Are We Living in Bubbles?
Towards a framework for social resilience in a digitizing society #1
Our institutions are being bombarded the ‘enemy of the people’, both modern (Team Warren) and traditional (SusanKnowles). Communities seem at divides. While once destined to bring the globe together forever, The Internet and its spin-offs now even appear on the stage of election manipulations.
So what is the role of digitization here? Is it really causing these divides (or bubbles) that are destroying the cohesion and resilience of our society? It doesn’t seem like we can stop digitization from happening any time soon..
In this article, we will explore the nature of divides and the role of digitization on them, so that we can finally answer: Are we living in bubbles?
Are we really living in bubbles?
There are many divides. Economic, political or social and many others. From basically any perspective you can find differences between people and the groups they are in. Being on either side of each of such divides creates recurring patterns specific to that side, which might result in different ‘experience environments’ (loosely translated from the Dutch ‘belevingswerelden) or in other words: bubbles.
Some of these divides are often mentioned and often it is digitization and technology that gets criticized for being the cause of the harm done. Let’s look at what we know.
The most discussed ‘bubble’ threat is that of social media platforms. The algorithms that direct what content is viewed to you, are said to create an information divide with perverse incentives that enable echo-chambers of likeminded views. In the worst case, this can be exploited by malicious actors, for example as foreign governments that want to influence elections.
Furthermore, negative online articles that depend on advertisement and clicks are shared here, which are incentivized to spread a negative discourse that juggles with the truth, because negative headlines simply generate more clicks by sensation seeking human minds. People and their views polarizing in the process. Imagine a virtual village square, where one can hide for the accountability and consequence of anger and rage from behind an alias and a screen. Furthermore, our changing society might be increasingly vulnerable to information bubbles and echo-chambers (James Bridle, 2018). It could be the stage for any techno-dystopia, but there are increasing signs that this is happening.
However, not everyone is convinced these information bubbles are such a bad thing and society is increasingly divided in the information systems we have. Some research questions if echo-chambers are really able to change the political preference of society. It argues that a small number of people are actually (lured) in echo-chambers. On the contrast, the research emphasizes the positive effects of social media in the diversification of media, therefore allowing more people to be in different bubbles at the same time. In this view, more social media is more diversity and therefore a better ability to judge situations.
So we can confirm the existence of so-called information bubbles. However, we cannot confirm, nor dismisses, the positive or negative effects on individuals or society-as-a-whole.
So, there is no conclusive answer on the role of digitization in the information divide. This short exploration already gave us two perspectives with conflicting, yet persuasive views. All possible effects appear to be happening at the same time… Let’s see some other examples.
The biggest divide from an emotional perspective can, arguably, be viewed as loneliness. In my city, The Hague, 52% of people (of all ages) feel some degree of loneliness. So let’s see, is digitization the cure or the disease?
You don’t have to look far to find that a heavy use of social media is mentioned as a potential cause for bubbles of loneliness in society. This problem has far going implications for public health, where the more lonely are also more likely to get sick.
Though again, it is just not that simple. Digital tools can also help to prevent loneliness. John Cacioppo, the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, explains why:
We aren’t as closely bound. We no longer live in the same village for generations, which means we don’t have the same generational connections. That releases social constraints — relationships are formed and replaced more easily today. We have Tinder, Match, eHarmony and all these kinds of places you can dial up and find friendships, connections and opportunities that didn’t exist. In the last 15 years or so, many of those face-to-face connections have been replaced with social networking. We’ve found that if you use social networking as a way to promote face-to-face conversation, it lowers loneliness. But if you use a destination, as a replacement for the face-to-face, it increases loneliness. — John Cacioppo
So also here we see a multitude of effects happening that are seemingly contradicting, yet take place alongside each other from the way that a digital technology is applied. It increasingly becomes clear that it is not that simple to say that digitization in relation to divides is good or bad.
Let’s see one more example.
Another divide often mentioned is income inequality. However, depending on how you frame inequality, it might be decreasing or increasing.
Globally, inequality can be determined to be decreasing. At least, if you analyze this from a perspective between nation states. Within those same nations or cities in them, income inequality might actually be increasing (as is the case for China and India).
On another note: income inequality in itself is not even inherently a bad thing, as it also results in a driver for product diversity and innovation. Since long, however, economists have claimed that inequality is necessary before the economy can grow to a win-win for all. But that, it proves, was mistaken.
Increasing evidence has led the international community to myth-bust the Kuznets Curve. On the other extreme, authoritarian communist Soviet societies showed that radical equality and lack of diversity is also not desirable and can freeze a society to a passive state. A lack of a driver towards change (or a sense of purpose) will make a system less resilient for emerging influences around it.
In relation to the effects of digitization on income equality, we are also seeing seemingly contradicting effects. On the one hand, the World Bank argues that digitization of the financial system can enhance inclusion and reduce income inequality. On the other hand, the World Economic Forum claims that in situations of existing inequalities, the digitization of communication in the form of equal access to the Internet can actually increase income inequality. Apparently, a pre-obtained skillset determines if young people actually are able to seize the opportunities The Internet brings, favoring rich kids to become richer. Again, the role of digitization is two-fold…
So it appears that a digitizing society can simultaneously become:
- more and less informed.
- more connected and more isolated.
- more equal and more unequal.
We see that the interactions between digitization and societal divides can be viewed from a multitude of perspectives and show conflicting positive and negative effects. Divides are being caused by a constantly changing set of factors that emerge from the process of digitization, whilst divides themselves are a driver for change in other societal conceptual systems, with an exponential number of possible feedback loops. A little bit complex, don’t you think?
I guess this is the time for me to introduce you to a new hobby of mine.
Above observation is in line with the era of post-normal thinking and complexity science that is gaining traction in epistemology (the study of knowledge). In more epistemological terms, one could say:
In an adapting field of interacting and non-interacting complex systems, interactions between digitization and societal divides result in ‘emerging strange attractors’ that create unpredictable paths, yet predictable path (inter)dependencies.
It’s oke if I lost you there… let’s try to break it down
A system is made of individual nodes, properties or actors, that can follow simple rules. Depending on the initial conditions chaotic behavior is already visible in a simple system of three differential equations that describe relations between three properties that influence each other.
The research of Lorenz proved that a very high sensitiveness on initial conditions exist, leading either to chaotic behavior, or not. Since we can never measure initial conditions exactly, we can never exactly predict the pathway of a system, even one as simple as a system of three differential equations.
Still, as the image reveals, there are points where the path never goes, but the path does revolve around, specifically the two circles within the lines. It means that while the actual path is unpredictable, but can still be expected to fall within a range of certain so-called ‘strange attractors’. These are so-called emerging properties, that are at the base of the self-organizing behavior that complex systems show.
It would be foolish to think I can explain chaos or complexity theory in this small segment. Scientists have not even agreed to any unified theory of complexity yet. For anyone further interested in complexity, I advise reading the work of Stuart Kauffman, John Holland or Philip Cooke.
But why is this ‘higher order behavior’ in systems of simply defined nodes, interesting for us already complex human beings? Let’s frame it this way: In complex systems, patterns (or subsystems) emerge, that could not have been predicted from the sum of the individual parts, but can act as strange attractors that create a dependence of the evolutionary path.
We as individuals and the relationships between us form a complex adaptive system called society. Because of the complex behavior, subsystems (or bubbles) emerge from this society. Every (sub)system has a boundary and between those boundaries, there is potentially a constant exchange and influence, which makes the (sub)systems or nodes interact and adapt to each other, changing the path the system-as-a-whole takes.
Language, culture, economy, law, technology and communities, our society is full of subsystems. Just picture a societal bubble bath. And society itself is only a subsystem of the biological or geological system.
So yeah, we are definitely living in bubbles! I would argue bubbles are everywhere in the form of subsystems of our societal system. New bubbles unpredictably pop up all the time, bubbles bump and merge…and bubbles burst.
Now let’s look at the divides again. Divides happen between subsystem boundaries when subsystems become less connected. Sometimes this is a harmful effect, sometimes it is harmless, sometimes it is a good thing. Often all of those effects happen simultaneously, as we see with the influence of digitization on society.
However, as complexity science tells us, in what matter any effect exactly will take place, what bubble will emerge or burst, we simply cannot predict for certain (though I am not trying to predict our future (in)ability to do so; note-to-self: complexity-proof algorithms).
Maybe though, we can design our way out of it.
Could we push the system towards a strange attractor that would increase the chances of a path that increases the resilience of the system on the level of individuals and the collective? What would such a strange attractor look like? Could we even know?
…so if we are living in bubbles anyway, and digitization can both be good and bad, how can we still steer the path towards a beneficial state of a resilient digital society? More on this in the next story.