The political polarization of Americans is reaching new heights, and the Internet is making it worse. How did we end up so divided and is there anything we can do about it?
Polarization has been exacerbated by what I call the “Internet brain”. It goes beyond a mere fad--it's more fundamental, even physiological.
Here is what’s happening…
How we get information trains our brains to think in different ways
The written word encourages logical, linear thinking: There is a past and a present that leads to a future.
So, if I have a problem in my life, what does my “reading brain” do? It thinks about what I did in the past that got me here and considers what actions I can take now to lead to a different future. Sounds good.
Now let’s consider television. TV excels at the here and now with emotional power. I don’t need any knowledge of the past to be captivated – a powerful ad by itself might make me cry. Television helped make Reagan’s empathy and Clinton’s “I feel your pain” influential – arguably more important than their policies.
Emotion and living in the moment have value, but the “TV brain” tends to choose what feels good right now without thinking much about the consequences or how we got here. (For more, I highly recommend Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death.) That sounds pretty bad.
Fast forward to the Internet age
One of the original promises of the Internet was that by making it possible for people to connect with others across the world, we could better understand and appreciate each other despite our differences.
The opposite has occurred.
The Internet has trained us to think in terms of similarity and to shut out things that are different.
On the Interent, we search and navigate by similarity: This person is a friend of my friend; this link is related to that.
This makes it possible for us to navigate through unlimited information and the 24-hour news cycle, finding just what we want and shutting things out that are not similar or comfortable.
Search engines and social media networks do this well. They give us the perspectives we most want to see, even customizing results for each of us. The search results and news feeds you get are different than what I get.
So, if I have a problem in my life, what does my Internet brain tend to do? It looks for things that are similar: This problem is like that one; someone who is similar to me solved it that way.
That seems like a pretty good methodology, at least compared to the TV brain, but it has problems. If I’m a suffering alcoholic, and all my friends are heavy drinkers, I’m not going to find a solution.
The Internet brain is trained to reject other ideas and other people: Those people are not like me, so I ignore them and their opinions.
Distrust and disrespect skyrockets
Even in a world where most of us have learned the evils of racial prejudice, we seem to be more comfortable than ever with prejudice against people with different beliefs and points of view.
If you have a different opinion on the environment or education, I’m not likely to respect you. I might even conclude you are “evil.” Afterall, our brains, especially our Internet brains, are trained to break things into buckets of similarity, often into absolutes: this person is similar to me or not, you are either with me or against me (to paraphrase Darth Vader).
How do we solve this problem?
As individuals, we can seek out different points of views. We can get our news from both right and left leaning media, and we can truly listen and be respectful of people who have different points of view than we do.
As a society, we need to change how communication works to address the core problem.
Technology can do that. It can automatically provide different perspectives on the same issues, topics and news stories, and show them side-by-side.
Check out the news at AllSides.com. Use the left/center/right slider in Election News at Bing.com. This is just the beginning.
By changing the way we get information we can ultimately change how we think, and then the Internet can finally live up to its promise of uniting us rather than dividing us.
Note: These concepts were first shared at a speech I gave in Portland, Oregon in January of 1997.