I’m haunted by the mis-information that’s out there about what the internet is “doing” to us. I’ve made it my career as a social psychologist to look closely at the claims made in public and behind the walls of the ivory tower, examining research about what drives and influences us and how today’s drivers and influencers might be different from those pre-web.
I’ve been doing this for 15 years. Last year, I published a book about it, and next week, the fifth series of The Digital Human, the BBC Radio 4 programme about who we are as human beings at the beginning of the 21st century.It starts next Monday 7 April.
But there are still so many questions! So I’m publishing a primer on the good and the bad of what the internet is doing to us.
This is the third in a series of blogposts answering those questions. Read the first two, about our selves and our sex lives.
Today’s topic - what the internet is “doing” to us.
In 1959, sociologist Erving Goffman published a seminal book that ushered in a new definition of community.The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life described a new, post-modern concept of togetherness, one that wasn’t limited to groups of people who spent time in the same physical space. He explained that community can exist only in the minds of its members, and that the important thing was that it was a headspace where people felt they belonged.
Fast forward half a decade and the conceptual community is writ large online, and it’s more real than Goffman could have anticipated. In fact, we can actually see it in the connections and digital traces we leave behind. For the first time ever, we can see community behaviour in its natural state on a massive scale. People from around the globe may not be in the same room, but they still manage to create very real - to them - consensual hallucinations (to borrow a phrase from science fiction author William Gibson), and these play out in virtual proximity, where the address doesn’t have a post code, but a dot com. It was this kind of community that the optimistic forefathers of the world wide web believed would eventually eradicate conflict and usher in a global group hug; the reality is something a little different.
We have a natural tendency to gather into groups, and when we belong to something, we feel we can be ourselves. It’s a nice, comfortable place to hang out with folks who think like we do, and to find out what people like us are doing that we might also like to do. Naturally, that’s led to clusters of people with particular political persuasions, religious outlooks, personal philosophies and other things that shouldn’t be discussed with an outsider over dinner, just in case he doesn’t think like we do and we end up with indigestion.
This is why some people read The Guardian and some people read the Daily Mail, and why they’re often they’re not the same person, nor even in the same social group. Offline, we’re geographically bumped up against people of different views (unless you live in Brighton or Deep South, USA), which makes for some potential compassion, because it’s easy to see that a person who reads The Guardian might have features a Daily Mail reader might not find offensive, and vice versa.
One of the most unique things about the web is that people are able make connections between the bits of information that make sense to them, and then they’re able to share these hyperlinked stories with anyone, including people who think in the same way. That means ordinary folks like you and me - not The Powerful or other gatekeepers - generate knowledge. It also means that the stories might have a particular agenda, and that we should read between the links to figure out why the connections were made, and by whom.
Online, says author Eli Pariser in his book The Filter Bubble, we are naturally able to filter out people who don’t think like we do, and the vast amount of information that is contrary to our beliefs is simply invisible. There are even computer processes behind the scenes in our favourite online search engines and social networks that automatically promotes information that we want to see, and demotes information that we don’t, which means our information landscape is increasingly skewed. Harvard Law’s Cass Sunstein called this an echo chamber. And the more our beliefs are confirmed, the more we think we’re right, and anyone who doesn’t hold our beliefs is wrong.
We’ve imported our natural inclination to gather into communities into the online world, but rather than encouraging a global group hug, we might be cyber-balkanising, drawing virtual lines in the sand.
There are clever technologists trying to create digital solutions for each of these areas of our social and psychological selves. Unfortunately, we’re encouraging them. The virtual equivalent of popping a pill when something goes wrong in our bodies is clicking a button when something goes wrong in our lives. We have become techno-fundamentalists, to use a phrase coined by Siva Vaidhyanathan. We have too much faith in the magic machine.
The good news is that this is a natural phase of our evolution with a new technology. It has, like other inventions before it, been seized upon as a panacea and dismissed as a destroyer. It is neither. It is a sin eater. Ultimately, it is a mirror of us all.
If you like this, you’ll like the third section of Untangling the Web: What the Internet is Doing to You, Untangling Us.
The book’s on sale at the Faber & Faber website, on UK Amazon or on US Amazon. Other territories are available too!
"Aleks Krotoski is a rare combination of academic (she has a PhD in psychology), geek, reporter and fluent essayist." - The Guardian
"Her combination of cautious academic rigour and geek-like enthusiasm makes a very valuable contribution to the debate" - Financial Times
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