How to confuse the search engines and take back your identity
In Web 3.0 you don’t have to go searching for information or looking for people to hook up with. Information and people find you. Your identity shapes your information flow.
Like all of us, you are at risk of drowning in the web. But have you considered that what apparently offers to simplify your searching (and your life) – the aggregation software that selects items for you based on your profile – actually contains a threat to your freedom of thought?
Web 1.0 (1991) put pages in front of us, Web 2.0 (circa 2002-now) put us on the same pages, and Web 3.0? – well, it looks as if it will deliver the pages to us along with all the colleagues and contacts who share our interests and worldview. Social aggregation is well under way to filter the web and send each of us what we want to see and read, tailored to individual preferences.
In Web 3.0 you are anonomously known and catalogued in vast databases that record your every move. You are caught in a web of your own making. Handing you your servings from the cloud may also starve you of alternatives. This suits the State, corporations, and web mafia because they’ve got their hooks into your identity: you are under surveillance.
It’s a classic example of what was once described as “separation and uniting” by the great Greek neomarxist Nicos Poulantzas (1976). Dare I say it in this era of disillusionment with marxist thinking, but he had a point. If there is an elitist ideology in the structure of the web, it comes in the form of social control through information. This amounts to a creeping mental colonisation in which you are guided to think about the things that reinforce your identity and values: your social class, your material interests, your biases.
In Web 3.0 the net is cast far wider than your immediate circle of known friends. You discover your imaginary relationships with unknown persons out there. Those who share interests are neatly boxed together as online communities – separated from those unlike them, and united in self-perpetuating consensus.
Unless, that is, we adopt a counter-strategy. Broaden your profile to widen the web; seek beyond your immediate personal and professional horizons.
Does the emergence of Web 3.0 promise to save time and effort, and sharpen your view of the world? Undoubtedly, yes. It’s a huge step forward. Yet there is a dark lining to this cloud of information raining down. At least in Web 1.0, where there were few pages and no interactivity, we could read and make up our own minds; we had free choice. And in Web 2.0 our friends told us things we didn’t know but they were our friends.
Web 3.0 enacts the difference between the social interactivity of the second phase of web development, and our so-called lifestream, in the third phase, where everything that you are becomes manifest in your profile. Your web persona is made up of your personal information and opinions, search habits and online exchanges; and of the negative or exclusionary behaviour that shuts out what you think you don’t need to know.
We are all familiar with the lifestream through Facebook and Twitter, where your selection of friends and followings determines what you see. What friends and contacts send you and what you send them constitutes your identity online. The danger in all of this is that you may become blinkered – seeing and receiving only what you want to see, what reinforces your sense of self, shutting out the rest.
Your profile is out there in cyberspace and through a process of observation, selection and friendship comparisons the search engines – which have become identity profilers – can decide what you get. A dog lover is not a cat lover; dog info is of no interest to cat lovers unless it is tactically of use in dealing with the enemy.
Profiling is immensely helpful and saves time and effort. It stands to reason that it’s the way the web has to go because we all suffer from information overload. Something has to be done to aggregate the mountainous mass of stuff out there for the use of the individual. Aggregators work by tracking what you go after online and then turning it around to go after y0u.
This, after all, is an old principle of advertising. Market surveys are designed to establish what consumers want. Then the analysts segment the population by demographics (hard social data like age, income, gender, education, and locality) and psychographics (attitudes and preferences). The same principles of segmentation will apply online.
Perhaps the social aggregators have not yet managed to become quite so sophisticated, which is why Web 3.0 is only at its inception. But the approach is there. Because we associate with communities online the engines can classify us according to type, in due course they will get our demographics and psychographics on tab. There is nothing we can do about it. Or is there?
Maybe we can shatter the pattern by deliberately breaking away from our given identities. Heigh-ho, this will disrupt the profiling: and the more you do it the harder the capture software has to work to get you sorted. So search on subjects that don’t hold your prime interest, look for people you don’t agree with, and find ideas that don’t align with yours. Associate with the other. It may turn up some fascinating alternatives.
Poulantzas made his case for separation and uniting in language that was often very hard to understand. What he was saying, as I understand it, is that originally the ideologies of social classes could be traced to their lived experience – as workers, as factory owners – as Marx himself argued.
As industrial capitalism developed, however, a superstructure of institutions devoted to communication arose out of it. They cultivate an imaginary picture of social relationships, a virtual world, far removed from the realities of existence. This subjects us to the illusion that all is for the best in a world where your identity is market-driven and your way of life is nicely niched in the comfort zones of capitalism.
Millions obsess about Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga – the froth on the the churning sea of humanity. The cash registers of popular culture ring out merrily but the world is not such a merry place.
Online communication is today the most powerful tool we have for breaking out of imaginary boxes and forging new patterns of existence. Let’s do it.