Technology Might Not Unite Us

A Microsoft ad that has been in heavy rotation lately claims that “technology has the power unite us.” This is the standard world-flattening orthodoxy that has been dominant for most of the last fifteen years. Increasing interconnection with the internet will bring people closer together, creating more common experiences and easing communication between people with common interests.

This may be true to some extent, and in particular areas of life. The ability to watch sporting events and learn about news with real-time comments from people in faraway places can increase international ties based on shared interests and values.

However, new technologies also cut the other way: they allow us to carefully select our news sources and shut out those with which we do not agree. Fifty years ago, most Americans would have had a roughly similar media experience, with the biggest differences coming in what newspapers people read. Syndicated radio shows and a small cadre of television networks ensured that most Americans saw the same news presented in the same way. This is broadly true of most countries — media technologies were expensive, meaning that there were relatively few sources of news. Now, I can pick what news sites or blogs are in my bookmarks bar, cull my Twitter follows down to people who agree with me, and watch TV channels that will reflect and reinforce my biases.

There are a couple of important caveats here: not everyone will be effected by this process, and it isn’t necessarily going to tear apart polities much more than they are already shredded along party and intra-party faction lines.

The key point is that by giving people a different set of inputs of information will tend to produce a more widely divergent set of ideas about reality, and by focusing on different issues, they can skew the priorities and perspectives of their viewers. Worse still, this trend tends to ossify perspectives and prevent people from seeing issues from a different perspective. How can voters understand and accept a compromise if they have only been presented (and only wanted to hear) one side of an argument?

To some extent this is not a new problem in certain media formats. London, for example, has had a variety of perspectives in its daily papers for decades (thank you to Yes, Prime Minister for this illustrative clip). However, even if you went to pick up The Times in 1975, you would probably have seen the headlines of The Guardian and The Daily Mirror. The internet allows readers to insulate themselves from contrary opinions if they so choose.

The general results of this are pretty clear from American politics in the last twenty years. It’s an extension of the talk radio effect, drawing people away from the center ground and energizing and solidifying the political extremes. It isn’t the only cause of increasing polarization (which I have discussed at length in previous Dispatches), but it is an important factor.

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