Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bubble-Game Theory

YOU CAN CONSIDER GOOGLE your friend only if the two of you play games with each other -- especially with Google the search box. I call our little game Bubble-game. The rule is simple. You need to come up with a vaguely familiar term that you know from somewhere -- desirably from within the Google Apps ecosystem that you personally use on various gadgets. Again, the only rule is that the term should be only vaguely familiar, if at all. It is not necessary to know the precise spelling.

So then, you turn to Google.com and ask. From within the context of your 'relationship' with Google, the algorithm would suggest to you the possible answers in the form of search results. And depending on how extensively you use Google --or, to put it more socially-- depending on how well Google 'knows' you, you should find traces in the search results that may indicate where you might have encountered the term for the first time and the subsequent info-branches it created thereafter: cached data, search queries, location information and frequently visited places, bookmarks and favourites, frequently visited sites, email and social circles, interactions and conversations you have had -- to mention a few. (For the complete list, you may want to review details in the public domain for project PRISM.)

If you have noticed, Google Now does something very similar albeit behind the scenes. Which in turn defines the bubble that you live and operate within inside a given app ecosystem. These informed results are algorithmically cultivated to "inform" you better. However, in the process, the algorithm assigns weights to certain information snippets to bump them up over others, and in doing so, it alters the reality for you.

It is my theory that over a period of time, pretty much like a chewing bubble gum one can effectively change the shape and size of this bubble. Since it was defined by your own habitual patterns in the first place, it can be redefined also. It would primarily involve controlling and altering one's digital information usage patterns around the given bubble. Typically, a bubble shrinks over time, making your behavior patterns more predictable. As you add milestones to your life such as acquiring a new degree, getting married, adding a newborn to the family, relocating to a new place, changing jobs, etc. would add additional dimensions and info-branching to the existing bubble. A significant effort may allow you to restrict the bubble from affecting your information consumption. However, there seems to be no way to burst the bubble unless the complete dataset is lost or disassociated with your digital identity.

Getting back to the Bubble-game, the term that Google and I played with today is "Rosenthal" (try here) -- a vaguely familiar term that randomly popped up in my head, most probably by unconsciously noticing Umberto Eco's book "The Name Of the Rose" on the bookshelf in the passing. The bubble involves a host of url's, bookmarks, comments, that I happened to capture a couple of years ago.

(PS: Eli Pariser demonstrated the bubble effect in his 2011 TED talk with striking examples. His ongoing research effort is updated on his personal blog - The Filter Bubble.)

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