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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 Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3367 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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