Intelligence Squared is a program based in New York that “has presented 50 debates on a wide range of provocative and timely topics. From clean energy and the financial crisis, to the Middle East and the death of the mainstream media…”
On Tuesday, April 17th, Intelligence Squared held a debate on the motion: when it comes to politics, the Internet is closing our minds. For the motion was Eli Pariser and Siva Vaidhyanathan, against it was Evgeny Morozov and Jacob Weisberg.
Before the debate 28 percent of the audience was for the motion, 37 percent was against the motion, and 35 percent was undecided. After the debate another poll was taken, this time 53 percent of the audience was for the motion, 36 percent against, and 11 percent remained undecided.
Pariser and Vaidhyanathan clearly won the day. Here are what I thought to be a few key excerpts from the debate:
Morozov: The way Google and Facebook map out our social connections, they try to be very comprehensive. We see links from people we went to school with, our colleagues, our relatives, and so forth. It’s quite likely that many of these people will have radically different positions on 9/11, climate change, Obama’s birthplace, and UFOs. So my point is this, that a link to the report of 9/11 commission that has been endorsed by someone from my social circle, is more trustworthy than a generic Google link that has not passed through a similar social filter. In other words, it’s a possibility that people would now be paying more attention or at least more respect to positions they would otherwise find crazy and conspiratorial, only because their friends are known to endorse those positions.
Weisberg: I do think the phenomenon of increased polarization in Congress is pretty clearly documented at this point. That’s happening, and I deplore it. I just don’t think the Internet has anything to do with it. I think the big drivers of that are redistricting which put people in districts that tend to go one way or the other and fewer that swing back and forth. I think it’s fundraising which means politicians spend all their time fundraising and actually don’t have human relationships with each other very much. I think hyper partisan media–of which Fox is probably the best example–have some impact on it. But, you know, members of Congress, these are — if you want to look for a group of people who really aren’t on the Internet very much, that’s them. I mean, I don’t think it’s what’s driving it.
Vaidhyanathan: Facebook and Google and Microsoft and Apple all wish to be the operating systems of our lives. They’re explicit about this. They don’t just want to be on the web because the web is 20 years old, and it’s actually kind of creaky. What they want to do is be there with you all the time in your glasses, in your pocket, in your purse and on your mind always. They want to be your personal assistant. There’s quote after quote after quote from every CEO of every one of these companies that that’s what they want. And it might make things really cool for us. But it’s not going to make things rich and diverse. It’s not going to be the wonderful conversation that we could have had on the web if we hadn’t instigated these gated communities, these operating systems of our lives.
Pariser: So, you know, if you talk to these companies, if you look at what they’re saying, it’s very clear that this is a big part of the business plan. Eric Schmidt says, “Very soon it will be nearly impossible to see something that has not in some way been tailored to you.” Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, says, “Within the next few years, it’ll be anachronistic to visit a website that hasn’t been customized to your personal interests in some way.” And Facebook is becoming this growing source of how people get their news and how people get their information. So why are they doing this? Well, I think Evgeny actually put it really well. Why does Facebook employ filters? The more they know about us, the more they can make in advertising revenues. And the thing is that these companies aren’t blind to the psychology of all this. They’ve read all of the studies that show that when you present people with information that confirms what they already believed was true, you can actually see these little bursts of pleasure happening in people’s brains. And conversely, when people are presented with information that challenges what they believed, they get cranky. That’s just the way we’re wired. And so if you’re a company that’s trying to meet stockholder demands and you have this power to present people with information that tends to validate them, why wouldn’t you?
Along with the audience I also felt that the argument for the motion was a stronger one. Like the audience, though, before learning all of the arguments for and against this motion I probably would have been against it. I assumed that the Internet helped the free flow of information, that it challenged our biases and opened our eyes to other ideas, but there is certainly convincing evidence that it doesn’t. Moving forward, as citizens we need to be aware that the Internet has this effect and it will only get worse as companies like Google and Facebook develop and improve their ability to tailor and personalize their pages for each of us. We need to be aware so that we can seek out beliefs contrary to our own since the simple existence of the Internet will not challenge our beliefs but may only reinforce them. Liberals should turn on Fox News and conservatives should read the Huffington Post from time to time. It is our jobs as responsible citizens of a democracy to learn all sides of the argument; we can’t expect to have an open mind if we remain passive.
You can watch the entire debate here.