Just as it’s assumed that the Internet will create a rich and diverse culture, it’s also assumed that it will bring people into greater harmony, that it will breed greater understanding and help ameliorate political and social tensions. On the face of it, that expectation seems entirely reasonable. After all, the Internet erases the physical boundaries that separate us, allows the free exchange of information about the thoughts and lives of others, and provides an egalitarian forum in which all views can get an airing. The optimistic view was perhaps best expressed by Nicholas Negroponte, the head of MIT’s Media Lab, in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. “While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices,” he wrote. “Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony.”
But Schelling’s experiment calls this view into question. Not only will the process of polarization tend to play out in virtual communities in the same way it does in neighborhoods, but it seems likely to proceed much more quickly online. In the real world, with its mortgages and schools and jobs, the mechanical forces of segregation move slowly. There are brakes on the speed with which we pull up stakes and move to a new house. Internet communities have no such constraints. Making a community-defining decision is as simple as clicking a link. Every time we subscribe to a blog, add a friend to our social network, categorize an e-mail message as spam, or even choose a site from a list of search results, we are making a decision that defines, in some small way, whom we associate with and what information we pay attention to. Given the presence of even a slight bias to be connected to people similar to ourselves—ones who share, say, our political views or our cultural preferences—we would, like Schelling’s hypothetical homeowners, end up in ever more polarized and homogeneous communities. We would click our way to a fractured society.
And lo, it has come to pass. And the fallout has produced a recent spate of posts and articles on what we need to do to ameliorate the current polarization — for instance, this post by Nicholas Kristof on conservatives to follow on Twitter, or this more detailed and student-focused one by Lee Skallerup Bessette on “overcoming digital polarization.”
These are welcome signs, but I can’t help noting that when people recommend that you listen more closely to what your political opponents are saying, there’s one reason for such listening that is never mentioned: Listen to your political opponents because there may be something they know that you don’t. And until we get to the point of acknowledging that people who don’t share our politics might be right about something, about anything, I fear that our attempts to overcome polarization will bear little fruit.