Bubbles, echo chambers, Facebook and connection trumping community
We’ve heard much lately about how liberals live in a bubble. About how they fail to understand people different than they are and, to the extent they do have impressions of conservatives, middle Americans and the working class, they come by virtue of caricature and exaggeration via stereotype and pop culture. They are told that they do not understand “Real Americans.”
There is truth to that, of course. Not the “Real Americans Part. We’re all “Real Americans.” But If you live in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles and don’t leave very often there is a whole lot of America you don’t see and a whole lot of the American experience of which you are ignorant. And Lord knows that coastal media and Hollywood are good at portraying rural dwellers and blue collar people as buffoons. I’m a pretty liberal guy myself, and even though I grew up Michigan and West Virginia and even though I live in a conservative part of Ohio, I’ll admit that I place myself in — or find myself in — various bubbles fairly often and find myself shouting into various echo chambers. I’ll also admit that conservative or working class people from Michigan, West Virginia, Ohio and places like them are quite often misrepresented, misunderstood and condescended to by the media and by Hollywood.
I’m struggling, however, to understand why conservatives are not called to the same account for placing themselves in the same sorts of bubbles and shouting into the same sorts of echo chambers. When do these people come into substantive contact with people terribly different from themselves? Even the more progressive cities in Red State America are insanely, if informally, segregated. My neighbors don’t make it to New York very often. They don’t know many people of color, gay people or immigrants. They don’t even know many garden variety white liberals. I’ve lived in my conservative suburb for 12 years and most people I meet here are still shocked when I espouse even mild liberal sentiment. And make no mistake, liberals are stereotyped and misunderstood as well. Identified by our (alleged) Volvos, lattes and NPR podcasts just as inaccurately as conservatives and the working class are identified by their (alleged) pickup trucks, guns and Fox News.
The fact is, most of us live in reality-distorting bubbles. More so now than we have in close to a century. We’re doing so because, despite the fact that we live in an information-rich age of connection, we are systematically eschewing the idea of community.
The great promise of communications technology, the Internet and social media was one of connection. The rush that amateur radio enthusiasts get when coming into contact with someone on the other side of the world conspicuously found its way into the earliest stories and advertisements of the Internet and Information Age. The excitement born of connecting with someone a world away from our own homes. These ideas were emphasized because of the positive connotations surrounding the idea of “connection.”
But while we tend to think of the concept of connection as a good thing which implies universal harmony, “connection” is a morally and ethically neutral word with no inherent universal implications. People involved in hand-to-hand combat can be said to be connecting. Factions can connect. One warlord can connect with the troops he rallies in one part of a disputed land while another connects with his in another. Connection is not all holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Indeed, the connections fostered by the Information Age are not very Kumbaya-y at all. The reason is not strictly technological, however. It’s become coarser and more adversarial by virtue of the systems and incentives in place to form, or not, form a larger community and the very nature of humanity
For all of the advancements of civilization, we’re not too far removed from being just another animal in the animal kingdom. Our nature, as demonstrated by countless psychological studies, is still pretty animal-like. We’re prone to making hard distinctions between friend and foe, resource or threat. If we are sufficiently benefitted or if our very survival is at stake, we will move out of a place of safety. If we are not, we will stay in our safe valley with our preferred tribe.
As we evolved, we moved from the savanna to village to city and to nation. For the vast majority of this history, however, our tribalism was still not strongly discouraged. For a long time societies were relatively homogenous, culturally speaking, and dividing the world into “us” and “them” remained pretty simple and useful. Once societies became less homogenous, divisions of race, sex and class and the legal structures used to enforce those divisions continued to encourage tribalism and segregation, forced or chosen, depending upon one’s race, sex or class.
While we have never been able to do away with international rivalries or internal divisiveness fostered by racism, sexism and class, we came really far in the past century or so. This is due, obviously, in large part to some great, brave and visionary leaders, thinkers and, in some cases, martyrs, whether they became famous or not. It was also made possible by technological advances which allowed some to spend less time on the business of basic survival and more time on ideas and the promotion of the betterment of humankind. Urbanization has obviously played a role too, in that when people live in closer quarters with their neighbors they tend to either want to or need to get along with them as best they can, whatever their background happens to be.
But in addition to all of those things, there is still some of that human animal stuff at work too. A lot of it, actually. That “friend-or-foe” and “fight for survival” stuff. It was a bit of twist on that old idea, though. Rather than stick with our tribes and exhibit hostility toward others, we began to come around to the idea that our very survival depended upon constructive and civil interaction with those different than us which, in turn, was self-beneficial in an almost evolutionary sense. Maybe in a literal evolutionary sense.
Though conflict, often bloody conflict, continued, an increasingly shared culture emerged as the 20th century progressed in America. While the civil rights movement and its leaders worked toward and brought about legal and political change, telegraph cables, newswires, motion pictures, radio, television, mass media made segregating ourselves off culturally much harder to do than it had been before. Culturally, we entered the world of the “short tail,” in which the outlets and products weren’t numerous — a small number of networks, publications and shared cultural spaces wielded considerable influence — but in which they served as a stickier bit of social and cultural glue than that which had come before, when everyone was either denied access to the means of social, cultural and informational currency or else cloistered themselves away from the masses.
These shared spaces, whatever their faults (and there were many), made the world smaller and fostered connection. Connection, as I noted, is neutral, but connection via these means had at least one positive trait: consensus. Or at least a very rough and loose one. And through consensus, a more civil society and, eventually, community.
When you’re only connecting with likeminded people of your own race and social class, you can say all manner of awful things out loud about people who are different than you. Indeed, in that environment, engaging in that kind of awful discourse is not just something you can do, it’s something you should do. It shows you to be a good member of the tribe. It’s good for your social status which, over time and generations, is good for your survival and the survival of your genes. Ask an Ivy League legacy or someone whose lineage made its way through the House of Lords how that works.
In the 20th century, that calculus began to change. The cities became bigger, and the dissemination of information, the means of communication and the places of commerce became more robust and more widely shared. National news programs and magazines and common entertainment and commercial outlets developed. With them came a larger shared culture and more universally shared public square, so to speak. In that environment, rather than be rewarded for bolstering the insular values of one’s tribe, there were extreme social costs to advocating divisive ideas or espousing divisive sentiments. If you said on TV what you said in the privacy of the lounge at the Harvard men’s club, you’d cause a scandal. If you shouted about your issues with a given racial minority while at the drug store in a big city, you’d cause a scene. If you spouted off in a profane and obnoxious manner about a given political development while on a first date with someone you met through work or school, you’d not only not get a second date, your name may have been Mudd at work or school afterward.
As I said above, there were a lot of negatives to that short tail, pre-Information Age world of (rough) cultural consensus. Superficially speaking It fostered a cultural conformity and homogeneity that was often stifling. More significantly, it was never a perfect consensus in an actually substantive, institutional manner. Just below the superficial surface of that broad cultural consensus the old lines of racism, sexism and classism remained. Just because we could see people of color in public spaces once closed off to them or in programs on television didn’t mean that they had achieved equality. Just because a woman had a newspaper column did not mean that the voice of women was heard. The civil rights movement did not end racism, the women’s rights movement did not end sexism, Stonewall did not end homophobia.
But that large national square and shared means of cultural exchange did serve to encourage us to publicly agree that, as Americans, we were part of a larger community than just ourselves. To agree, again, at least publicly, that social progress was a good thing, that getting along with people different than we are was a good thing and that, when it comes right down to it, our fates are interconnected and that that was a good thing. If one did not assent, at least publicly, to these concepts — if one did not agree that, whatever differences we had as to the means of solving our national problems, we had similar, pluralistic ends in mind couched in equality — one risked becoming an outcast or fringe dweller whose political, social or cultural status was at risk. An animal on the savanna without the protection of the herd.
While it may seem superficial given that underlying, insidious racism, sexism and classism remained strong, the “publicly” here mattered. Public words make ideas powerful. Repeated enough, they become conventional wisdom and, over time, policy. When the words that are acceptable in public are generally positive it leads, generally, to positive policies and, hopefully, outcomes. When they are toxic and divisive, so too follow the policies and outcomes. When there is a fear of a social cost and isolation attaching to divisive rhetoric, there is less of that rhetoric and less of that policy over time. When toxic and divisive rhetoric is encouraged, there is obviously more.
When a consensus rooted in the broad desire for good ends to be met and equality to be fostered, and when that desire is supported by a system of cultural exchange and communication that encourages inclusion and sanctions divisiveness, something akin to a community is formed. We’ve never had a perfect one in this country, but for several decades, we were on our way to forming one, however haltingly we marched. Racism and those other assorted ills were not being eliminated, but we were heading in the right direction as quickly as a country as large and diverse and a political system as resistant to radical change as ours could manage. A 19th century American transported in time to, say, 1985, would rightly note that we, as Americans, had formed a far larger and far more open community than they would ever have envisioned.
Which brings us to the Internet and the Information Age.
Whatever Facebook’s intentions are — and I believe them to be good ones even if, at the moment, they are being blamed by some for ushering Donald Trump into office — it and the other digital giants of the Information Age have changed the calculus of connection and community. They have, unwittingly, eliminated the social costs of being divisive and hateful and for rejecting, publicly, the idea of pluralism, equality and community.
This is mostly because people are no longer forced to be part of a greater community in order to obtain its social benefits and avoid the social costs. It is now possible to silo ourselves off with likeminded people in ways that would have caused us to be outcasts a mere 30 years ago. To seek out news and information from sources which cater to our tribal urges rather than march out onto that large public square and engage in anywhere near the amount of shared social and cultural experience we once did. Whereas we once feared that, if we act in ways that undermine community, we will be shunned, we now know for certain that there are many who share these views, eliminating the costs of trafficking in them. That we can meet with them from the comfort of our own homes rather than go to a Klan rally is all the better. And, hey, look! They have pictures of their grandchildren! They’re not evil. They’re nice people! And so too am I, then, for thinking as they do.
Facebook is not alone in this, of course. Amazon does the same thing with our commercial needs. We need not interact in the greater community to buy all manner of products and can, metaphorically speaking, rant all manner of things while visiting the drug store. Netflix does it with our entertainment needs, preventing us from having to watch television shows which strive to reach a mass audience or attend movies or shows with a diverse cross section of people. Dating sites with an increasingly granular demographic focus keep us from worrying about saying the wrong thing in front of that man or woman who our coworkers set us up with. To the contrary, we can know, beforehand, whether they too believe that this or that racial minority should be put in internment camps. Maybe we even met them on DeplorablesOnly.com.
Put simply, there is no longer a social price to pay for being tribal and close-minded and there is little if any incentive to connect with those who would even begin to think differently than we do. To the extent we do still do so it’s at our places of employment, where, for the most part, those sorts of conversations are discouraged or on social media with someone we know from a pre-Information Age time, such as old school friends or family members.
And make no mistake: while the examples I’m offering skew heavily toward a certain ideological mindset, the liberal and progressive left fall victim to the same thing, albeit in a different way. On one level it may not be as obviously harmful in that, for the most part, liberals and progressives still believe in social progress and equality in ways that newly emboldened element of the right apparently does not. The bubbles and echo chambers we inhabit have served, however, to impose a pace of progress and a social cost of departing from community consensus about that progress with which many outside of our bubble are simply not comfortable or able to handle at times. I’d argue to the death that our ends are still noble and compatible with community, but there is a case to be made that our self-segregation from the larger community has caused us to become insensitive to those who, in the past, may have come around to our goals due to that social cost and benefit analysis. We should never compromise those ends, but if we are not open to discussing the means in a community context, we make achieving them all the harder.
All of us are connecting at a pace and in manner unprecedented in human history. But our sense of community has suffered for it.
It is folly to suggest going back in time and to undo technological advancements that are, on the surface, neutral ones. We aren’t un-inventing Facebook. We aren’t getting rid of Amazon, Netflix or the Internet at large. Once millions of people found out that their tribe was much bigger than they thought it was, there was no going back.
We all know now that there are countless, seemingly normal people who passionately believe in things that, 30 years ago, they believed were too controversial to repeat in polite society. We likewise know that those who oppose such views possess far less community or moral authority to which they can resort in order to engage those beliefs, to discourage them or to encourage other, more positive behavior. Our nascent collective community of the 20th century has devolved into a high tech tribal existence. Pretending that does not exist and will not be a part of our society for a long, long time is to engage in delusion.
But all is not lost. Civilization has almost destroyed itself countless times over, from the times of primitive tribal warfare through the era of World Wars themselves. While tribalism possesses a frighteningly strong attraction, humanity has come too far to succumb to it without a fight.
The central challenge of the Information Age is figuring out how to encourage and incentivize community rather than mere connection. I don’t know exactly how to do that. It’ll likely be a long and complicated process tied up in how we structure our lives and where the social rewards lie. But it’s an essential task. It can start with the way Information Age giants like Facebook set their goals and set out to achieve them. And, as they do so, all of us will play a part.