Reading just what we want or what we need?

A few years ago, Nick Carr wrote “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic. Carr found the assumption unsettling that we would be better off “if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence.”

Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.

I was reminded of Carr’s 2008 article by the opening sentence in a weekend piece in The Guardian by Nick Cohen that asks “Did better broadband make Americans more partisan?” Cohen writes “It is easy to suspect that the web makes us stupid” but he also observes “Suspecting the web has made us stupid is not the same as proving it.”

The article refers to a research paper [by Yphtach Lelkes, Gaurav Sood and Shanto Iyengar] published last December in the American Journal of Political Science, “The Hostile Audience: The Effect of Access to Broadband Internet on Partisan Affect.” That paper found “that access to broadband Internet boosts partisans’ consumption of partisan media, a likely cause of increased polarization.”

As a result, Cohen writes:

Greater use of the web ensured that an admirer of Jon Stewart would think that conservatives were not just mistaken but stupid, or a viewer of Fox News would work on the assumption that liberals were wicked. Both sides could dismiss uncomfortable facts as lies. Both sides allowed their politics to become so bound up with their identity, opposing arguments felt almost as if they were physical assaults.

Cohen asks us to consider “a world where people are so alienated from each other they cannot accept the good faith of an opponent who produces a discomforting argument.”

In “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization” [Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood], the authors “document the scope and consequences of affective polarization of partisans using implicit, explicit and behavioral indicators,” finding:

Partisans discriminate against opposing partisans, and do so to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race. We note that the willingness of partisans to display open animus for opposing partisans can be attributed to the absence of norms governing the expression of negative sentiment and that increased partisan affect provides an incentive for elites to engage in confrontation rather than cooperation.

In the absence of opposing viewpoints, partisanship continues to be amplified. People watch just the programs that serve up the same viewpoints; read articles from sources that reinforce the opinions already held. Cohen’s article in the Guardian asks that legislation be introduced such that Facebook and others be prohibited from using “algorithms to deliver news that users want to hear, rather than need to hear.”

Perhaps recognizing the impossibility (and we might argue the impropriety of such legislation), Cohen concludes with what we might consider to be an important element of improved digital literacy:

More important would be a cultural reaction against the impoverishment so many supporters of the populist movements exhibit. Their inability to argue, their denial of hard evidence, their certainties, and their fanatical denunciations of sellouts, traitors and apostates speak of men and women whose souls have withered along with their minds.

They should be made to face their own inadequacies, and asked politely but repeatedly: who wants to live their life with only the echo of their own voice for company?

Are our students being exposed to sufficient diversity of views?

How do we encourage reading alternate perspectives, consideration of dissenting viewpoints, and engaging in cooperative dialog?

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