Three Paradoxes of the Internet Age – Part One

In the circles that I travel the Internet is often breathlessly embraced as the herald of all things good; the bringer of increased choice, personal empowerment, social harmony…and the list goes on. And yet, as with any powerful technology, the truth of its consequences eludes such a singular and happy narrative.

Here is the first of three paradoxes of the Internet Age. I would love to see Radar readers point out others.<br

More access to information doesn’t bring people together, often it isolates us.<br

Elizabeth Kolbert has a piece in this week’s New Yorker reviewing Cass Sunstein’s new book, “On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done.” In the review she lays out the concept of “group polarization”

People’s tendency to become more extreme after speaking with like-minded others has become known as “group polarization,” and it has been documented in dozens of other experiments. In one, feminists who spoke with other feminists became more adamant in their feminism. In a second, opponents of same-sex marriage became even more opposed to the idea, while proponents shifted further in favor. In a third, doves who were grouped with other doves became more dovish still.

The Internet is becoming a vast petri dish for the group polarization phenomena. As Sunstein puts it “The most striking power provided by emerging technologies,” is the “growing power of consumers to ‘filter’ what they see.”

(Thanks to Jim Stogdill for surfacing this link via email)

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  • More access to information doesn’t bring people together, often it isolates us.

    GONE! The technology is creating an uber-wiki, it is bring us together like never before, the days of the geeky kid playing internet games alone in his bedroom are over. The new connectivity is thrusting us into a collective creativity and, as a function of that, connectivity.

    Just a thought.


  • OK on a less polarized note, I find that on the internet there is no group dynamic at work. The idea of a You-net is a dream/nightmare I have yet to see. The vetting of ideas by the community tends to void group-think, I think.

    I guess I’m just to darn positive tonight to think of any of the paradoxes you seek. :)


    PS I like the anti-span thingy below, simple: understand the MEANING of the sentence – brilliant.

  • BMoreKarl

    Um. Mr. Holloway,

    Tell that to the people at and Generation Rescue.

    Sorry to add more burning acid-cool-Aid rain to the party. I tend to agree with the paradox (having recently attended a conservative-oriented Web-focused convention and walked across town to see the liberal version).

    Who made up the equation that the average IQ of a mob is equal to the average of all it’s members divided again by the number present?


  • A temporal equation – stupid is as stupid goes; so goes it.

    On another day I might agree.


  • bowerbird

    it’s only natural that people will want to
    associate with like-minded others…

    but what’s happening today, on the net,
    is that people want these interactions to
    be available to the public-at-large, yet
    they don’t want the public to participate
    with commentary that challenges them.

    so there is an intolerance toward others
    — as well as any “dissenting” opinions —
    which hardens those natural groupthink
    tendencies into an outright xenophobia…

    in-group polarization gets even worse
    when there is an out-group to ostracize.


  • Interesting article…I look forward to your next 2 paradoxes.

    When you laid out the paradox…”More access to information doesn’t bring people together, often it isolates us”…I took it more to mean that, because there is SO much information available online, we isolate ourselves because we now have the ability to gather all pertinent info for our lives on our own, without the aid of others.

    In past ages, humans sought out each other, both friends and strangers, to find information because there was no network…fewer books even…in a sense, the human need for information brought people together to jointly acquire the necessary information to support the fundamental goal of survival that accurate shared information could help make possible.

    Now, we can survive (or so we think) on our own. As long as we have an internet connection, we’re set.

  • Jim Stogdill

    In the 40’s Goebbels was unabashed about the State’s use of propaganda to shape opinion and the actions that followed from them. Today, we each choose our own propaganda even more effectively. Like Spanish party papers of the 30’s but delivered at Twitter photomultiplier tube speed.

  • Magnus

    Interesting thought. But as you point out. It’s a paradox, meaning that two (at least) forces are striving apart.
    In other words, the idea of “group polarization” is probably right, but at the same time the massiv access to (counter)information will work against it. So some will be convinced and some will not be… Maybe a zero-sum game?

  • Even more harmful, in subtle ways, may be the way the Internet hardens divisions of race and class–divisions a lot of us hoped would break down because “Nobody knows you’re a dog.” For research suggesting that people break up along lines of race and class online, see the most recent work of danah boyd:

  • If information refers to social media kind of information then certainly, “More access to information doesn’t bring people together, often it isolates us.”

    FaceBook et al are causing us to get increasingly cocooned.

  • It’s a very informative post. But I suppose that internet helps not only to become more extreme – it gathers us in different groups with the same interests – it’s naturally.

  • Joshua,
    “..readers point out others.”
    Have no others yet, but here’s a break down of the one you introduced:

    Perhaps what’s isolating us is not the ‘access to information’ but the process, the new environments technology is creating.

    Some times when one is interacting on the web, in a chat room for example, your interest in a topic genuine but your knowledge circumspect. The technology is half the fun of learning – the process of learning as opposed to the goal – learning. So one jumps into the fray on a comments board. The risk is – your blithe comments may not be welcome in the middle of an intense discussion that may arch over some time and place. One’s ignorant comment may be dismissed rather brutally.

    Ignorance of the context of a dismissive retort can lead to analytical breakdown (old maps) or defencive aggression. This often leads to a ‘us vs. them’ mentality, where, if the ideology is adopted by the group, no learning happens at all.

    As yet unlearnt skills necessary to ‘fly’ in a newly created social networking environments may cause behaviour patterns that lead to isolation.

    Enjoying the series!


  • Above I said Isolation is a function of an…

    “As yet unlearnt skills necessary to ‘fly’ in a newly created social networking environments…”

    I was refering to,

    The West, according to Karl Polanyi, was the first civilization to “disembed” the economy from society and let a self-regulating market dictate its social relations.

    Ideas Podcasts CBC Radio, from July 2005

  • I’m a little late on this one, but PEW has just published a report on “Social Isolation and Technology” that roughly states that technology has brought us closer, in a different way.

    Link here:–Social-Isolation-and-New-Technology.aspx

  • Read the conclusions of the Pew report; bottom line: people networking are expanding their networks – those who are not are relying on smaller and smaller networks.

    Tim O’Reiily recently quoted Dylan – “Those not busy living are busy dying.”

    Fear of change, the new, the unknown can only be conquered by embracing it. Those un-willing to do that are growing more and more disconnected from a world expanding away from them; leaving them more and more isolated. In that lonely disconnected place being human, they must bond with the only ones they can, the few left there.

    That small party over there look insane from here, I can’t understand their points of view a lot of the time; but I still try.

    It must be a lonely, scary place.