From “Checking One Belief Against Another: A Conversation with H.L. Hix”:
“KS: Let’s revisit political rhetoric: since the end of 2009, when we began our conversation, there seems to be a sea change in places like northern Africa, the Middle East, and our Midwest. One thing I’ve noticed here in Ohio is a much more substantive discussion on Facebook—sharing of blogs, news and interviews about the situations in Ohio and Wisconsin, as well as organizing efforts. I’d imagined those things taking place on social media in Thailand and Iran, as much as it was possible, but now here we are in the thick of it. Do you see reason to hope for a more grounded public discourse?
HLH: I do cling to such hope, but not because I think there’s reason for hope. There is good news in the capacity of the Internet and such of its “social media” as Facebook to overcome distance in a way that wasn’t possible even twenty years ago, so information can cross oceans and national borders faster and more reliably than ever; social networks are “viral,” so (in principle) information can reach a broad audience almost instantly. I think, though, that there’s some bad news to mitigate the good. For one thing, I suspect that the quantity of information and the ease of its availability leads to a skimming that replaces reflection. Thinking about something takes time, but the Internet and social media encourage rushing from one thing to the next. The quantity of “stuff” out there leads also, I believe, to a “flattening” of information: a lessening of discrimination about what matters a lot and what a little, an eschewing of synthesis into a logical or narrative pattern out of the discrete events reported to us as random. What is happening in Libya and Egypt gets the same space and attention as tomorrow’s weather or the winner of the Westminster Dog Show, and disappears as quickly. Which is a concern, I want to say, because democracy depends not only on the citizenry’s access to information (which Facebook might help) but also on its ability to process that information cogently (which I suspect Facebook harms).
I don’t want to be the skeptical and retrogressive Socrates of the Phaedrus, warning us all away from writing because it will destroy our memories. But I do want to resist merely being swept away by what are ultimately commercial interests. Verizon and Google want all information to be equivalent in value, so that only quantity matters, so that the need is always for more information. I myself am interested in, and I believe healthy democracy depends on, better information. More information makes me a better consumer; without better information (better as it reaches me, and better as I myself synthesize it) I will not—cannot—become a better citizen. I want to say in regard to information something like what Amartya Sen articulates clearly in economics. Increase of capital, he points out, is not identical to, nor does it inevitably result in, happiness and well-being. So, I contend, with information: increase of information is not identical to, nor does it inevitably result in, wisdom and understanding.
External aids such as Facebook can alter individuals’ internal states (as A. R. Luria and others since him have shown of, for instance, writing’s ability to alter brain anatomy). They also can alter external conditions (as Jared Diamond, for instance, has argued about weaponry). But it’s not automatic or necessary that any given alteration be for the better. Even if the Web can spread liberatory agendas and discourse-deepening content rapidly, as seems to have happened in the Middle East—“We are the men of Facebook”—it can also spread discourse-shallowing content, as in its facilitation of Tea Party messages.”
Check it out!