In days of old, literature was subject to strict population controls. As John A Hobson put it back in 1910:
"Before the arts of printing and of reading became common, most of the great deeds of man, his finest thoughts, his noblest feelings, perished for lack of enduring record and easy accurate communication.... Almost all that was original and beautiful or serviceable in the intellectual and spiritual life of primitive man inevitably died as soon as it was born."
Yet, as the costs of printing declined, the birth rate of books soared. Hobson deplored some of the consequences:
If only those who had some new or noble thought, could utter it, so that the fruits of profound intelligence, subtle sympathy, rare experience, delicate imagination, well-directed mental toil, could alone survive in print! But what if every shallow thought, every crude and base sensation, every false and ugly imagining, enjoys this same formal liberty of publication? What if our world of thought is crowded with vulgar, ill-mannered intruders, who jostle us in every thoroughfare -- nay, invade the privacy of our most sacred life -- shoving between us and those whose company we seek, screeching their names and their claims into our ears, and by their very multitude and importunity hiding from us whatever is really fine and estimable in the wares they flaunt!
Hobson's words are more true today, when every shallow thought can be tweeted, blogged, facebooked, and shared with the world, than when he wrote them.
But what can be done to stem this tide of information? Hobson toyed with the idea of literary "eugenics" - the establishment of some Academy of Literature, which would decide what was worthy of being printed.
Ultimately, however, Hobson rejected the eugenics idea - the orthodoxy imposed by literary eugenicists would be worse, he believed, than the present state of anarchy.
I agree with Hobson, and that is why I am appalled by the literary "you-genics" that surrounds me. When I go to the New York Times web page, it makes thoughtful recommendations: yesterday it was the Modern Love column, today it's the news about Katie Couric. Amazon.com thinks I'd like Tyler Cowen's latest.
Google's search results are personalized, too. For example, if I go to http://www.google.com and search for "Woolley", the number four result links directly to my sister's web page, and the number six result is for my own web page. Wow! I'm one of the most famous-est Woolleys ever!
No, I'm not. It's just you-genics.
Historically, eugenics sought to improve the human race by preventing low-quality individuals from reproducing. You-genics seeks to improve the internet experience by filtering out sites that just aren't right for you.
It's easy to see how much you-genics is changing your search experience. First, conduct a google search the usual way. Then, conduct an un-personalized google search -- either follow the instructions here or just go directly to: http://www.google.com/advanced_search?q=Turn%20Off%20Custom%20Search&hl=en. The results may change dramatically. They did for me - when I typed "Woolley" into the unpersonalized search engine, I found out where I really stand in the cosmic scheme of Woolley-ness - the bottom of the fifth page of the search results.
You-genics bothers me because it distorts my view of the world. It keeps me in my comfort zone, and excludes the new, the dangerous, the challenging and the exciting. Personalized orthodoxy. You-genics creates intellectual ghettos, where likeminded people can flock and together.
"The prison unto which we doom ourselves no prison is." Choice matters. On twitter, or on facebook, you can decide who to follow, you can pick your own filters. Stumbleupon.com is another web site that allows the user to see, and to actively participate in, the personalization process.
Bottom-up, user-driven filtering is, I think, the best way forward. And for now, I'm going to wage my own individual war against you-genics, using unpersonalized searches, and changing 'recommended for you' to 'most emailed' whenever I can. Or, at least, whenever I can be bothered.