20 March 2009

Trending towards Homogeneity

I found interesting Nick Kristof's take on one consequence of the global migration away from consuming newspapers to grazing on-line news. One result, he argues, is that we will see further polarity and more entrenched homogeneity of perspectives, because we naturally self-select news that is most congenial to our personal perspectives. The more empowered we are to self-select our media, the less diversity we are exposed to. One pundit calls this new self-selected Internet news "The Daily Me":

    The effect of The Daily Me would be to insulate us further in our own hermetically sealed political chambers. One of last year’s more fascinating books was Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” He argues that Americans increasingly are segregating themselves into communities, clubs and churches where they are surrounded by people who think the way they do. Almost half of Americans now live in counties that vote in landslides either for Democrats or for Republicans, he said. In the 1960s and 1970s, in similarly competitive national elections, only about one-third lived in landslide counties. “The nation grows more politically segregated — and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups,” Mr. Bishop writes. One 12-nation study found Americans the least likely to discuss politics with people of different views, and this was particularly true of the well educated. High school dropouts had the most diverse group of discussion-mates, while college graduates managed to shelter themselves from uncomfortable perspectives. The result is polarization and intolerance. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor now working for President Obama, has conducted research showing that when liberals or conservatives discuss issues such as affirmative action or climate change with like-minded people, their views quickly become more homogeneous and more extreme than before the discussion. For example, some liberals in one study initially worried that action on climate change might hurt the poor, while some conservatives were sympathetic to affirmative action. But after discussing the issue with like-minded people for only 15 minutes, liberals became more liberal and conservatives more conservative.

I find this trend very disturbing, but am not sure it is substantially the result of changes in how we get our news. That is simply one facet of the democratization of information that the Internet has brought about. But the enormous welter (relative to the past) of opinions and viewpoints that we are now all exposed to has no doubt caused an increasing retreat into ideological subcultures in a search for foundational worldviews and certainty. This also has factored into the great growth of conservative religious movements (yes, like Mormonism).

I'm one of those strange people who really likes to be challenged by alternative cultural perspectives. I find it invigorating. Homogeneity, for me, is anathema. But I do not think print media inherently promotes a greater diversity of perspective. Newspapers are products, after all, that their publishers are trying to sell. They serve their readership, necessarily. But in that respect, true enough, they can never compete with the infinite alternatives available on the Web.


Mister Fweem said...

I'm sure there were plenty of "Daily Me" practitioners in the days before mass media -- probably as many or as more as there might be now, even with the ease in which we may obtain views that are not our own. In 19th century America, for example, even up through the 1920s and 1930s, heyday of the newspaper, you had your small towns (like those Sinclair Lewis wrote about, and he deplored then the Daily Me he saw all around him) to the bigger cities, where like-minded people tended to congregate in their own neighborhoods, their own clubs, et cetera, certainly mixing a bit when it came to the middle and upper classes, but the proles tended to stay in their own neighborhoods, then divided ethnically (Swedes here, Germans there). With many newspapers, newsletters, pamphleteers and such circulating their thought back then, people were able to self-select what they wanted to read, and typically self-selected what they already agreed with. I don't think much has changed except the medium -- we now have a lot of thought delivered to our homes via the Internet, rather than coming in dead tree form. I think it's a human trait, not a trait of the media or medium, that makes the Daily Me a part of humanity.

carl g said...

Appreciate your comments, esp. since you would actually know something about this. If we are truly seeing more partisanship and escalating self-righteousness (I'm not entirely sure of the relationship of volume to dimensions), then I would not be the first to lay some of the blame at the feet of Rove and other politicos who have raised the politics of division to a whole new level. And did so shamelessly on the back of post-9/11 hysteria. It will be interesting to see how much Obama can really deescalate the Bush-era culture wars. He may be sincere, but politically, he's almost alone.

Mister Fweem said...

I'm fairly confident the culture war has already been lost -- by both sides. The left couches its loss under the veil of tolerance and diversity, meaning, of course, tolerance for what they already believe in and diversity (of thought as well as the traditional liberal sense of the word) as long as it toes the lines they already adhere to. The right couches its loss under the veil of patriotism, which basically translates into tolerance for what they already believe in and diversity they already hold to.

carl g said...

I work for a Mormon apologetics organization, but our goal is not to vanquish our critics. It's to confirm the faith of our friends. Our critics in fact enable us to do that. Culture wars are not analogous to political wars, really. Victory would be a bad thing for cultural warriors. The unity of opposition and the strength gained thereby is pretty much the point of the battle. (Sorry, too sleepy to make sense. I'll post on this another time. Maybe after Knife Month [April].)