Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Against Mendacity (part 4): Info-Enclaves

This'll probably be the final installment in this series, unless I feel like writing another, of course. In previous posts I've made reference to a recent ideological balkanization that has begun to manifest itself on the political landscapes of both the web and Washington. Is it real, or am I just seeing what I want to see? And if it is real, should we be worried about it?

David Weinberger of Harvard Law's Berkman Center for Internet and Society thinks not. He argues against the "echo chamber" theory in a Salon piece that ran shortly after Howard Dean's defeat in the Iowa caucuses last year. Weinberger's thesis seems to be that (1) people need places where they can collect their thoughts without dissent on the fundamental issues and (2) the real echo chambers are the news media and Bush himself. He certainly doesn't have a problem with the mutual exclusivity of the blogosphere's partisan provinces, as he makes abundantly clear here:
. . . we humans -- echo chamber participants or echo chamber castigators -- rarely engage in deep, meaningful and truly open conversation with people who fundamentally disagree with us. I have never debated a neo-Nazi, and if I did, I wouldn't do so with an open mind: No way is that son of a bitch going to convince me that he's right. No apologies. Being grounded in some beliefs is a condition for having any beliefs. And that has nothing to do with echo chambers.
A refusal to consider seriously the opposing argument is perfectly well justified when faced with such a dangerously illogical opponent as a neo-Nazi. But what of the implacable Democrat, or libertarian, or Marxist, or evangelical Christian, who looks at her opponents the same way Weinberger looks at his neo-Nazi? Are they as justified in dismissing my evidence and viewpoints out of hand? I mean, that's certainly their privilege, but is it good dialectic practice? Is it good for the nation?

Weinberger obviously has a lot of faith in the Internet as a uniquely empowering medium, so it shouldn't be surprising that he gets defensive when critics assert that it works the same way as other, less democratic media. He's absolutely right that the average person has more power on the Net than in any of the other major electronic media. But he too blithely dismisses the possibility that closed information enclaves may decrease their inhabitants' capacity for critical thought. Weinberger adduces the fact that blog and discussion site participants do not dwell exclusively within these enclaves as evidence that they enjoy a balanced media diet, but that's just opinion. Here's another interpretation: individuals who have constructed their informational worlds mostly from sources that overwhelmingly reflect their preexisting viewpoints may find that their critical faculties fail them in the face of convincing arguments & evidence from the other side.

Psychology teaches us that facts don't stand much of a chance against deeply-held beliefs, cf. the literature on stereotypes, cognitive dissonance, and group identification. Thus it's probable that to the extent that information enclaves guard against challenges to opinions, they will inhibit their denizens' ability to evaluate their opponents' arguments critically and fairly. The political implications of this theory are ominous. It suggests that ideologically sheltered populations should exhibit a disturbing insensitivity to their own team's misdeeds and downplay or even undermine positive developments on the other side. These people may get so caught up in combative ingroup/outgroup dynamics that they miss genuine opportunities to improve national policy for everyone.

As Weinberger says, the news media is an echo chamber whose masters care only for profit. And I'm not pining for the old days, but at least when we all watched the same three newscasts and read the same major dailies, there wasn't so much division over the facts themselves. Nowadays the Internet makes it easier than ever for people to believe what they want to believe. But lack of discretion in our informational choices may at some point drive the electorate to endorse policies that are atrocious on the merits for the sheer sake of contrarian indulgence. Some would argue this has already happened.