Getting too comfortable

Al Gore thinks the internet can save us. I think he may be right, but only if we are at least somewhat proactive about searching out contrary views.

There’s an interesting article in New Scientist about Gore’s latest book, The Assault on Reason (Chris Mooney, “Critical times need critical minds”, New Scientist 195: 2613, 21 July 2007, pp. 46 – 47). It’s here but you need to be a subscriber to access it.

Chris Mooney, the writer of the article, describes how Gore argues that we need a “well-informed citizenry”. We can and should do far better in becoming informed, so that we can genuinely debate complex issues. According to Mooney, Gore’s hope is that the internet can save us. But…

The internet is much like television in that it overwhelms audiences with choices and leads to an inevitable kind of self-selection. Many web surfers opt out of serious information entirely, or choose groups of like-minded individuals who rarely encounter contrary perspectives. This concern – voiced in Cass Sunstein’s book – is never grappled with by Gore. The blogosphere, for all its virtues, too often mirrors Sunstein’s image of large groups of people engaging in mutual intellectual back-scratching, rather than challenging their own convictons. “Reason”, if it means anything, must include sustained engagement with opposing viewpoints.

Good point. And one which was made, prophetically, way back in 1990 by David Brin, in his novel Earth. …

It was clearly another case of human profligacy – this typical turning of a good thing into yet another excuse for overindulgence…

And to think, some idiots predicted that we’d someday found our economy on information. That we’d base money on it!

On information? The problem isn’t scarcity. There’s too damned much of it.

The problem usually wasn’t getting access to information. It was to stave off drowning in it. People bought personalized filter programs to skim a few droplets from that sea and keep the rest out. For some, subjective reality became the selected entertainments and special-interest zines passed through by those tailored shells.

Here a man watches nothing but detective films from the days of cops and robbers – a limitless supply of formula fiction. Next door a woman hears and reads only opinions that match her own, because other points of view are culled by her loyal guardian software.

To avoid such staleness, Jen had hired a famous rogue hacker, Sri Ramanujan, to design her own filter. “Let’s see what happens to the list,” she said aloud, “when we use threshold seven, categories one through twenty.”

“And the surprise factor, Professor Wolling?”

Jen felt in a good mood. “Let’s go with twenty percent.”

That meant that one in five files would pop up randomly, in defiance of her own parameters. This way she asked Ramanujan to unleash purposely on her a little of the chaos his devilish virus-symbiont had once wreaked on thirteen million net subscribers in South Asia – jiggling their complacent cyberworlds to show them glimpses of different realities, different points of view.

David Brin, Earth, London: Orbit, 1990, pp. 312 – 313.

Italics original.

There’s two points in there: (1) that there’s just far too much information out there (and I’m happily adding to it!), and (2), the point made by Chris Mooney 17 years later, that it is far too easy to read only what we agree with. This is one of David Brin’s strengths as a writer; he’s very good at setting up a reality, or some premises, and then playing them right through to their logical consequences. He correctly predicted that the net would provide the opportunity for people to listen only to themselves, or to people so like themselves that it doesn’t really matter.

To a certain extent, we can deal with the “too much information” problem by using portal sites – my favourites are Butterflies and Wheels, Scitech Daily, and Arts and Letters Daily. I also like to read Broadsheet in Salon from time to time; it often has some good links to other interesting material).

The second problem is more difficult.

Sometimes I worry about just how often I read articles and blog posts and find myself feeling faintly bored, because I am sitting there nodding my head in agreement. It can be much more fun, and much more instructive, to read something that I know I won’t agree with, to shake myself out of my complacency. Locally, KiwiBlog (especially the comments) provides a helpful jolt for me in this respect. And thanks to Span’s pointer, I went and took a look at NZ Conservative the other day. Crikey! Would you take a look at that stuff!

I’m very comfortable with the material Butterflies and Wheels links to, and the links that pop up on Scitech Daily. Dennis Dutton on Arts and Letters Daily often links to material that infuriates me, and I can’t believe that after all the analysis, or even fisking, of the alleged “great global cooling problem”, he still provides a link to the original Times article as a ‘classic’. I like reading The Austrian Economists blog too, for the jolt factor.

There’s a third problem too – just how much does talking to ourselves make us far to ready to refuse to even try to understand why other people might have opposing points of view. But I will save that for another post.

in the meantime, what else do you recommend to stop me from getting too fat and lazy?


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