One of the most striking powers provided by emerging technologies, especially transmitted via the internet, is the growing ability of consumers to “filter” what it is that they see or read.
In the extreme case, people will be fully able to design their own communications universe. They will find it easy to exclude, in advance, topics and points of view that they wish to avoid. We believe that in a diverse society such as ours this new power may have its downside risk.
Such societies require more than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. In fact, they impose two distinctive requirements for societal harmony.
First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quite irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself.
Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time addressing social problems; people may even find it hard to understand one another. We expand on the latter.
Why might these shared experiences be so desirable? There are three principal reasons. Firstly, simple enjoyment is probably the least of it, but it is far from irrelevant. People like many experiences more simply because they are being shared.
Consider a popular movie or a major sporting event. For many of us, these are goods that are worth less, and possibly worthless, if many others are not enjoying or purchasing them too. Hence a sporting event may be worthy of individual attention, for many people, simply because so many other people consider it worthy of individual attention.
Secondly, shared experiences ease social interactions, permitting people to speak with one another, and to congregate around a common issue, task, or concern, whether or not they have much in common with one another. In this sense, they provide a form of social glue. They help make it possible for diverse people to believe that they live in the same culture.
Indeed, they help constitute that shared culture, simply by creating common memories and experiences, and a sense of common tasks. Lastly, a fortunate consequence of shared experiences — many of them produced by the media — is that people who would otherwise see one another as quite unfamiliar, in the extreme case as belonging to a different species, can come instead to regard one another as fellow citizens with shared hopes, goals and concerns.
This is a subjective good for those directly involved. But it can be an objective good as well, especially if it leads to cooperative projects of various kinds. When people learn about a disaster faced by fellow citizens, for example, they may respond with financial and other help.
The point applies internationally as well as domestically; massive relief efforts are often made possible by virtue of the fact that millions of people learn, all at once, about the relevant need. Even in a nation of unlimited communication options, which we certainly are not, some events will inevitably attract widespread attention. But an obvious risk of an increasingly fragmented communications universe is that it will reduce the level of shared experiences, having salience to diverse people.
This is a simple matter of numbers. To the extent that choices proliferate, it is inevitable that various individuals and diverse groups will have fewer shared experiences and fewer common reference points. It is possible, for example, that some events that are highly salient to some people will barely register on others’ view screens. And it is possible that some views and perspectives that will seem obvious to many people will, to others, seem barely intelligible.
Being aware of the downside risk of unlimited filtering, let us try to be on the same page at least, so that we may have some hope of eventually building a nation.
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