In 2016, the United Nations declared access to the internet to be a basic human right, right up there with shelter, food, and water. And while many of us may have access to an internet, none of us has access to the internet. That’s because it isn’t one uniform entity.
Thanks to surveillance and customizations technologies, each of us gets our own internet. Your Google search results are different than mine. Your feeds show different posts and ads than mine — even if we subscribe to the same sources. Your news apps deliver different news to you than mine, prioritized differently, and from a different political perspective.
This, more than anything else, presents our country’s greatest barrier to engaging in anything resembling civic discourse. The issue isn’t the content (though it can certainly be problematic). It’s the platforms. How can we forge any semblance of consensus with people who are not even looking at the same realities? To fix the net’s influence on political discourse, we need to end the automated customization of what we see.
Customization is the net’s original sin, a practice originally named “one-to-one marketing” by customer management consultants Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in 1993 — before the web even existed. They believed augmenting email marketing with a good database could turbocharge direct marketing into a behavioral science. Instead of managing products, marketers could “manage customers,” bringing them ever more accurate depictions of what they really want.
Back in the 1990s, this meant better, more targeted email spam. The web was still neutral territory, where all visitors to a site saw the same ads and content. But in 1994, with the invention of the cookie, advertisers gained the ability to track us individually and serve each of us the ads we were most likely to click on. From that moment on, customization became the ethos of the net. Every company or organization could establish a different “relationship” with each one of us.
Slowly but surely, we progress toward a more…