and talks more common sense about leadership than the vast majority of the biz-speak hucksters that the blogosphere teems with.
I’m not suggesting you need to admire him, or even like him. But I’m saying with certainty he’s a fascinating character. A few snips to tempt you with:
RPS: So what happened to Band of Brothers?
MT: I, uh, disbanded them.
RPS: What? How was that even your choice?
MT: At the beginning of the second stage of the Great War we had a defector from the executor corporation of Band of Brothers who thought that we were cooler guys. Basically he thought that his alliance was full of assholes, because their leadership structure was full of guys who wanted to be in “the most elite alliance in Eve”. Whereas Goonswarm, a lot of the time, were bad. We had a lot of newbies and no pretentions.
The disbanding itself was covered by the BBC. Ordinarily when you have a defector you do smash and grabs, just getting the other guy to steal everything that’s not nailed down and come over to your side. Now, I was still just the spymaster at this point, and I was sitting there in my office and I had this brain fart – with the access that this guy had, he had the authority to kick out every single corporation in the alliance and then shut down his own corporation, thus disbanding the alliance, which has the impact of disabling all the sovereignty defenses in their region. This had never been done before. All of a sudden I was like, “Holy shit! I can do this!”
Also, at the time Goonswarm owned half the galaxy. We controlled all of these regions, but as soon as we disbanded Band of Brothers we abandoned everything and all moved into what had been their territory. Over the course of two very bloody months we purged them and took all their space.
RPS: You hated them that much?
MT: Well, this goes back to the T20 scandal and these people declaring us a cancer on Eve. The entire Great War took four years, so yeah, maybe we were a little vengeful.
RPS: Do you think the Great War happened because you guys needed something to keep you entertained?
MT: No, it really was a bitter grudge war. They took it outside of the game. When they invaded Syndicate space it wasn’t a retaliation, it was them saying that Goons are bad human beings. …one higher up at Band of Brothers said “this is as personal as it ever gets”. And then it came out that one of their leaders was a CCP developer who was giving them items, which ignited a huge firestorm of controversy. You had these elite players who were the paragons of the old guard telling everybody, quite literally, “We’re better than you”, and then it turns out they’re a bunch of disgusting cheaters who are being given some of the most valuable items in the game by the developers.
RPS: What’s next for you guys?
MT: People ask us that a lot, but we don’t plan more than a month or two in advance… we do scheme a lot, because thanks to our spy network, we know what the other alliances are doing. But fanfest usually brings everything to a crashing halt. The game gets really boring around fanfest, because everyone’s planning on coming here.
We are griefers. If nothing is going to happen then we’re going to try to find something that screams and bleeds and poke at it.
RPS: Do you feel like expanding on what you said as we were walking over here, about Eve being a terrible game and that it’s the players who make it interesting?
MT: Well, I suppose since I’m going to be on the Council of Stellar Management and I’m probably going to be the Chairman I should probably clarify that.
Eve, for Goons, is fun because we play with Goons. By itself, it’s a game where you have to jump through a lot of hoops to have fun. I think all the small fixes CCP are doing at present are good. Eve players make fun of World of Warcraft a lot, but if you look at what Blizzard has done ironing out all those flaws and annoyances, it’s a tremendous achievement. Eve’s learning curve is vertical, and full of spikes, and the beautiful side of Eve is the image of it that players have in their heads.
The best analogy for Eve is this: 1% of the time, when you take part in a massive fleet fight, or take part in some epic espionage caper or something, it is the most fun game you will ever encounter. 99% of the time you’re just waiting for something to happen. But it’s that 1% that hooks people like crack cocaine. I mean, you don’t get interviewed by the BBC when you win a WoW raid.
RPS: For my money, Eve might be the most fascinating game in existence today. But that doesn’t stop it from being interminably boring as well.
MT: Right. I mean most Eve players are stuck in high security space mining, and a lot of the core PvE in Eve has you sitting there are watching three grey bars slowly turn red.
Lots more interesting stuff in there, not least of which is the revelation – not entirely surprising in retrospect, I suppose – that CCP has its own in-house professor of economics. Wow.
I really need to stop admiring this world from afar and get my hands dirty, don’t I? Are there any EVErs in the Futurismic readership who’d be willing to show me the ropes?
My from-a-distance fascination with EVE Online continues to grow*; its complex and anarchic political and economic scenes make for fascinating headlines, and it strikes me as the best extant model for the economically distinct synthetic worlds of the future. Ars Technica has a two-page piece on a recent EVE flap wherein the developers, CCP, started making an assortment of “vanity items” available for sale within the game. The economic set-up in EVE is complex, permitting money to flow in from meatspace as well as encouraging in-game trading, and players kicked off an extensive campaign of (in-world) disobedience and protest, thinking that CCP had handed a naked advantage to players who were financially better off in the reality outside the game.
Pretty much a carbon copy of meatspace protests over poorly-explained new laws or policies, which is interesting enough. But the second page has an innocuous-seeming paragraph that leapt out at me as being more astonishing than it appears:
EVE Online is one of the few games which has a formal player organization to speak for the customers of the game, called the Council of Stellar Management. The members of the CSM are democratically elected, and they present the concerns of players to CCP in order to keep everything running smoothly. As players continued to disrupt the game and CCP began to take a beating in the court of public opinion, the CSM was flown to the company’s offices in Iceland in order to discuss the issue of microtransactions.
Think about that for a second: not only does EVE have an elected player council, but said council was flown in to CCP’s HQ at CCP’s expense to sort things out. That’s a company that takes its userbase very seriously indeed.. As the Ars piece points out, this is at least partly due to necessity, but that necessity s a function of the freedom and engagement with the synthetic space that CCP has permitted since the start. I wonder if we’ll soon see more businesses that are not only this close to their clientele, but who genuinely understand that closeness as the foundation of their model… it’s a big step in the direction of cooperatives, which might make for a fine replacement for the increasingly-untrusted corporation in a world where nation-statehood is losing its grip.
Additional virtual worlds news, via Terra Nova: a Chinese insurance firm has started to offer what may be the first insurance policies to cover against loss or theft of goods in virtual worlds. As Castronova points out, insurance for intangible goods is nothing new… but intangible goods that only exist in a certain walled garden in cyberspace? That’s a new development.
[ * Yeah, I know, I should probably just sign up for an account and try it out, but I know how prone to addictive behaviours I am, and I have work that needs doing that won’t be much helped by my attempting to explore an anarchic virtual star-cluster. Unless someone wanted to pay me to write the story, that is. Hmmm. ]