Technology makes us dumber & more divided

Social media appears to have widened the ideological fissure between left and right (Source: Pew, via FS)

Not too long ago, the techno-prophets preached that modern telecommunications would create the most informed and engaged generation in world history.

Instead, humanity has mostly used expanding entertainment choices to increase our ignorance and escape from reality.

With the opportunity to become expert on almost anything, we opted to become professors of football lore and savants on the doings of the Kardashian clan.

Many of us have slipped down customized rabbit holes into our preferred silos: echo chambers of genre-specific delights, oases of splendid isolation and simplistic affirmation, insulated against any views or data that might complicate our existence, challenge our prejudices or break down the thickening walls separating our silos.

Like a kid who doesn’t want to eat his vegetables, we aren’t particularly interested in politics or world events. The media responds rationally by replacing reportage on things that matter with more entertainment, celebrity gossip and increasing quantities of “health news” (a curious mix of fads, facts and veiled product promotions).

The widespread lack of interest in substantive current events has been killing off newspapers and laying off journalists. This has impoverished coverage of state and local affairs and narrowed reporting on national and world news to fewer and fewer outlets offering less and less news.

On social media, political expression consists primarily of sharing some semiliterate meme or tweet reflecting some half-baked tribal take on the vital issues of the day. All but the cleverest irresponsibly reduce complex issues to glib burns on the alien tribe. As such, they offer affirmation without information. They foreclose conversation rather than stimulating it. They invite tribal solidarity while alienating “friends” who hold other views on that particular issue.

When I came (very late) to social media, I naively imagined that people who posted political memes wanted to discuss civics. Accordingly, when people put up content that is false or unfair, I politely call them on it, often including links to corrective information.

This is pretty universally not appreciated. Fellow liberals tend to respond more constructively than conservatives do, but that’s probably just because people are slightly more open to constructive criticism from within their tribe than from outsiders. Most of us apparently prefer to avoid conversations that might make us admit error or change our minds about something. Across the ideological spectrum, we tend to display the default human psychological tendency to double down on our prejudices when presented with contrary evidence.

I now know that we’re expected to ignore nonsense on social media and let everyone cling to their delusions of choice. However, as an educator, I can’t help but make an effort to correct inaccuracies and injustices, and I don’t mind if people unfriend me for it.

When I do write or respond, my goal is not so much to change minds, but to stimulate thinking and discourage the dehumanization of political opponents. We should use technology to listen and talk to one another, instead of continuing to seal ourselves off in our respective echo chambers.

It is true that we have a hand in designing our silos, but those spaces are co-created and ultimately controlled by corporations that promote divisions among us partly because they efficiently segment us into target markets. By happy coincidence, a distracted and ignorant populace is very unlikely to mount any coherent challenge to the growing power of big business over our lives and minds.

Of course, my own minuscule efforts make little difference, but I invite you to join me — in life and on social media — in fostering discussions between silos, in the hope that we can wear down the walls that separate us. With persistent collective effort, we can open tunnels to create a larger space where we recognize our shared humanity, find common ground and build a better society, both online and in the real world. If we work together, we might even burrow upward from our warren of rabbit holes into something like daylight.

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