About a month ago, I was doing some hesitant online looking at an item from a rather expensive store called Anthropologie. Around that time, I also clicked through a promotional email informing me about Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King & I” on Broadway. Both situations were unusual for me: online shopping is foreign territory for me, which also explains why all my online ads suddenly turned into pictures of Anthropologie pants and “The King & I” logo. It was like that scene where Dumbledore claps his hands and all of the Great Hall banners go from celebrating Slytherin to Gryffindor. Obviously, my situation involved less magic and more browser cookies, search histories and a debate about the merits of consumer privacy. Plus, most people my age are familiar with this minor annoyance. I’m playing catchup on trendy issues, as usual.
Still, I’ve now spent a good month imagining what it must have been like when the Internet was shiny and new and online advertising wasn’t as pervasive. I’ve heard the Internet was hailed as a portal for exploration. I’ve heard it was going to help solve the problem of closed-mindedness. It was a Pandora’s box of surprises!
The Internet I know today is an echo chamber where my interests are repeated back to me. This is partly because I can’t escape myself. I gravitate toward the headlines that tell me what I’m already inclined to believe or support—”When it comes to clean water, some say Silicon Valley is all talk” and “‘No Kardashian Parking’ Signs Crop Up In Hollywood” and “South Korea is both exasperated by its wealthy — and obsessed with them—such that even if I’m learning something, it’s in the bucket of topics I’m already pursuing. But it’s also because the websites I see and the companies they advertise help feed those topics back to me, too. There’s a strong relationship between “customer engagement,” or keeping someone on your website for as long as possible, and “personalization,” or giving you more of what you’ve already picked. It results in the concierge service of the “Recommended for you” sidebar, a beguiling vicious cycle.
A more fitting analogy for the Internet might be a house of mirrors. In these freaky sideshows, one steps through the doors for a chance to look into a seeming infinity at every corner, an endless vision of distance and light and perspective. In reality, the visitor is in a tiny room, surrounded by mirrors, looking at himself, over and over again.
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