The Brood: When social media burst onto the scene, Silicon Valley was excited by utopian dreams of an ever-more connected world. Mark Zuckerberg has been telling us a world more closely tied together through Facebook will be a more peaceful world. He’s wrong.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how communication technologies developed over the last few decades have fundamentally changed our world. In my last article, I talked about how these technologies are changing warfare.
Today, I listened to an excellent interview of Historian Niall Ferguson by the BBC’s History Extra Podcast. While his other (often troubling) views are worthy of whole other articles, I found this particular interview compelling. He explains he wrote his newest book to point out that social networks have always been decisive forces in history long before Facebook. History waxes and wanes between different eras of strong networks, and strong hierarchies, depending on the communication technologies of the time.
He points out that during the Reformation, Martin Luther’s ideas went “viral” because the printing press allowed ideas to be spread more quickly and more efficiently than the previous communication technologies. As networking becomes more feasible and efficient, people come into contact with more people and their ideas. Previously taboo ideas are found to be more widespread and appealing than believed. Established intellectual orders and power structures are challenged as nascent networks rise to challenge them. That is, more connected eras are inherently more unstable.
What’s different now? The worrying thing is how the communication technology we have produced in this era is designed. The printing press was designed to make printing faster, more feasible. The internet and its offshoot social media sites, Facebook, Twitter, were purportedly made to connect disparate people to one another. But in reality, their design has structurally encouraged people to find, and stay in, like-minded groups, and then get them addicted to the resulting validation. Normal people spend a disturbing amount of time on this. A printing press, this is not.
The “Zuckerberg Assumption” is that broad exposure leads to broad coalitions. That’s why connecting disparate people is a good in and of itself. But from what we know above, this isn’t true. People don’t like engaging with difference. In fact, as Niall Ferguson points out in the aforementioned interview, and as I myself have mentioned in a previous article, people self segregate according to similarity all the time. Just read this Vox article.
Follow these patterns to their ultimate conclusion. The result, if not properly mitigated, will be increasingly segregated communities who don’t understand one another across race, religion, ideology and more. Due to in-group bias, increasingly mutually exclusive, and mutually-hostile, ideological factions will compete with increasing ferocity. We can already see Democrats and Republicans increasingly see one another as existential threats. This is not sustainable, and there could be a boiling-over point. Even The New Yorker put out an article talking about civil war.
This is what makes countries like China and Russia so prescient in their reading of the internet age. Russia has pioneered the offensive use of online media’s features. China has pioneered the defensive use of online media through tight press controls policing citizen’s ideology and through its infamous firewall.
Americans, consumed with long-simmering social and economic issues, have not come up with comparable or appropriate responses to this phenomenon that are consistent with American values. Instead, we find ourselves in a preventable circus. Disagreements which, although sincere and profound, could be handled much more constructively.
All of this to say that Tribalism is humanity’s default setting. We have to design systems that inhibit our natural tendency towards this impulse, and instead incentivize us to befriend and negotiate across difference. (I commend Crooked Media’s Ana Marie Cox and her podcast for exploring this.) This isn’t a call for moral relativism. There are times when lines must be drawn in the sand and a fight must be fought. (For example, racism is bad, full stop.)
But clearly the way Americans have organized their communications systems the last few decades has exacerbated existing enmities, which has left us bitterly divided, and open to manipulation by clever propagandists. We need to take a deep breath and radically rethink media.