Rangaswami: "Filter Tools Must be a Choice"
Social media offers certain ways of filtering information. But what happens when it is not the user’s choice anymore to filter? In an interview with futurezone at the CeBIT, JP Rangaswami criticized Google for personalizing search results. The technology visionary also talks about the power of the Internet and social media, as well as the end of the age of privacy.
futurezone.at: We live in an information society and social media penetrates us with even more information. Is this too much for our brains to absorb?
There is no such thing as information overload, there is only filter failure. We have more and more sources of information, but there are many forms of filtering around. Look at your Facebook or Google+ stream. The “like” and “+1” button are signaling important news, just as the retweet on Twitter does.
Does filtering information within social networks work for you?
Yes. My own social network starts becoming the filter. It raises the importance of things that should matter to me. For example: When I arrived via car from the airport this afternoon, I chose a tool to create a CeBIT-related search string. Then I was converting all that data into a presentation. I think total information overload is not possible and now there are options which we did not have before.
JP Rangaswami during the futurezone-Interview at CeBIT
JP Rangaswami was born in Calcutta, India, and spent half his life there before he emigrated to the UK. Today he is the chief scientist for salesforce.com. Prior to joining the sales force.com team he was chief scientist at British Telecom. He is a technology visionary and an active blogger.
What about information overload through other media?
That sounds a bit like food overload. You don’t have to eat too much, but moderation is a consumption problem. Same here with information: There can’t be too much information. You don’t have to watch TV for eight hours a day. But it is important to talk about it. Now, with even more devices coming onto the market, every source is a potential source of distraction. You have to develop some new disciplines.
Having more information allows you to do many things. The way to solve overload is to filter. The filters can be active--- in choosing my time ---or passive and---in choosing my network of friends.
You have a certain amount of opinions when you are only following a certain kind of people. At the moment, the Internet is still free, at least in most parts of the democratic world, but what is the biggest danger?
Censorship is just a different form of filtering. Eli Pariser calls this the filter bubble. If the government controls what appears only in the newspapers, then you only see what the government wants you to see. The same is true for all communication.
One of my friends, a Harvard professor, wrote about the end of the Internet when free Internet is being vulcanized. I put a search request into Google, and somebody in the same building sitting next to me puts in the same research request. If we get two different answers, then my faith in the search engine has been shattered.
Is this what Google currently plans?
Well, serving me with things suitable to my profile should be my choice and not their choice. I am fully okay with Google giving me search tools. When I say “cloud that” they know that I mean the model of service to do computing and data, and not the way rain falls now. But this must be my choice.
Do you think that Google will have a success with the personalization of search?
When you and I are talking about Google and filtering, this means it is known. Even Google produced a few failures, products that did not work out very well. I think that the market is competitive and some people will walk away. Our power as customers is huge. The world is aware of it and people in democratic environments are very clear that they do not want filter bubbles and that they were work against them. At least that is my expectation.
That’s about Google. But what happens with the other Internet filters? What role does social media play in this context?
When emails are in the hands of the receivers, social networkers are in the hands of the subscribers. It doesn’t matter what I do. If you choose not to follow me, then you won’t be able to see my tweets. If I direct my tweets to you, you can still block me. The power is in the hands of the subscriber. That understanding means that I am less worried about the Internet. Even if people start trying to turn off the power switch, the Internet will navigate around the obstacles.
There were rumors of a kill-switch plan for the Internet, but I never saw it happen. People found other ways like meshed networks. This is difficult to prevent. Places like China probably have means to control access and you are not going to solve all the issues of democracy overnight, but the Internet remains largely a place where people are trying to build things to help you and create risks which you have to respond to.
We could see the power of the Internet quite well with the actions against SOPA in the US or ACTA in Europe.
When SOPA came through, what was said on social media changed the minds of many people. That had an impact on awareness in Europe and led to the pushback against ACTA, with country after country saying “We won’t ratify this”. This actually weakened ACTA. If the same ACTA had been presented one year ago, then it may have gone through.
Personal user data is now one of the new credits on the web. How important is privacy in your opinion?
Privacy will always be important and will be taken care of, but it must be seen with the big picture. For example, if you went to a school party and people take a photo with you in it, and then they put it on Facebook,and then you ask to have it removed. This is a record of what happened and when you have “a right to be forgotten” then it is easy to say such things. But if a tag exists on someone else’s photos, it is as it was in the past. In the analog world you could not do anythings as well. You could only burn your photo album. But if someone else has a copy of your photo you don’t have the right to enter their house and say, “I want all photos of me burned”. Life does not work like that.
So how does life work?
The idea is to collect some types of data. Bilateral or multilateral ownership is important in my opinion. Privacy is part of the old model, but now we have to look at new ways such as collaboration and collective intelligence. Community-based interaction is becoming more powerful. We have to learn how to create policies which protect that interaction as much as it protects privacy. Privacy is not new, but collaboration in such a form is.
Collaboration rules are more important than privacy laws.
The problems we face today are global rather than individual, and have more to do with climate changes, disease control, purity of water. These are issues which have not been solved by a single country. Collaboration across countries and cultures are becoming more important than ever before. We need tools for openness and transparency, and tools for collaboration. How we build those tools when we still have the protective rights of the individual is exactly where care has to be taken. But we also have to take care of the new types of data which have emerged. We don’t have just private and public data anymore: We also have communal data, data which belongs to more than just one person.
You are also quite engaged with educational topics. What do you think about the iPad for education? It is based on a closed-source infrastructure and ecosystem. Would you prefer open devices instead?
I am a believer in open. Over time, open will win every time. When I look at education, the iPad is for sure a great instrument and I have yet to see a tablet which is as good as the iPad. It may take some time, but over time I have to go for openness. That will drive the costs down to a level where it is affordable, plus I don’t want to live in a world of digital divide. Can I imagine all of India and Africa owning an iPad? Not yet. But can I imagine Indians and Africans owning tablets which are open? Yes. The open model will be reducing the entry costs. Open information architectures like Wikepedia show how you can sustain coverage and quality. Obviously there are risks, but the risks of being closed off are much worse than the risks of openness.
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