The Informed

The Internet Is Polarizing Society & Crippling Progress: What You Need To Know

The Internet, despite all of it's beautiful ability to connect, to inspire and to collapse the distances of space and time, is in fact distancing us, polarizing us, and inhibiting our ability to move forward. But it doesn't have to.


Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love the Internet. Thank you, Mr. Gore. It's without a doubt the most transformative, life-altering, mind-bending technology to occur in my lifetime. When I was ten years old, my friend Sheldon and I would connect our Vic-20 computers via primitive modems that required we put the analogue receiver snugly into these rubber cups. If the seal was not just so, and the receiver didn't sit just right, you'd get errors which would result in a bunch of gobbledy-gook on the monochrome green screen (god I miss that thing). But when it worked, it was glorious. Our own personal network. We were on-line and it was a rush, although we were on a network of only two. Still, it was transformative for us, and even at that tender age we knew that we had the privilege to be living in an era of sweeping and unparalleled change. After an hour or so of typing messages back and forth, and working out the requisite bugs, we would get bored, say goodbye (ttyl), and go back to playing Gorf, silently smug in our secret understanding that we were on the thin cutting edge of the technological world.

A Man Performing A Google Search To Reinforce His Predetermined Viewpoint
Eventually, we both became a little more sophisticated, and with the advent of bulletin boards, AOL and the like, we were able to join larger communities. And so it went, until we arrived here, at the present day, living in the future of that which we could only have imagined so many years before. Yes, I love the Internet (is it still a capital "I"?), and it's a tool whereby great things can be achieved.  But I know how to use it, and sadly, the majority of users do not, and I'll tell you why.

The Filter Bubble:

You see, the funny thing is, after all these many years since the days of Sheldon and me wistfully creating our own digital universes (well, technically speaking they were digital-to-analogue-to-digital universes) there are still only really two people on the network. There's the Internet of you, and the Internet of them - and they are dramatically different from one another. It informs you in one way, and it informs them in another, entirely different manner. But this is not simply about the filter bubble that exists on the Internet, for that is only one component of the argument.

While the phenomenon of the filter bubble is becoming more common knowledge, it's still a largely unknown concept. In case you don't know, in a nutshell a filter bubble is when the personalization services offered by Google, Facebook, etc., feed you only like-minded viewpoints, and hide opposing opinions from your searches and feeds. If you've never tried this, Google something political with a friend, and compare results. On a larger scale, a filter bubble occurs when the like of FOX News compose a story by only researching one viewpoint, and selectively choosing information to fit and support that certain viewpoint. The information may not necessarily be wrong, but it is most certainly incomplete. A lie of omission, if you will.

If you need further proof to sway you to the existence of this phenomenon, pick a ridiculous argument; that the Holocaust never happened, that the earth is flat, that Al Gore invented the Internet, and get Googling. You'll soon realize that you can indeed support any argument under the sun if you want to. It doesn't mean that it's true.

Confirmation Bias:

The filter bubble also feeds into the phenomenon of confirmation bias, whereby a pre-determined viewpoint is proven by actively, if unwittingly, only learning about the supporting argument. We all learned in debate club that this is not how things are done, but this is how it's done on the Internet, especially inside the bubble in which most of us reside, happily unaware. Think of it like this: a filter bubble is the result of tailored, passive information gathering, whereas confirmation bias is when information is actively sought but in a biased, incomplete manner (only Googling supporting arguments compounded by Google tailoring results based on your known bias, for example). We won't get anywhere like this.

The Problem:

It's plain to see what the hazards of this information-shielding could potentially do to our society, and in fact already has. Politics has been shifting rapidly, and the left and right are more polarized than ever before. A healthy, bipartisan approach to politics no longer exists, particularly in the US, and progress has been crippled as aPolitics has been shifting rapidly, and the left and right are more polarized than ever before result in a time when radical progress is what we need. Along with this polarization comes a reduced empathy and understanding of one another, as we become a society of us-against-them. When someone only ends up being fed their own viewpoint, over time they become convinced that their opinion is the right one, and that everyone else is completely out to lunch.

And along with this polarization, we've received a whole other set of unintended consequences. Loneliness, isolation, despair and depression are greater than ever, as we become virtual friends and no longer real ones. The studies are in and yes, Facebook and other social media are isolating us, not the opposite. Who knew?

The Solution:

How, then, can we begin to utilize this wonderful tool called the Internet in a positive, constructive way, this tool at once so full of promise and freedom, and so utterly shackled and hijacked? As with any cognitive endeavour, the answer lies in an awareness, and a conscious application of that awareness to the problem. By understanding the problem, and sharing that understanding with others, we begin to get out of the darkness.

Darkness may reign in a cave for thousands of years, but bring in the light, and the darkness vanishes as though it had never been - Ancient Yogananda Saying

But beyond understanding, we need to ask better questions, be critical and seek out the other argument (an excellent article on the subject can be found here). We need to metaphorically revisit those debate club days in high-school and relearn those lessons. In short, we need to honour integrity in our arguments and in our collected and collective knowledge. Follow people on Twitter who don't share your viewpoint. Go on reddit and ask people with opposite viewpoints to enlighten you with their knowledge. Bear in mind, however, that they are likely suffering from confirmation bias themselves. Learn about the Internet's heinous bubble and how to avoid it. You can find some tips on that here. As well, here's a cool reference poster of logical fallacies, to keep you in check. It can be done, and done effectively. You can go from the Internet owning your mind, to being able to reclaim it entirely.

Take Responsibility For Your Mental Environment:

We live in an era where the natural environment has been polluted in insidious ways, but so too has the mental environment, and only on an individual basis can we defend against that and reclaim it. But with a mindful approach, it can be taken back. We need to realign our society with the values of the pursuit of truth above all else. Only then will we regain our integrity, our honour and our ability to know the truth of the matter. It's a fight for your mind, and the passive will lose this fight. If the battle is one of the mind, then education is the key to its victory.

After all these years I think maybe I'll dust off that old modem and dial up Sheldon for old time's sake. The information we exchanged on that network of two with our primitive computers was truer than most things I see on the Internet today. Truer and also much more fun.

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