Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Medium is the Dialectic, part 1

"Can one be enlightened on Facebook?"

This series of essays is an attempt to answer the above question and its broader cousins.

Technology dictates how we communicate, agree, disagree, defend ourselves, are heard, reach an audience, are able to refute an argument, are able to back our claims, and the way we might be exposed to new perspectives and opinions.

Almost twenty years back, in 1995, I had predicted that internet will not lead to a broadening of our intellectual horizons, but rather a narrowing of them. I reasoned that since on the internet, there is a clique for every kind of opinion, and one can find justifications for all kinds of irrational belief systems, it is going to nurture and amplify the existing biases rather than cure them. There is ample vindication available for whatever opinion one might hold, and one can easily choose to block or ignore what one disagrees with. There is little incentive for one to challenge one's existing beliefs and opinions.

An easy example is the Rotten Tomatoes website.  Let's say one watches a supposedly good film, but doesn't like it.  One might feel a little uncomfortable and inadequate.  Not to worry.  Internet comes to the rescue.  One can browse to the RT website, read reviews which pan the film, feel relieved that there are erudite people out there who also didn't like the film, and then make little effort to re-appreciate the film or to read the other reviews which do praise the film.  For this particular relief, a website like IMDb fails to deliver.  IMDb, like RT, provides an overall rating for the film, but makes it very difficult to find affirming opinions.

Internet is a great medium for information and for research, provided that is what one is setting out to do. But it is a poor medium for edification and evolution. If one is using the internet to "surf" and to "browse", it is extremely likely that one will not linger on uncomfortable content, but will quickly transfer to more affirmative regions.

Internet now provides a plethora of "interactive platforms", for want of a better phrase. Each platform, be it a static website, a personalized website, a feed, a discussion forum, a mailing list, a web-mail service, a blog, an online social network, a photo sharing website, a voting-based comment forum (e.g. reddit or quora), an online newspaper, a short-form broadcast and re-broadcast platform (twitter), a video sharing website, a publicly edited encyclopedia, a URL shortening service, dictates and enables a specific level and kind of discourse.

Just like we have different kinds of programming languages for different applications and circumstances, I believe the choice of an interactive platform on the internet is important for what we are trying to achieve.

Frequently people misunderstand the natural use of a platform, what kind of abuse a platform naturally enables, and the extent to which a platform can be useful for a certain task.

It is not uncommon to see a hundred-comment-long discussions on politics on Facebook, 2000+ comments on a newspaper article, a highly indented forwarded email about a hoax cure for heart attacks, and so on.

In the next essay, I will start by discussing email, and investigate why it is decreasing in popularity.

(to be continued)

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