Technology; innovation in the field has brought us many things, both good and bad.  (Seems like a bland statement, but sometimes a premise by Captain Obvious is needed).  After all, we have hydrogen fuel cells for efficient cars and hydrogen bombs to eradicate human beings.  We’ve medically cured many diseases and inflicted a holocaust using the same technological methods.  But this particular post concerns the flow of information, mainly through the internets (you know, those sets of tubes that Al Gore helped invent).

Obviously the internet has brought us all the glory that having near-unlimited access to most types of information can bring.  But there are three salient consequences that trouble me: 1) Filter failure, 2) Fractionalization, and 3) Anonymity.

Filter Failure (FF) isn’t a concept I invented, but has gained notoriety through Clay Shirky who presents an interesting case for one aspect of FF.  It goes something like this: we’re not suffering from information overload (he argues we’ve been suffering from that since the invention of the printing press or even the Library of Alexandria), but rather from FF, and mostly FF at the source of information that can distinguish “quality” information from the “noise” we want to keep out (think spam).  Any feelings we have of being ‘overwhelmed’ result from the failure of a filter we had been using to keep the noise out and our consumption at a rate we can handle.
There are some fair points in there, but I think it oversimplifies and overlooks a couple of things.  First, while information was produced as a result of the printing press, it certainly is not the case that the majority of people were 1) literate and/or 2) had access to said information.  However, with the internet, access to information (barring the poorest of places that don’t have public terminals) is much less of an issue and literacy is not nearly as important as it once was (think talk shows, youtube, etc.).  What I think is missing from Shirky’s argument is that filter failure of keeping the ‘noise’ out is mostly incidental, not the crux of the problem.  If you get spam, it’s annoying (and sometimes amusing) but is quickly remedied for the most part.  In fact, I think most of us have set up filters for ourselves that work pretty well- RSS feeds, bookmarks, favorite sites, etc.  How many people do you know that scour the internet for random things that might (or might not) interest them?  Heck, even randomizing sites like stumbleupon.com have a recommender feature that will help guide you to your preferences.  The filter failure as I see it is that we tend to filter out opposing viewpoints, isolating ourselves from useful “quality” information that we rashly categorize as “noise”.  Such filters exacerbate the second problem…

Increased fractionalization of groups of people and their ideologies.  By self-selecting our incoming information, we’re sure to bolster our views of things by hearing and sharing ideas with like-minded individuals or corporate entities.  We can look down our noses at the “other”- those who disagree with us while we revel in the superiority of our beliefs.  Whether the label is liberal, conservative, neo-Nazi, Buddhist, Catholic, Lakers fan, Twilight swooner or boy band groupie, we feel as part of that in-group and can band together in common defense against any who might attempt to persuade us away from our allegiance through argument (rational or otherwise).  Of course, humans can be relatively complex beings and one may belong to several “groups,” but how many of us actively seek out the opposition’s view of things as objectively as possible to see how our own views hold up?  It seems to me that one advantage of the digital age of information flows would be access to all sides of an issue in order to come to a rational, well-founded belief on any particular issue rather than falling back upon sound bites that ignore the opposition’s valid points or by simply yelling louder than the other side.  This extends into radio and TV talk shows and so-called “pundits” as well.  I mean, who do you know that listens to Rush Limbaugh and Air America? (Well, did listen in the case of the latter).  Further entrenchment in our own ideologies can—and has—lead to stagnation, increased vitriol, and further polarizing between ‘oppositional’ groups.  I think this fractionalization is further fueled by the nature of the internet, the ability to keep one’s…

Anonymity.  One needs only to read over the comments of nearly any article to see the insidious effects that anonymity affords its posters.  Hateful slurs against the “other” are a common occurrence, and “flaming” is a regular concern of moderators.  (In fact, the very need/desire for moderators not only points to the problem of anonymity, but the desire to move the filter closer to the source).  While anonymity allows us to see the prejudices that still underlie many peoples’ beliefs, it certainly poisons the atmosphere and facilitates a defensive retreat and/or retaliatory response in those who take offense.  It also allows hate groups a safe haven for congregation with little threat of reprisal.  In either case, being held accountable for one’s comments is nearly impossible to enforce if one wishes to remain anonymous.  On the other hand, it allows whistle-blowers to reveal corruption (wikileaks.com) in a way that was equally impossible before the internet, despite corporate/governmental efforts to curb such transparency.  Like most technology, the internet comes with pros and cons and is merely a tool to be wielded by inherently biased human beings.

Great Marc, so you’ve complained from your high horse, what should/can we do about it?  I don’t believe (for the most part) in the overregulation of the internet-the freedom of access to information is the most empowering thing for a citizen to have.  It’s how we interact with the flows of information that need to change.  I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what we do with that access.  Are we using it to truly learn about the world or an issue or are we using it to merely reinforce our “side’s” interpretation of any given issue?  I think we need to hold those accountable for their actions as revealed by access to information, not just see it as shocking news to be forgotten by the next click of a hyperlink.  I think we can better utilize the strengths of a democratized internet rather than to simply stoke our narcissism or establish virtual friendships.  (Yes, said by the person who’s writing a blog and has a list of unknown people to play stupid FB games with-I never said I was immune to my own critical judgments!).  Perhaps most importantly, I think we should go to the source of an issue and read it for ourselves rather than believing the often false hype of the media (Health Care Reform bill anyone?).

At any rate, I’m off to visit my favorite websites and play some Lexulous…

Advertisements