As we all know, we live in an era of “fake news” and the dilution of the value of “truth”. At the same time, we are in a moment in time that is completely unprecedented, where we have all of the information we will ever need, at the tip of our fingers, more accessible to us than ever before. So how do we reconcile those two facts? I know I am not the first to wrack my brain on this question, but want to offer some ideas. Once we help identify the problem, or at least some of it, we can move onto the next phase of trying to solve it.
I have been reading a lot about this and one thing that is clear is that once people form their thoughts about something they tend to stick by them. Moreaccurately, people tend to form their identity in their teens, then declare that to the world, and then proceed to defend their choices, for the rest of their lives. That creates a reality in which we listen in agreement / disagreement, and not “just listen”. We value, consciously or subconsciously, being “right” and defending our choices, over an opportunity to grow, evolve and even change our minds.
In this case, having access to unlimited information makes no difference, as any piece of information is immediately sorted in two groups – confirming my choices or nonsense. This second group is a spectrum. It can range from merely agree-to-disagree, to demonization of the other and complete cancellation.
Now comes in another layer – the Industrial Revolution. Sorry…. The Social Media Revolution. This revolution has changed the way humans interact with each other. If before we had to actually listen to an entire argument, and agree or disagree, now, we can choose what we are exposed to and at what level. I can start reading an article / post, and stop whenever I feel “activated”. Meaning, as soon as I feel that I understand where the writing is going, there is no need to see it through. We also see a change in the approach to the source of the information or its validity. If we used to consume books, based on research (accepting that there could be research that counters that argument, but still has to present the facts and methodology), today, in the world of social media, anyone with a keyboard is a source.
Some refer to social media as the new town square. I would argue it is an amplified gossip channel, on steroids, to an extent. Like everything, it can create a lot of good. Gossip has served humans for as long as they exist. We can learn from stories about people, gain productive information and adjust our behavior. But gossip is unvetted information, just like a lot of online information we consume, and as such can also create a lot of harm. That harm is amplified when the method of consumption is fairly anonymous. Which is to say, even when we deliver the information under our own name, by not having to face people, we eliminate a very strong validation mechanism.
If the United States is the Land of the FREE, I would support Dr. Micha Goodman’s argument, that in this era of Social Media Revolution, we are choosing self-imposed constriction, by cooperating with the monetization of our attention, and allowing sales to choose the content that we will be exposed to, as opposed to actively seeking any information that does not validate our thoughts. I would argue it is a repackaging, as opposed to unpacking, if you will. When we are happy within our own echo chambers, within our own boxes, we are actively choosing not to unpack the information we are presented with, to better understand the arguments and counter arguments. The distance from those neat packages to compartmentalizing our understanding of the world and people in small convenient boxes, that do not do justice to the complexity of intersectionality, identity and the human condition, is short. Very short.
OK, so we are constricted by our own choices, we give away our attention freely to those who would monetize it and confine us to comfortable echo chambers, and we are losing the ability of active listening and critical thought. How do we change that?
First, on the personal level, we need to understand the limitations of the methodology of our information consumption. Once people understand that they are limiting their own freedom of choice, they could take an educated decision to actively “burst their bubble”, by elevating the value of critical thinking and curiosity. The understanding that being exposed to something and learning more about it, does not lend it validation or necessarily requires agreement. We need to reintroduce shades. If we are constantly exposed only to tiny packaged goods, that are either black or while, right or wrong, victim or villain, progressive or backward, we are choosing to give up on every color and shade in between. We must reintroduce complexity and color into conversations and arguments. One way of doing so is by changing the mode of conversation. By refocusing our attention on full arguments, on the need for counter-arguments and the basis of research and fact, we will add layers and unpack each topic. This needs to be modeled intentionally by leaders, educators and even on and by media outlets. We also need to create and promote more opportunities for people to communicate in person, in addition to online.
Second, on the governmental level, we must demand regulation. It is not reasonable to rewind the clock and stop using social media as our main platform of communication, but we can and should demand protection. Selling our attention to ad buys, means that there is a vested interest in keeping us in echo chambers that will boost sales. What if we regulate social media company’s ability to do so? What if they would be forced to expose everyone to everything, truly?
Third, we need to create old/new social norms. As a society we have the power to decide what is acceptable or not, and we have been very fast and loose with our “permissions”. We need to set norms that will better serve us as a society, like setting a higher threshold for what is valid information, how we approach and converse with each other in general and with those with whom we disagree in particular, apply in-person norms to on-line interactions and more. In my vision, we start modeling and promoting family time that has no screens, where children practice conversing with each other and interacting in person. We put more capital on in person interaction as a society, and demanding context and nuance as a baseline.
The challenges are great, the battle is uphill, but in the end I believe that it goes back to the age old question Plato posed – is human nature good or evil. I believe that we can still prove it good and we can build a better society, more nuanced and complex, more interesting and colorful, which will reflect that and will naturally accept differences of thought, persuasion, background, religion, belief and more, as a thing to enjoy and celebrate.