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Web ghettos

December 2, 2009 Leave a comment

I was born and raised in a small town. Most of the time, I was anxious to get away from that small town with its small town ideas, small town attitudes and small town culture. So, when I was finally able to make the break to university, I was gone like a shot. Ever since, I’ve lived in large cosmopolitan cities that have offered myriad opportunities to experience and enjoy many ideas, attitudes and cultures.

I’ve come to realize since, however, that with something gained, something has been lost. While I no longer have to endure small town people, they no longer have to endure me either. And isn’t that the conundrum of antipathy? With the mobility offered by wealth and the car, we have created self-imposed cultural ghettos for ourselves. And, in the process, we have created “anonymous others” that we can disdain as either effete city-slickers or ignorant hillbillies. If we shared the intimacies of our daily lives with each other, as happens in a small community, there would be more opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas and attitudes. Or at least more effort to come to terms with those we bump into every day.

The same thinking is at the core of much city planning today thanks to Jane Jacobs. She advocated building communities of mixed incomes and races within cities. Such engineered community diversity has virtually eliminated the ghettos that perpetuated negative attitudes within and without.

That is a formidable success in the realm of civic geography but I`m seeing a new kind of self-imposed ghetto beginning to appear. This time, though, it`s virtual. It`s on the web in Facebook groups, in Twitter lists and in many other kinds of virtual tribes. Take a look, for example, at your Twitter friends.

  • Are you following anyone with opinions you don’t share – other religions, other politics?
  • Are you following only topics important to you and ignoring topics important to your neighbors, parents or children?
  • Do you shy away from people younger or older than you?

Of course it`s helpful to engage with like-minded people for sharing and support but, as with biodiversity in nature, we need cultural diversity in our communication. Sometimes, we need to engage with others not like us – we need to argue so they can learn from us and us from them. Roger Walsh, in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, put it this way.

Elective Segregation: Failure to Engage the Mainstream. One of the gifts of our mobile technological culture is the ability to be and communicate with like-minded people. It is also one of the contemporary cultural traps. The danger is that in being able to find like-minded people, we can fall into a kind of elective segregation, in which we communicate almost exclusively with those who share our views. What sociologists find is that this selective communication tends to reinforce people’s more extreme viewpoints, whereas mixing and communicating with more diverse populations tends to moderate extreme views.

In fact, I would say the need to engage with those not like us is modeled by the most successful biological breakthrough in nature: sex. Organisms that learn (genetically) from others are much more robust that those that reproduce asexually. Perhaps it`s time to take a hint and start building web applications and communities that bring opposites together instead of the same old same. We can only learn so much from people just like us; we also need to find the courage to mix it up.

A quotation came to mind. It seems very appropriate at the moment since we’re also struggling with the issue of Net Neutrality.  John Milton delivered this 400 years ago in a speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the parliament of England.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.