Since the 1990s, philosophy and technology have merged to create the Global Village, an amazing social experiment filled with promise. But the sad reality, it seems, is that its promise lies unfulfilled. In fact, the exact opposite of the promise has come true.
The philosophy is, of course, postmodern relativism. From at least the early 1990s, society stopped being dictated by exclusively western European expectations of “the way things are”, and started to realise that other cultures thought things were a little different – and that often, those cultures had a fair point. Postmodern relativism invited us to broaden our perspectives, by tempering our fixation with our own worldviews and listening to others’ worldviews instead.
This invitation became infinitely more viable by the late 1990s, thanks to the growth of the Internet. This technology allowed us to start to hear from people all around the world. I remember going onto live internet chat rooms in 1998, and becoming friends with people from around the world. A large proportion of our conversations were inter-cultural, such as “What do you eat?”, “What sports do you play?”. And of course, the internet meant we began to hear of events from across the world, that had previously been ignored by local news agencies.
And so, this became the promise: that abandoning our biases and embracing the world via that wonderful wide web would broaden our horizons.
Yet, a lot of the time, the exact opposite has happened. Postmodern relativism and the internet has made us just as narrow-minded as ever, perhaps more narrow-minded than ever.
That might surprise you. It surprised me, when I read GK Chesterton’s essay “On the Institution of the Family”, written in 1905, at the height of another experiment in Globalism, British imperialism. He wrote:
We are told today that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook… In a large community we can choose our companions… A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness.
In reality, most people can only have meaningful social interactions with about 50ish people, at most. And we all have limited time and brain-power to learn new things. So, when confronted by the internet with billions of people, and information on countless topics, we have to choose which people and which topics we will give our precious time to.
And therein lies the problem: too much choice. Postmodern relativism tells us that choice is a great thing, and sometimes it is. But here, it’s actually a problem. That’s because we usually choose those people and topics that interest us, suit our assumptions, make us comfortable. After all, we wouldn’t use “truth” as our motivation to choose, since relativism tells us there isn’t any. Instead, choose what you like.
In fact, the internet’s “narrow casting” technology actually does that choosing for us, without us even noticing it, a lot of the time. Take Facebook, for example. Say you have 300 friends. Well, your newsfeed can’t handle all the news from those 300 friends. So Facebook discerns, based on your likes, etc, which people or organisations you’re most interested in. It then puts those into your newsfeed, and filters out everyone else. And what if you don’t like what somebody posts? What if their post doesn’t fit with your assumptions? Easy – block them, unfriend them. No need to debate with their perspective, be challenged. You can keep your assumptions safe from such threats.
Also, Facebook and Google’s advertising is specifically tailored to keywords in your newsfeed or email, you are being told that all the world wide web has to offer, is only what you wanted already anyway. You’re writing about how much you love scuba-diving? Lo and behold, your advertisements are about scuba-gear.
While we’re talking about Google, remember, you can search for anything. But when was the last time you searched for something like, say, “Uzbekistani crisis”? If you did, you’d quickly be fulfilling the Global Village’s promise. You’d find out about all kinds of things you didn’t know. But we’re too busy googling answers to the questions that suit our needs, fuelled by what interests us, suits our assumptions, makes us comfortable.
So, what’s the solution? Well, some commonly proposed solutions won’t work, according to Chesterton. We’ll look at those in the next article. Then, we’ll look at a solution that will shatter our assumptions, and definitely not make us comfortable – but it should be interesting.
Matthew James Gray