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Has the “Information Age” Really Made Us Any Wiser?

Does access to information really make people any wiser when they only access content that they agree with?

Accessing information via computerIn a rare moment I logged into my personal Facebook account. Even rarer, I actually did something: I re-shared an anti-gun control graphic. I didn’t think much of the action, and I really didn’t think that anyone would care if I was pro-this or anti-that. Some of my friends commented and agreed with the graphic, some didn’t. Whatever. A long term reader of VagabondJourney.com left a snide little remark in the ensuing debate, which was too banal to respond to. Then, as though shocked that I would have an opinion different from her own deleted me from her Facebook friend roll and promptly unsubscribed from this blog.

Truly, I cannot fret about losing a reader from an isolated incident, but the sad fact of the matter is that this action is more the rule of new media consumption than the exception. People now have the ability to control what opinions, ideas, and worldviews they allow into their realm of consciousness. No longer are we all strapped to the motherboard of mainstream media — there are now a million little ideological niches to choose from, each coming with it’s own particular take on reality that is shown as being 100%, irrefutable fact.

Media consumers now have the ability to simply turn off anything or anyone who spouts out a different opinion than what they are used to — and they do. People now have the ability to build up ideological palisades around themselves: agreeable opinions and perspectives are allowed to pass through the gate while disagreeable ones are left on the outside. People can now choose how they see their world to an unprecedented level of pinpoint refinement. It is easy to turn off a media source when there are a million others to chose from — you just click away, flip a switch, or push the unsubscribe button. It is easy to build yourself into an encampment of all out, full-fledged ignorance.

(Read more about this at New American Tribalism.)

When your worldview is only built up with supporting views and never torn down with contradictory ones the walls have a tendency of becoming very thick. The wall of your worldview is the thickness of your skull, and the media vacuums that so many abscond into are producing virtual armies of bona fide boneheads.

Even Google has gotten into the act with “personalized search results.” If Google determines that you are a right-wing, anti-everything, apocalypse now wack job they are going to err toward referring you to websites that are right-wing, anti-everything, apocalypse now wack job friendly. Google has the ability to learn their users particular social niche and preference patterns and the demographic data to know how to connect them with supportive content. So if Google determines that your search patterns show that you are pro-Israeli they are going to serve you more pro-Israeli webpages; if Google determines that your search patterns show that you are pro-Palestine they are going to serve you more pro-Palestine content.

. . . when a user performs a search, the search results are not only based on the relevancy of each web page to the search term, but the service also takes into account what websites the user previously visited through search results to determine which search results to determine for future searches, to provide a more personalized experience. The feature only takes effect after the user has performed several searches, so that it can be calibrated to the user’s tastes. –Google personalized search Wikipedia

People are now able to obtain such a high degree of niche-friendly opinions and content on particular issues that what they’re consuming appears to be the whole truth and nothing but.

Each person is now only getting the version of the story that they prefer, whether this is through their conscious decisions as to which media outlets the consume or the more subliminal ones such as their search patterns. Those who disagree with you are watching other channels, browsing other webpages, getting other search results, are in other social media networks, and are being preached to while sitting in their own choir. In a society where these niches must interact with each other this is volatile stuff.

The new media consumer is becoming used to a world that appears to agree with them. It’s a world made up of the good guys that you associate with and bad guys that you never hear from. But all sides of the fray sit in their respective ideological hovels rendering themselves just as ignorant as those they say they oppose. The Occupy movement is just as dumb as the Tea Party.

This is how tribes work: a group of people section themselves off and continuously regurgitate, reinforce, and reconfirm the same worldview and opinion to each other over and over again. The baselines of ideology are set, and are not up for debate. Fresh opinions are rarely every introduced into the group, and when they are they are often shot down on principle. The very act of exposing a contrary opinion to such a group means striking at the core of truth itself. Once a worldview becomes so built up in a group with supportive perspectives, facts, figures, and the full-fledged agreement of its members it becomes virtually impervious to outside influence: it becomes an institution based on ignorance.

(Read Travel to Break Out of Ideological Niche.)

A person’s worldview and the foundations of their opinion often spring from outside sources rather than direct experience. When these outside sources are gamed so that the information tide they bring in appears unified and supportive of a preset opinion ignorance prevails.  The information age has done little to make anyone wiser. Access to a wide-array of information can act in two ways:

1. It can tear down previously held opinions, dilute ignorance, enlighten, and make the recipient a little wiser.

2. It can reinforce a previously held opinion and eventually make it indomitable to contrary influence.

Anyone can get online and read information that they don’t necessarily agree with. Anyone can say, “Hey, I don’t agree with this but I’m going to do some research to try to figure out why these other people do” or “I don’t always agree with this publication, but that’s OK, I like being shown fresh perspectives.” But it’s my impression that this is very rarely the case. More often than not, people seem content to sit in their ideological hovels, commune only with those who are like them, and refer to the Other as being somehow less informed and more ignorant of fact than they are. What the information age has created is a mass of special interest groups/ subcultures/ and movements that are growing ever more bold in their opinions and ever more at odds with those who they disagree with, breeding far more contempt than understanding.

It is my impression that most people don’t like having their worldviews challenged or go through the labor of reconstructing new opinions when their current ones prove outdated.  The world is too complex to be put into simplified, easy to understand, boxes of perspective. Really striking at the chords of truth often means admitting that an issue is far too complicated to stand on any side of, it means cutting away a part of your identity: rather than being a supporter of this and an opponent of that you become ideologically unaligned. In the information age it is almost taboo to admit that you really don’t know about an issue or you really don’t have a position either way. So most seem to abscond into ideological/ political information vacuums and unsubscribe, turn off , click away from any media source that may not continuously project their own personal status-quo.

Anyone who has ever studied archaeology or history will see the same patterns happening over and over again all the way back to the dawn of humanity. One law of humanity is this:

When two groups perceive themselves as being different from each other they fight. Whether you’re talking about countries or cultures or hill tribes or family units or soccer fans, the law always works the same way. Different individuals can exist peacefully side by side but different groups cannot. This is why the tribalization of media presents a dangerous situation for any society.

Filed under: Internet, Media Analysis

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3421 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

18 comments… add one

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  • mike crosby August 14, 2012, 1:52 am

    Too bad about the deletion from FB. But one good thing: I didn’t know you were on FB. I’ve got to “Like” you on FB.

    I must say I do like being in my little echo chamber, but I do branch out every now and then. Politically I’m conservative so I have little patience for those who think Bush was responsible for blowing up the NY building on 911.

    But yet I’m vegan and most vegans tend to think differently than me. As long as they stick to food, I’m OK. When they start talking politics I’m gone.

    Anyway Wade, I love reading your stuff, you enlighten me more than I can say. And I’d bet you and I differ too on many things. Nevertheless, I know one thing, your ideas are fresh and real, and whether I agree or not, doesn’t matter. What’s refreshing is your honesty and outlook on life. And for that, I give you a big thank you.

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    • Wade Shepard August 14, 2012, 3:51 am

      It seems to me as if you branch out very frequently! It is clear that you are trying to grasp your world with two hands, whether you agree with it or not.

      Most of the long term readers of this site seem to be people who are in their own league as far as ideology or worldviews are concerned — the kind of people who don’t really fit in anywhere who does, says, and believes things their own way. It feels good having such a supportive community here. These are the people that I like surrounding myself with. What do I stand to learn from only hanging out with people who think, say, do the same things as me? Not much. I like it that we probably have many different perspectives from each other. I look for the people who have things to say that are going to rattle around in my head and make me take another look at something. I like being challenged. I like realizing that I’m wrong — even if I don’t act like it in the moment — because that means I learned something new, which is one of the prime directives of travel.

      Thanks for all the support over the years and the comments.

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  • mike crosby August 14, 2012, 1:58 am

    Geez Wade, I feel like an idiot now. I just went to the top of your post and saw the FB link.

    Anyway, I’ve now “Liked” you and will get your stuff via FB.

    And I like that. For me FB isn’t so much about the minutia of what I had for dinner, but larger ideas. And I know by “Liking” you, I’ll be getting the larger ideas.

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    • Wade Shepard August 14, 2012, 3:35 am

      Thanks Mike, this is much appreciated. It seems as if you use FB in a very productive way. It can truly be powerful tool, if used right, as it can consolidate many sources of information into one place. Google+ really one-upped them though with their circle based organization scheme.

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  • mike crosby August 14, 2012, 2:14 am

    Don’t mean to over comment, but I went to your Twitter feed and it’s blocked. Is that because you’re in Communist China?

    Or is asking that question a no no? Don’t want to get you in trouble.

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    • Wade Shepard August 14, 2012, 3:28 am

      It seems to be working for me. Maybe it was just down? For all Twitter can tell I’m in Salt Lake City, Utah, so physically being in China is not a problem. Thought they may have busted me for a moment for tweeting about how to get around NBC’s Olympic monopoly 🙂

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  • trevor August 14, 2012, 4:20 am

    quite a heavy topic Wade……

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    • Wade Shepard August 14, 2012, 6:45 am

      For sure, it definitely is.

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  • Steve Cross August 15, 2012, 1:23 am

    Thanks for the article. Refreshing to read a “Think for Yourself” bit. Way to many people willing to do it for you. Heard somewhere–when everyone says they’re telling you the truth and no one agrees with’em, someone’s got to be lying.

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    • Wade Shepard August 15, 2012, 2:08 am

      Right on! I sometimes think those who make decisions for people offer the most sought after commodity on the planet. Why waste time looking into things for yourself, taking a chance, and making a decision, when you can just flip on your favorite talking head and he can do it for you? 🙂 I guess I’m guilty of this too, but I try to admit it. I try to present things as “a single point of view to be combined with others,” and I hope I can pull it off.

      Good quote — there are as many versions of truth out there as there are people on this planet. I guess we need to claim our own for ourselves, somehow, someway.

      Thanks for the discussion, much appreciated.

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  • John August 15, 2012, 8:10 pm

    Hey Wade, Recently arrived in Taizhou. Nice to have your blog posts as a continuation from Canada to China.

    I think since I moved here I have been holding onto whats permanent. Its like putting down roots. The more you do it, the more solid the roots the more painful it is to rip them up.

    I think its inevitable to want to be surrounded by a community.

    That being said, what you are saying is quite true. I will have to do more research about ‘tribalism’ it seems like an interesting topic.

    Overall, I feel like there is good and bad in everything, as with tribalism. I feel like this notion contains something which I value, which is affirmation.
    I lived all my life without a lot of friends. I held important values to me, I never experimented with drug culture where that was a very strong basis for where I am from. In that place: You smoked weed or you drank.

    I do have a beer socially, but I have never touched anything illegal. Whether these things should be that way or not is another discussion altogether. My point is that by choosing a way that was not the the norm, I alienated myself from finding peer groups for a long time until I reached university and discovered an group of friends who didn’t feel the need to do such things. (and obviously we bonded for other reasons too!) I also have friends who do that, and don’t make it a reason to refuse friendships, however:

    Affirmation that I was okay in the way that I am is something that I think for many of is something that we miss. I think we try to find it in ways that are through television, or what music we listen to. Sometimes this can lead to folks denegrating others because they don’t share their taste. That I am definitely thinking you would miss out on a lot of potential good conversations and new ideas…. Its a balance.

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    • Wade Shepard August 15, 2012, 10:05 pm

      Right on! Very precisely stated. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Jack August 20, 2012, 2:37 am

    Thank you, Wade. This is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to as well. It seems like limited thinking used to be devoted to the religious zealots but now the people who couldn’t get into religion for one reason or another have found other things to be zealots about.

    One of the motto of traveling that I have taken up on me is that there are many roads to the same destination. Which the best one? That depends so don’t ask me.

    I think John very succinctly talked about the reason why many people seek out like minded people, groups, opinion and information and that the need for affirmation. I think he is spot on with that reason. He says that it’s something he values and that is his road.

    It’s not my road though. As a society, we’ve come to associate affirmation and acceptance with love when love in its purest form is unconditional. I don’t think that’s healthy. Facebook is an example of it. People are too afraid to state their real opinions because someone might defriend them or for goodness sake might block them. They post only agreeable things to others and they hunger for a like or a comment saying that how correct they are. It’s gotten to the point of being extreme.

    I had some who I considered to be a good friend who posted on her Facebook wall that ALL Halal food was ritualistically prepared with a prayer offered up to Allah. When I called that into question, she blocked me after saying something about her family being a holocaust survivor. I couldn’t affirm her current beliefs and because I called it into question then I needed to be eliminated.

    It’s even entered “real life.” Online, people have surrounded themselves with people who affirm their life choices. They are so used to people building them up with affirmation and acceptance that they are unable to deal with situations where that doesn’t happen.

    Maybe this is why I am abroad? As a foreigner, I’m not a candidate for acceptance or affirmation so on the same token, I’m not a candidate for unacceptance or disaffirmation.

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    • Wade Shepard August 20, 2012, 5:49 am

      “Maybe this is why I am abroad? As a foreigner, I’m not a candidate for acceptance or affirmation so on the same token, I’m not a candidate for unacceptance or disaffirmation.”

      That statement is like hitting a three pointer in basketball or a strike in bowling. It’s right on. A certain type of person is drawn to go abroad long term, and when they do there is often no going back. I don’t think it’s really because exposure to other cultures rally change a person all too much but because being away from your core group of like minded cronies means not having your points of view reaffirmed over and over again. When this doesn’t happen you begin to see holes in your worldview that are not being closed up by your group knocking you back in line. Soon, your ideological walls have disintegrated and you find yourself a nothing and an everything. You become a social free radical, able to go between groups without ever being able to be a part of any single one. It’s both freeing and lonely. There are far more people that you are open to associate with but getting those deep connections become rare. Life gets real interesting once you’ve stripped off your uniform and stand apart as a bare naked human.

      This is the last thing that most people in the world seem to want. It’s truly frightening when it happens and you realize you fit in nowhere anymore and you probably never will be able to again. But it’s also freeing.

      But, then again, many people who are called out on the long road have never really fit in very well from the start 🙂

      I put up an article related to this a while back at http://www.vagabondjourney.com/travel-to-break-out-of-ideological-niche/.

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      • Luke Smith September 9, 2012, 3:54 am

        Well stated! I also am someone who cannot identify themselves with a certain cultural niche. It was only a few years ago I became so open minded, then again, I am quite young. Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about was the social climate on facebook. It almost feels like a competition for who can get the most likes, and if something has a lot of likes on it, people become reluctant to commenting on it. It’s really taken on a culture of it’s own. I’ve also noticed that whenever I post something original, or a link to something obscure, no one will do anything with it, except maybe a close friend of mine. They just breeze by the stuff they don’t recognize, instead of asking questions about it, they either think (somewhat sub-consiously) that I posted it targeted at someone or a group of people, feel slightly unsettled due to the unruly nature of the post, or just simply not care. Ironically, you can create “groups” there, which creates a similar sense of camradderie. K I’m done. :]

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        • Wade Shepard September 9, 2012, 5:03 am

          Facebook is a popularity contest, and it seems as if many are afraid of losing status (or having complications) in the real world over what they “like” or show they don’t like on it. But it is a beautiful tool to observe the mechanism behind how groups and people with a “group mentality” interact. Facebook is like throwing various tribes in a lab to study what happens. Ultimately, I don’t believe that the way groups work on Facebook are much different from how they work in the brink and mortar world, except for the fact that the physical distance perhaps emboldens some more passive individuals. Other than that, you can view the inter-workings of tribes how they pretty much have always occurred. It’s interesting. What is even more interesting is that just about everyone in the world regardless of culture understands Facebook and how it works. It’s one thing that shows we’re all the same animal.

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  • John September 9, 2012, 6:10 am

    “I’m not a candidate for unacceptance or disaffirmation.”

    Is this really true? My understanding that being a foreigner is more dissaffirming experience that i have had.

    Its both combining spending more time with foreigners who I don’t know, and may not necessarily find some kind of compatibility.

    I find more common ground with the locals. But I think dissafirmation is a high possibility if you live in an area with only a few of your own people.

    If there were no expats where you went, I could imagine that to be true.

    But honestly, if you are in a place that has people who you can’t quite communicate because of cultural barriers, and foreigners who you don’t get along with.

    It can be a empty road.

    You might run into sympathetic strangers along the way, but they are no more commited to you than they are with most people.

    If you know the language, its a whole other situation. That can allow for growth.

    But if you are newbie traveler, plunging into an experience. I can’t help but feel like, you are going to be affirmed or dissaffirmed by your experience, unless you are completely immersed. I find that people want me to be that national stereotype of where I was from. They don’t want necessarily a unique person, with somewhat critical views. They also don’t necessarily care to hear what things you like about their country.

    You hold onto parts of your former self, and you can never truly swim as a free radical.

    I feel lost….

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    • Wade Shepard September 10, 2012, 4:01 am

      Yes, I believe it is to a large extent. The people of your own culture will generally place far stricter parameters on your behavior and thoughts that those who are from a different group. This is especially true of people who come from tighter, stricter cultures.

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