As we forge ever-greater connections online to each other and the world of ideas the thinking was that we would be far better off, more tolerant, educated and wise and yet there is much evidence to suggest this isn’t the case. What does it mean to come together and how can we do this that brings us closer rather than driving us further apart?
The more we get together, the happier we’ll be – lyric from popular song for children
Like many, I’ve grown up thinking this very thing and, for the most part, my experience has shown this to be true. However upon reflection, I’m realizing that most of this experience is related to two things that could reveal a potential flaw in my thinking: 1) I’m thinking of face-to-face encounters with others more than any other type and also 2) most of the relationships I’ve formed without aid of or post use-of the Internet.
Face-to-face interactions of any real quality are limited in nature. We only have so many hours in a day and, unless your job is extremely social or you live in a highly communal household complex, we’re unlikely to have much interaction with more than a few dozen people per day that extends beyond “hello” or something like that. This was explored in greater detail by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who determined that our social networks are usually capped at 100 – 250 individuals. Dunbar’s number (the commonly held mean number of people in these networks) is commonly considered to be 150.
Why does this matter? When we engage others online, the type of interactions and the number of ideas we engage can be far larger, or at least is certainly different in how those relationships are managed. We see comments on discussion boards, social media posts, videos and pictures shared online, and are exposed to media messages of all types and through myriad news (official, professional and otherwise) sources. Ethan Zuckerman, who I’ve written about before, has written extensively about the paradox of having such incredible access to diversity in the world and yet we often find ourselves increasingly insular in our communication patterns, choosing like-minded opinions over alternative ones.
Looking ahead by looking back at Marshall McLuhan
Journalist Nicholas Carr, who’s written extensively on the social context of technology, recently posted an interview with Marshall McLuhan from 1977 speaking on his views about where media was going and his idea of “the global village”. His piece, the global village of violence, was enlightening to say the least. In it, Carr points to the violence we are committing in this global village and how it doesn’t square with what many thought were the logical outcomes of us connecting — and does so by pointing back to McLuhan’s own thoughts.
McLuhan’s work is often a complicated mess, partly because there is a large, diverse and scattered academic culture developed around his work and thus, often the original points he raised can get lost in what came afterwards. The cautions he had around hyper-connection through media are one of those things. McLuhan didn’t consider the global village to be an inherently good thing, indeed he spoke about how technology at first serves and then partly controls us as it becomes normalized part of everyday life — the extension becomes a part of us.
As is often the case with McLuhan, looking back on what he said, when he said it and what it might mean for the present day is instructive for helping us do, just as his seminal work sought to help us do, understand media and society. Citing McLuhan, Nicholas Carr remarked that:
Instantaneous, universal communication is at least as likely to breed nationalism, xenophobia, and cultism as it is to breed harmony and fellow-feeling, McLuhan argues. As media dissolve individual identity, people rush to join “little groups” as a way to reestablish a sense of themselves, and they’ll go to extremes to defend their group identity, sometimes twisting the medium to their ends
Electronic media, physical realities
These ‘little groups’ are not always so little and they certainly aren’t weak. As we are seeing with Donald Trump‘s ability to rally a small, but not insignificant population in the United States to join him despite his litany of abusive, sexist, inflammatory, racist, discriminatory and outwardly false statements has been constantly underestimated. Last week’s horrible mass shooting in Orlando brought a confluence of groups into the spotlight ranging from anti-Muslim, both anti-gay and gay rights, pro-gun, along with Republican and Democratic supporters of different issues within this matter, each arguing with intensity and too often speaking past each other. Later this week we saw British MP Jo Cox murdered by someone who saw her as a traitor to Britain, presumably on account of her position on the pending ‘Brexit’ vote (although we don’t yet know the motivation of the killer).
There are many reasons for these events and only some that we will truly know, but each matter points to an inability to live with, understand and tolerate others’ viewpoints and extreme reactions to them. The vitriol of debate on matters in the public sphere is being blamed for some of these reactions, galvanizing some to do horrible things. Could it be that our diversity, the abundance of interactions we have and the opportunities to engage or disengage selectively
If this hypothesis holds, what then? Should we start walling off ourselves? No. But nor should we expect to bring everyone together to share the tent and expect it to go well without very deliberate, persistent, cultivation and management of relationships, collectively. Much like a gardener does with her garden, there’s a need to keep certain things growing, certain things mixing, certain things out and others in and these elements might be different depending on the time of year, season, and plants being tended to. Just as there is no ‘one garden’ style that fits everywhere, there is no one way to do ‘culture’, but some key principles and a commitment to ongoing attention and care that feed healthy cultures (that include diversity).
As odd as this may sound, perhaps we need to consider doing the kind of civic development work that can yield healthy communities online as well as off. We certainly need better research to help us understand what it means to engage in different spaces, what types of diversity work well and under what conditions, and to help us determine what those ‘simple rules’ might be for bring us closer together so, like the childrens song above, we can be happier rather than what we’ve been becoming.
Complexity isn’t going away and is only increasing and unless we are actively involved in cultivating and nurturing those emergent properties that are positive and healthy and doing it by design, and viewing our overlapping cultures as complex adaptive systems (and creating the policies and programs that fit those systems), we put ourselves at greater risk for letting those things emerge that drive us further apart than bring us together.