Does the internet expand our world? Does it lead us to a broader and richer view of our world and ourselves?
It seemed like a simple question. The year was 1994 and the internet was still new. I was sitting in a classroom full of MIT students as a guest during my year as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. The teacher was Sherry Turkle, who, then as now, has probably thought more profoundly than anyone about the way computers and digital technology affect the way people think and feel.
For Turkle’s students, MIT undergraduates deeply immersed and committed to the emerging digital culture, the answer to the question was easy. It was practically impossible for them to imagine that the internet could do anything but open new doors. For them the internet was an unambiguously positive force of enlightenment, enhancing knowledge and communication.
But something about the question bothered me. Turkle didn’t tip her hand but I had a sneaky suspicion that she didn’t think the answer was quite so simple. I tried to express my concerns but my thoughts were not fully formed. It seemed to me that, overall, the internet was, and would continue to be, an unparalleled source for any kind of information. It was, or would soon be, possible to find out anything at all, to be exposed to every possible point of view and perspective. The educational possibilities seemed infinite. The new forms of communication miraculous.
The stories we talked about in that class reinforced this rosy view of technology. A gay teenager in a small rural community suddenly had access to a community of people who could understand and support him. People with curiosity about the most obscure subjects could be connected almost instantly to the top experts in their area of interest. Stories like these were endless. How could this technology be anything but magnificent?
But it also seemed to me that these stories didn’t quite tell the whole story. Already there were online trolls and hackers to disturb this vision of technological utopia. And there was something more subtle. As people became more attached to their online worlds they became less involved in their actual physical world. Fast forward to today, when people die in car accidents because of distracted driving. Or, more commonly, when we step aside from someone walking with her head down, busy texting on the sidewalk, more closely connected to her virtual world than the physical people attempting to share the sidewalk with her.
Prior to the internet there was a driving force toward moderation and consensus. We needed to coexist in the same physical space. We shared, more or less, the same few sources of information and participated in a common culture. Now we define themselves by our online existence, and our information and culture is exquisitely tailored to our specific ideas and beliefs and predilections.
And now, finally, we are learning how this technology has affected— or should I say destroyed?– our political space.
It is now painfully clear that most of us— whatever our politics or positions— don’t use the internet to expand our knowledge of the world and to broaden our connection to others different from ourselves. Is there any greater irony than the fact that in an age when we can instantly fact check any statement or idea, truth itself is no longer important? Instead, we use technology to confirm and reinforce the mindset and ideas that we already possess.
Of course there was the Trump bubble of fake and distorted news. People with bitter resentment against their own inexorable slide from the mainstream to the margin embraced a prefabricated narrative of vicious rage against their exact counterparts, previously marginalized people who were now moving, just as surely and inevitably, into the mainstream.
But there was also the fatal failure of those of us outside that bubble to recognize the astonishing power and size of that bubble. There was the inability of the mainstream media to get outside its own quite different and much smaller bubble of arrogance, to take seriously a phenomenon that it clearly found preposterous and unworthy. The inability to perform basic journalism outside the talking head media contributed immeasurably to the catastrophic outcome of the election.
(I don’t want to imply a false equivalency here. I am not arguing that the liberal or mainstream media engaged in the wholesale distortions and perpetuation of lies like Breitbart and Fox.)
More than 20 years after that question was raised in that MIT classroom I think I understand the answer. Technology may raise all sorts of amazing possibilities and bring endless opportunities, but it can also cut us off from much of the world, can limit our understanding and perception, and the consequences may be nothing less than disaster.