Sunday, December 18, 2016

Our technological paradox: digital tribalism in the global village


Nicholas Carr
(Image from Wikimedia Commons

The author Nicholas Carr wrote an article some time ago asking, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

He followed it up with his book The Shallows, which asks, is the Internet is turning us into shallow thinkers?

(Image from Amazon)

While many of us would say no, I understand what he was getting at when it comes to how people use the Internet.  The best thing about the Internet is that you can find out anything about anything—that's also the worst thing about the Internet.  For instance, when I want to know what the Fed does to affect interest rates, I can go it its website and look up the policy.  But if I want to believe that President Obama is a space alien, I can find a website out there that confirms this conspiracy theory.  (Go ahead, try it!)

On one hand, the Internet is probably the greatest invention since the printing press, at least in terms of cultural impact.  On the other hand, the Internet, and social media in particular, can be a trap for what psychologists call the confirmation bias: people tend to seek information that confirms what they want to hear, not what they need to know.  Now we're living in a paradox: we're much more interconnected through digital technology and social media; but the information we usually find is customized, limited, or insular to our social network.

Take a recent example: an MIT study that looks at Twitter users and how they followed political Tweets during the 2016 election.  In the graph below, the dots represent Twitter users, and their color represents which political candidate they followed.  Clinton supporters on Twitter are to the left, and Trump supporters on Twitter are to the right.  Among Clinton supporters on Twitter, there were few users who followed only Trump (the red dots), some users who followed both Clinton and Trump (the purple dots), and many users who only followed Clinton (the blue dots).  Among Trump supporters on Twitter, most users only followed Trump, creating their own information bubble (the big cluster of red dots).

(Image from The Electome project at MIT and reported in Vice News)

In terms of media ecology (the study of how media affect culture and behavior), the Internet may or may not be making us stupid or shallow.  However, it may be making us more tribal.  Years ago, Marshall McLuhan warned us about this tribalism in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

"The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village."
"We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums."[1]

That's our technological paradox, which McLuhan foresaw before the Internet's invention.  Technological interconnectivity—via the Internet and social media—has connected us in incredible ways, and now we're all sharing a single space (a global village).

And yet the result has been anything but a shared, cosmopolitan perspective (rather, its what we'd call digital tribalism).

Is there a way out of this paradox?  Here are some suggestions...

  • Never expect meaningful information from Twitter.  Twitter is primarily entertainment, not news.  (On occasion, meaningful info may come from Twitter, but it's more likely to come from, say, magazines such as Scientific American.)
  • Don't post political memes on Facebook.  Seriously, don't do it—it only inflames tribalism, and memes won't change anyone's mind.  (Changing minds requires discussion and dialogue).
  • Take breaks from social media to read news from nonpartisan sources.  Of course, there's no such thing as perfectly unbiased, purely objective news, because there's no such thing as perfectly unbiased, purely objective people (we are human beings, not gods).  But news can be covered in a way that respects facts and doesn't have a partisan axe to grind.  Also, if you can, try to read news in print, because print media often work better than screens for reflective, long-term memory, as research in cognitive science demonstrates.  (Personally, I like to read The Economist.) 

[1] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 36.

1 comment:

  1. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt also mentioned the problem that social media create for politics. To quote:

    "We haven’t talked about social media, but I really believe it’s one of our biggest problems. So long as we are all immersed in a constant stream of unbelievable outrages perpetrated by the other side, I don’t see how we can ever trust each other and work together again.
    I don’t know what we’re going to do about social media. I’m hopeful that future generations will learn social media responsibility and somehow manage to communicate without demonizing the other side."

    The full interview with him is on Vox: