Blog: Forever Blowing Bubbles

No matter who you voted for, it was easy to enjoy the election night TV spectacle of glib, sparkly, self-assured purveyors of truth and wisdom enduring carloads of comeuppance. They are out there, perched at sleek Plexi tables in makeup under studio lights, because they are supposed to know it all. Turned out they knew nothing.

Much is made of the elite media bubble that stymied a true view of where America was going, just now, and it’s mostly justified. When your professional turf is bounded by the Upper East Side, the Hamptons, and Georgetown, your perspective naturally narrows.

But it’s too easy to take whacks at the already wounded old-media mavens, whose woeful performance in 2016 could not have come at a worse moment for their own fortunes. Having abdicated so many key editing functions and earned so much skepticism, they are perhaps in abeyance for good.

What’s really striking is the profusion of bubbles before us. A whole sudsy bathtub full, enabled by our digital information convulsion.

Conservatives are accused of huddling in an infosphere of their own. A robust industry of so-called “fringe” news outlets — Newsmax, InfoWars, Breitbart, and more — deliver a worldview New York Times fans would find unrecognizable if they sampled it. Another bubble, for sure.

Even the Times, however now concedes a bubble problem of its own.

The Donald Trump campaign was criticized for galvanizing alienated Americans against “others,” but no political quarter has the market cornered on other-vision.

Many a bubble-dwelling liberal Facebook user burst into flames election night around the time Florida was called for Trump, blaming “idiots.” Propagandists on the right celebrated victory over the “libtards,” but rage on the losing side grew in lockstep. The race for president, they said, was undone by idiots; racists; yokels; in short, various “others.” Another bubble, another narrow view.

Facebook, where nearly half of American adults (44 percent) get at least some news, has promoted many a fake news story as “trending” – and they are duly relayed by fans who biases they reinforce. We are now free to process a lot of data through filters of subjective belief. Democrats and coastal elites cannot believe what the “others” did. Angry disenfranchised Americans cannot believe coastal elite “others” didn’t see it coming.

The job of figuring out what’s true and what’s false gets harder all the time. But the bubble problem is bigger still.

It’s old hat to say we have barely begun to see how digital and social media will in the long term affect the culture – our ability to communicate and empathize, or tolerate others. But the election aftermath gives us a slightly better idea. Not well.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt tells us people have always resorted to tribalism as a survival tactic. We favor our own kind; safety in numbers. Social media ought to be a countervailing force, exposing us to more diversity at less risk.

Instead we’re seeing the opposite effect. Information technology enables and amplifies our insulation from others to a dangerous, even threatening, degree.

When we cocoon in self-curated, custom-upholstered infospheres that reinforce individual preconceptions and delete anything scary, no wonder we lash out at strange or unexpected news. When social media confers anonymity or distance it grows easier, even pleasurable for many, to attack. (Consider the cesspool that is almost any news article comment thread.)

Not merely for predictable partisan reasons, Silicon Valley interests are said to be uneasy about the election outcome. This was a jobs election propelled by popular disenfranchisement. But Valley innovations tend not to create domestic jobs or personal wealth on a mass scale.

Sometimes there are even messy repercussions. When “disruptive” technologies like autonomous vehicles hit, as a rule not much thought goes to post-deployment disemployment. The US has about 3.5 million professional truck drivers, for example, for whom autonomous freight vehicles are not happy news. What happens to them? Not our department, say the innovators, which could fuel a tipping-point backlash.

It looks like the condition of the American body politic – furious, less tolerant, more shielded from challenging ideas, exhausted from typing Hitler references – is in part another messy repercussion of new tech. When social engineers scrutinize all this, social media’s architects will be scrutinized too. It will likely be uncomfortable.

The killer app needed now is not another delivery service for artisanal toast. We need political, cultural bubble-busters. Bubbles dot our landscape straight to the horizon. Traditional media is fading as trusted convener-synthesizers. Understanding each other and the world is up to individuals and the tools they choose.

How are we doing in 2016? The political change program is executing fast, but the tolerance program is frozen.

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