We thought tech would bring us closer together. Instead it has scrambled our minds, our politics and our relationships. Can we burst our filter bubbles?
In 2010, I joined Twitter. This momentous development went unnoticed by the world’s press – but to be fair, it went almost unnoticed by me, too. Certainly, I had no particular trepidation about getting involved in social media. The internet still embodied more promise than threat: the iPad was just arriving; Uber and Airbnb were finding their feet; “gamification” was going to solve everything from obesity to voter apathy, by turning tedious chores into fun digital challenges with points and prizes; the Arab spring, coordinated on social media, was a few months away. This was before the Rohingya genocide, before the teenage anxiety epidemic, before Cambridge Analytica and the alt-right and “fake news”. In October 2010, the Guardian news blog ran a brief item on a darkly comical nightmare scenario for US politics: “Donald Trump considers running for president,” the headline read.
What changed in the 2010s was not so much the arrival of new technology as the rapid evolution of a business model, the monetisation of attention. This wasn’t a recent invention; indeed, it dated back to the “yellow journalism” of the 19th century, which used sensationalist stories and cheap cover prices to build big audiences that advertisers would pay to reach. But ubiquitous high-speed mobile internet has sent the attention economy into hyperdrive, plunging us into an online world structured to prioritise not the truth, or what matters most, but whatever’s most compelling, which often means whatever makes us angriest.
Those who warned of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” were right, but right in an unexpected way. Both phrases misleadingly suggest spending our digital days in a warm bath of mutual agreement, when what really happens is that social media shows us our enemies behaving at their most outrageous (and thus compelling) worst. And we’re rewarded, with shares and likes, for condemning them in hyperbolic terms – and so our tribal allegiances harden, until those who we once viewed merely as opponents come to seem like another species. Rather than democratising the public sphere, social media replaces it with a global Freudian id, in which everyone’s darkest impulses collide, and sane debate becomes impossible. A healthy democracy, it turns out, requires people to keep certain emotions to themselves, and mull their views before expressing them; but online the attention accrues to those who do the opposite.
The cultural correlate of all this is the development that has been called “the politicisation of everything” – the relentless reorganisation of every domain around partisan poles, and the transformation of every topic of cultural debate into one about politics. In 1995, if two Americans disagreed about the OJ Simpson verdict, the reason was probably to do with their race, and their experience of race; but by 2013, opinions on the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, as on many other issues, overwhelmingly lined up with political affiliation instead. And politics colonises private life, too; it becomes harder and harder to imagine, say, being a remainer but dating a Brexiter, agreeing to put politics aside in your relationship – quite apart from the fact that, thanks to geographical sorting, you’re less likely to meet each other in the first place.
Read more: www.theguardian.com