The Uncanny Orchard

How online personalization turns us all into fruit flies

Pat DeFlorin
The Graph
Published in
16 min readDec 21, 2016


Back when America was great, life was good for the native American fruit fly, Rhagolestis pomonella. These Tic Tac-sized fruit flies had carved out cosy niche for themselves on hawthorn trees, where they almost exclusively bred, fed and laid their eggs. And their lineage buzzed with haw-munching, thorn-loving greatness. Until the Europeans came, that is.

Rhagolestis pomonella — by Pat DeFlorin

In the 1800s, Europeans brought apple trees to North America, which sent ripples through the haw fly communities. The apples, in their shiny red grandeur, mesmerized some factions of the R. pomonella.

“Forget these dinky little haws that we’ve grown up on,” the apple fanciers hummed in the spirit of manifest destiny, nodding their bulgy-eyed heads in the direction of the apple trees. “Look at those.”

Prior to the apple introduction, some groups of haw flies had dabbled with different fruits, but the dissent of the apple fanciers was unprecedented. Heretical, even. Soon they severed ties with their haw-eating kin and started feeding and breeding almost exclusively on apples, while the graybeard haw flies held strong to their haw preference. And now the R. pomonella are diverging into two species in front of our eyes.

Over the past 200 years, haw and apple factions of R. pomonella have diverged genetically, evolving into two distinct host races. This is the first step towards them splitting into two wholly different species.

In order to become a new species, organisms must no longer be able produce viable offspring with one another. That is, they must become reproductively isolated. This reproductive isolation can happen in a number of ways. In the case of R. pomonella, it is happening because the haw and apple factions have become so associated with their respective trees that they seldom have the opportunity to mate, since they simply don’t meet often. Over time, deviating genetic changes have accumulated in each faction and now, though the haw flies and apple flies are physically still able to reproduce, the haw-apple fly offspring are less fit and more prone to dying than their purebred counterparts. It’s only a matter of time before haw flies and apple flies are physically unable reproduce.

If you’re not a bug enthusiast, you may be thinking, R. pomo-what? — why do I care? You should care because, in the digital world, we are all a bunch of fruit flies. And it’s a complex ecosystem so let’s meet the players.

The trees

Welcome to the uncanny orchard. The trees are media companies and publishers. They work together to synthesize world happenings into tasty fruits of news for us flies to consume.

Apple and hawthorn trees — by Pat DeFlorin

Let’s start by taking a look at the evolution of news media’s influence, starting with print. Over the course of the 20th century, as accessibility and readership of newspapers increased, newspapers were transformed into potent molders of public opinion. Soon, however, their role bled into the realm of wartime propaganda, which caused people to question the unchecked power of news organizations. To address this, a system of ethical newspaper production was formalized. Under this system, the business and journalism portions of newspapers were divided, which gave rise to the common expectations of transparent, unbiased reporting that we hold today.

Such journalistic ethics created a framework of truth-promoting objectivity conducive to a well-rounded citizenship. The inherent heterogeneity of ideas put forth by newspapers exposed people to opposing viewpoints. And, while people may have tended toward news that comported with their own preferences and affirmed their beliefs, they were still regularly exposed to news that challenged those beliefs and preferences. In this way the marketplace of ideas — the concept that public discourse is a throw down of ideas and through idea competition the truth will prevail — was strong.

Then came television and the internet, which revolutionized the way we do news. Whereas reading something in print meant you had to sift through the headlines to digest current events and opposing views, television and the internet gave us the power to tune in to streams that confirm our biases. This has created a staggeringly partisan milieu with CNN and MSNBC on the left; Fox News and Breitbart on the right. We have ensconced ourselves in echo chambers that reverberate the side of the story that reinforces our biases. While this might sound ominous, I’ve yet to introduce the headliners of our story, the entomologists.

The entomologists

If television and Web introduced apples to the orchard and created an environment that promoted ideological drift, then the rise of the tech titans has turned the trees on their canopies, enabling us to take that drift to warp speed.

Entomologist — by Pat DeFlorin

The tech titans — Google, Facebook, Apple, and company — are entomologists. Like any entomologist worth his weight in glass specimen vials, the perspicacious tech titans take notes on all our behavior and are amassing a veritable library of notebooks — our data. They observe our behaviors and infer our preferences. They note that Hawthorn Hank fancies the fleshy bits of the haws near the stem, while Apple-eating Ariel is attracted to the skin of only the deepest crimson apples.

And that’s the extent of their role, they claim. For instance, Facebook repeatedly claims to be a platform for media, a utility, like an internet service provider. It says that it is just facilitating the dissemination of information — it’s just a humdrum, tousle-headed entomologist who takes notes and fans the fruit fragrances of the media trees to attract fruit flies from afar. But that’s not quite how it works.

Instead, there’s a little magic involved. The tech titan entomologists use their notes — our data — and their wizarding prowess to cater to our preferences, turning entomology into food service. With some prestidigitation and a “sim sala bim”, they conjure up a trough in which they pool juice from the haws and the apples of the orchard. Next, they bewitch individualized straws so that they take the generic fruit juice mixture and calibrate its components to match each fly’s precise haw-apple preference profile. Then the tech titans assign the fly’s spot on the trough that corresponds with their fruit preference, gives them their straws, and says, “cheers”. The result of such a fruit processing operation is that the flies get surrounded by other flies who have nearly identical preferences. So when it comes time to mate, the flies turn to their most accessible friends, who happen to be their uber like-minded neighbors. And fly speciation is streamlined.

This is what tech titans do for our online information diets. The magical straws that create individualized fruit slurpees are what Eli Pariser has termed our filter bubbles. In his book “The Filter Bubble”, Pariser describes filter bubbles as a unique universe of information created by unseen internet filters which fundamentally changes the way we encounter ideas online. Filter bubbles, Pariser explains, insulate us from reality and act as a lens that skews our perceptions of the world.

When we reside in filter bubbles and are only exposed to information that is shaded according to our biases, we feed our minds with a view of the world that is not representative of reality. Blue Feed, Red Feed, a Wall Street Journal interactive graphic by Jon Keegan, provides an eye-opening illustration of just how different partisan Facebook feeds can become, even when viewing posts about the same topic. It is this type of filtering that leads to our polarization.

In effect, filter bubbles prevent idea sex. That is, they lead to a reproductive isolation of ideas and our ideological speciation. Findings from a recent Pew survey of over 6,000 American adults details this divergence. The findings illustrate the polarizing revolution that is underway in America in a way that eerily resembles the textbook graphs of disruptive selection in biology.

Pew’s graphs of the American ideological divide (top) juxtaposed with my illustration of disruptive selection (bottom)

But when all the fruits have been juiced, we are getting valuable services — technologies that conveniently cater to our preferences and allow us to connect, search, and discover things that perhaps we didn’t even know we were interested in yet — for free, at the slurp of a straw. Charitable, no? It might seem so, until we meet the wasps.

The wasps

Enter Diachasma alloeum, the parasitoid wasps. The wasps are ad companies; their signature features, ovipositors — thin tubes that they use to inject eggs in the larvae of their hosts. And we fruit flies are their hosts. Therein lies the value of the entomologists’ notes.

Diachasma alloeum — by Pat DeFlorin

The notes are petabytes of our data — what we click, what we like, what we search, what we don’t search (i.e. what we typed into the search bar and deleted), what we say, and essentially all aspects of our online lives — that get stored in whirring, blinking, environment-controlled server farms across the globe.

We consent to this collection by clicking accept on the forms of every service we sign up for, after meticulously reading the privacy policies, of course. From those policies it’s clear that we are not merely accepting that our data be used for reasons necessary for that service.

Facebook’s data policy, for instance, says that it uses our data to, “Provide, improve and develop services; communicate with [us users]; shoe and measure ads and services; and promote safety and security.” Google uses similarly vague language in its privacy policy, saying that it uses that information collected from its services to, “provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and [us users].”

The overly broad uses of data leave one to question the state of online privacy, yet the status quo leaves consumers with essentially one choice: accept these terms and agreements, or go without services. So we accept. This seemingly insouciant acceptance may be taken to mean that we no longer value our privacy in our society and, according to Mark Zuckerburg, that we no longer consider privacy a norm. However, it’s really a reflection that we have no other option. Thus, we relinquish our data.

With our data we are profiled. Are you a moderate, single, thirty-something, lower middle class, dog-owning, Cubs-rooting oenophile? It’s this sort of information that might be in your profile. And these profiles are how ad companies target us — how the wasps find the flies.

In many cases, such targeting is arguably benign. For example, if you search for new pair of running shoes, you may have those shoes ghost you around the internet for a while. But sometimes data use is more pernicious. For instance, Orbitz have used personal data to point Mac users toward pricier hotels, Facebook’s advertising system has used personal data to enable advertising that singles out ethnic minorities, and some food companies have used personal data to surreptitiously target children with ads for less healthy foods.

It’s not just Facebook and Google that are collecting your data. Data has become so lucrative that third-party data brokerage companies are joining in the game and Facebook routinely buys personal information from them to flesh out the dossiers of us that it maintains.

This is the economy of the orchard. Entomologists sell their knowledge of the flies’ behavior so they can continue offering them personalized fruit drinks, just as tech companies sell our data so that they can continue to offer us services for free. In the ecosystem of web 2.0, data reigns supreme.

And that’s a rundown of the uncanny orchard: We are flies, news is fruit, tech companies are entomologists, and ad companies are wasps. But do people know how this ecosystem works? Do they care? Is it ethical? Let’s explore.

Do people know how the system works?

According to the PEW Research Center’s 2016 report on the state of privacy in post-Snowden America, nearly half of Americans “struggle to understand the nature and scope of the data collected about them” and around a third reported being impatient, discouraged, and confused when trying to make decisions about sharing personal information online. Considering modern societal functioning requires a substantial online presence these findings of poor data literacy are a reason for concern.

To supplement this national perspective, I took to the streets of Madison, WI to see what folks think. I submit my findings with the caveat that Madison is a liberal college town, so I consider my sample of fifty coffee shop-going locals patently unrepresentative of the public at large. Nevertheless, the results provide some good insights.

To determine whether people generally understand the players and data currency of the web 2.0 ecosystem, I asked the question, “What data do tech companies keep about you and how is it used?” From this conversation starter, I probed until I was able to make a qualitative assessment of whether the person understood the general dynamics of web 2.0 and their role in it. The results: based on my expertly questionable methods, 96% of those surveyed do understand how the system works. Which begs the question of whether people care?

Do people care?

According to Pew again, 91% of adults surveyed agree that “consumers have lost control of how information is collected and used by companies.” Furthermore, 74% say that it is “very important” for them to be able to control who has access to their information and 65% said that it is “very important” for them to be able to control what information gathered. This suggests Americans do care.

What about the denizens of Madison? After talking with an unrepresentative snatch of Madisonians about the extent of data collection and use, I posed the question, “Do you care about what data is being collected about you and how it is used?” I found that 62% of people said that they cared; 34% said they did not; 4% were undecided.

In talking with folks, two camps emerged. One camp thinks that the collection and use of their data is fine because they are getting free services and the data itself doesn’t mean anything to them. Here are some quotes from Camp Don’t Care:

“It really doesn’t bother me.”

“Sure beats paying for every app you download. Can you imagine if there were no free apps? I wouldn’t have nearly as many.”

“[The data] is of no use to me — why should I care whether [tech companies] have it?”


“It doesn’t make a difference in my day-to-day life.”

This discouraged sentiment reflects a similar finding from Pew’s 2014 report on the future of privacy that people won’t have the energy or resources to protect themselves from dataveillance.

The other camp is genuinely disturbed by the data being collected. Here’s some of what Camp Care had to say:

“[Tech companies] don’t need all that data. There should be better laws about how it is used.”

“Of course I care — I should be able to keep some things more private.”

“It’s kind of creepy how much of our information is out there online. You don’t think about it every day, but when you do it’s kind of scary.”

“It’s a little disturbing how [data] is being used and how little say we have in it.”

“This is partially why I think about going off the grid every once in a while.”

Despite the distinct views, a common thread emerged in my conversations of those from both camps: both camps feel that they lack power. They know that their data is being collected and used, but as active members of a digitally connected society they see no alternative. Such are the banes of being a fruit fly in the uncanny orchard.

Is it ethical?

From the perspective of duty ethics, the data collection and use practices of tech companies are fraught. According to duty ethics, we are all morally obligated to do the right thing, with the focus being on what the intention of our actions are. While the question of what is right is up for interpretation, it’s clear that the foremost intention of tech companies is profit. This defies duty ethics. According to eminent duty ethicist Immanuel Kant, it is our duty to treat people as a means rather than an ends. In other words, we should see the intrinsic value in people rather than viewing them as a mode to some external benefit. In the Web 2.0 ecosystem, we are treated as a means to our data.

In this way, the societal value privacy is has become devalued to the point that is now seen as a commodity rather than a right to be upheld. In the third quarter of 2016 alone, for instance, Facebook used people’s data as a means to “have another good quarter” with nearly $7B in ad revenue and $2.3B net income.

Such commoditization has Daniel Solove, professor of law at George Washington University Law School, advocating for a privacy as societal right. In his book “Nothing to Hide”, Solove argues that privacy is not merely a personal value that protects against outside imposition and preserves individual sovereignty. Instead, he says privacy is, “a form of social control that emerges from a society’s norms. It is not an external restraint on society but an internal dimension of society.” In other words, privacy is a value that’s inextricably personal and social. So while it may be easy to downplay the value of individual privacy by saying that we have nothing to hide, it would behoove us to consider how the feral collection and use of data undermines privacy as a social value.

To be fair, Facebook might refute this talk of duty ethics by taking a consequentialist stance to justify its business model. From this viewpoint, the end of Facebook providing billions of people with a platform of knowledge sharing and connection justifies leveraging people’s data for financial gain. Facebook and other tech companies claim to give us what we want. And they do. We like subscribing to the same slanted news sources that we agree with and like associating with other like-minded people. But a magically filtered stream of our likes and preferences, enables us to ossify our biases. Is this in our own best interests? If we tend to make decisions that oppose our wellbeing, should the hand that conjured the magic straw step in?

It is a fallacy that people almost always make choices that are in their own best interests. This concept is what Samuel Popkin, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, refers to in his book “The Reasoning Voter” as “low information rationality.” By default, we all make decisions with low information rationality, using as little information as possible and relying on mental shortcuts when coming to a decision. Fueled by our online behavior, tech companies facilitate this flawed reasoning as they create for us a convenient homogeneous environment that caters to our preferences. But is the resulting ideological balkanization good? Are the spontaneous choices we make online about what to like, what site to visit, and what articles to read — the choices that inform the algorithms and shape our feeds — really in our own best interests? Or could we use the occasional dose of something that bites and stings?

Cass Sunstein Harvard Law School professor and former Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and Richard Thaler, professor behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago, consider this notion in an article that appeared in the University of Chicago Law Review titled “Libertarian Paternalism is not an Oxymoron,” Sunstein and Thaler propose libertarian paternalism, a relatively non-invasive type of paternalism in which freedom to choose is not prohibited, as a strategy to promote decision making that is in a consumer’s best interest. Could the ecosystem of web 2.0 benefit from libertarian paternalism?

What if tech companies, by default, served us more balanced information once again? What if they uncocooned their algorithms so that the news that reaches our eyes is more representative of the real marketplace of ideas?

A libertarian paternalist approach could be that simple — changing the default. And if we didn’t appreciate the new ideas and opposing viewpoints we could simply opt and be recocooned.

It wouldn’t be hard; in fact, some people are taking it upon themselves to counteract the filter bubble. In a paper titled “Breaking the Filter Bubble: Democracy and Design that appeared in the journal Ethics and Information Technology, Engin Bozdag and Jeroen van den Hoven review several software tools designed at popping the filter bubble. The software they discuss range from news feed modifiers to visualizations of bubbles to help make the effects of the filter bubble more clear. If user well-being were truly a top priority, there is nothing stopping Facebook and Google from championing similar initiatives.

In the wake of the 2016 election, the pernicious potential of the filter bubble is particularly salient. Through the course of the election, filter bubbles amplified groupthink and allowed us to live in different online worlds in a way that some argue is destroying democracy. But to point fingers at tech companies fails to account for our role in the issue. We are all complicit. While tech companies operate based on economic expediency, can you blame them? After all, we are the ones friending like-minded people and favoring news that aligns with our values — they are just giving us what we want.

In a 2009 TED talk, tech guru and co-founder of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly argues that technology has become the most powerful force in the world. It allows us to continually reinvent ourselves, he says. From fire, to the wheel, to the printing press, technology has shaped humanity and accelerated biology. The Web 2.0 technologies of today that have created our filter bubbles are no exception. As cooking has allowed us to evolve larger brains, is hyper personalization allowing us to unwittingly rewire our brains?

In his book “Media Ethics,” Patrick Plaisance describes how technology, which is inherently propelled efficiency and expediency, often wangles us into ethical negligence. Filter bubbles are artifacts of such negligence. As moral agents, we are faced with a choice about filter bubbles. We can demand more of tech companies and of ourselves, or we can choose to be content with homophily. If we choose the former, we choose unity; if we choose the later, we choose to slurp idly and watch the unmooring of our human solidarity. And if that’s the case, considering the rate of polarization in the last twenty years, might it be possible that the filter bubbles of today are paving the way for the multiple human species of tomorrow? It’s conceivable — it’s an uncanny orchard out there.