we will not see any "uniter" anymore. Bush couldn't do it. Obama says he will, but I doubt it.
Why? Not because of politics, but more so because of the phenomenal growth in information technology and the internet:
the political system in the US is not compatible with the multiplication of factions we see, more so thanks to the internet. On the other hand, such divisions will work well with parliamentary systems that have a gazillion political parties, and with proportional representation.
So, that was three years ago. Twitter and Facebook were in their infancy then. Where are we after three years? While reviewing The Filter Bubble, Henry Farrell writes: (ht)
We are beginning to live in what Pariser calls “filter bubbles,” personalized micro-universes of information that overemphasize what we want to hear and filter out what we don’t. Not only are we unaware of the information that is filtered out, but we are unaware that we are unaware. Our personal economies of information seem complete despite their deficiencies. Personal decisions contribute to this pattern, and ever more sophisticated technologies add to it. Google’s understanding of our tastes and interests is still a crude one, but it shapes the information that we find via Google searches. And because the information we are exposed to perpetually reshapes our interests, we can become trapped in feedback loops: Google’s perception of what we want to read shapes the information we receive, which in turn affects our interests and browsing behavior, providing Google with new information. The result, Pariser suggests, may be “a static ever-narrowing version of yourself.”
I was worried about our own echo chambers even before this technological explosion, and I am hyper-worried now. Back in graduate school, one term I was simultaneously registered in a course on international development in the economics department, and another in international relations. Timur Kuran offered the conventional economic analysis, and Thomas Biersteker seemed like he was speaking an entirely different language. My economics classmates, most of them from India and other developing countries, hadn't taken anything with Biersteker. How could it be, I wondered.
Worried because if that was how doctoral students took to scholarship and understanding of the world, and they wanted to devote their lives to this cause, then what about the rest of the vast majority who have real work to do and can't allocate the time and energy to listen to competing, alternative explanations?
Now, of course, everyday life is about most people, including faculty like my colleagues who are religious about their ideological beliefs, aligning themselves with certain points of view, subscribing to news outlets that reinforce their perspectives and thus, completely shutting ourselves from the rest. The internet facilitates this filtering with more and more sophistication every single day.
This cannot be good for governing ourselves, when politics is nothing but a reconciliation of multiple perspectives.
This self-reinforcement may have unhappy consequences for politics. Pariser, who is inspired by the philosophy of John Dewey, argues that ideological opponents need to agree on facts and understand each other’s point of view if democracy is to work well. Exposure to the other side allows for the creation of a healthy “public” that can organize around important public issues. Traditional media, in which editors choose stories they believe to be of public interest, have done this job better than do trivia-obsessed new media. Furthermore, intellectual cocooning may stifle creativity, which is spurred by the collision of different ways of thinking about the world. If we are not regularly confronted with surprising facts and points of view, we are less likely to come up with innovative solutions.
Such a "collision" might sound a tad Hegelian with a synthesis arising out of thesis/anti-thesis, and this synthesis being challenged again by another anti-thesis, ad infinitum. But, hey, isn't science as in "knowledge" a constant process of challenging conventional wisdom?
Now, re-read that quote from my three-year old post:
The Web doesn't bridge divisions; it multiplies and sharpens them. It doesn't build consensus or national coalitions; it grows factions. Truth be told, the Web doesn't network people at all--it lets them network themselves, which is quite different. The Web is the place where people can roll their own, and given that freedom, people tend to coalesce in relatively small, insular groups.
The real genius of the Web, in short, is that it lets people disconnect.
Tell me why this ain't so!
Post 9/11, it does appear that we have retreated en masse into echo chambers of our own. George Packer writes in the New Yorker that:
The political division of America into red and blue hardened into the mutually hostile and unintelligible universes in which we live today. Bush, already viewed as illegitimate by many Democrats, became one of the most hated Presidents in American history; the writer Nicholson Baker even published a novella about the merits of assassinating him. Meanwhile, the Republican Party fell completely under the control of its most extreme elements, and “traitor” became a routine term for its opponents. For all the talk of national unity and a new sense of purpose, the terror attacks did nothing to bring together the country. America after September 11th was like a couch potato who survives a heart attack, vows to start a strict regimen of diet and exercise, and after a few weeks still finds himself camped out in the living room.Farrell is optimistic though:
Information bubbles are hardly new, even though they now take new forms. In many societies, political parties long created information bubbles. Nineteenth-century America had partisan newspapers. In many 20th-century European countries, Social Democrats read Social Democratic newspapers, went to Social Democratic social clubs, joined Social Democratic trade unions, married other Social Democrats, and had Social Democratic babies. Christian Democrats and Communists had their own separate worlds. Nonetheless, democracy somehow kept working. As Harvard political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has argued, partisanship creates its own checks and balances. As long as partisans are contending for a majority of public support, they have to temper their own beliefs in ways that will allow them to appeal to the public and to respond to potentially persuasive arguments from their opponents. This is far from perfect (the public has its own problems). Nonetheless, as John Stuart Mill argued, it can sometimes bring us closer to the truth.
Democratic competition is not a complete solution. It does not protect individuals from a narrowing of their horizons. It would be a good thing if Google and Facebook deliberately injected “inefficient” connections into online social networks and search results to encourage people to follow new paths, but it’s not likely to happen. Even so, democracies are far more robust against information bubbles than Pariser believes. After all, they’ve survived bubbles for hundreds of years.
Here is to hope :)