In 1997 the literary critic Hugh Kenner gave a fascinating series of lectures on the ways that new thoughts circulate in a culture. Using examples from modern literature, he showed that in many cases “what we don’t know yet, is to be found Elsewhere.” Innovators and artists sense the lack of these ideas more keenly than the rest of us, and are often willing to embrace what seem like unnecessary journeys as “a way of seeking entrance to the Elsewhere Community.”
In the 1930s, for instance, haunted by a few lines of poetry, the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh walked fifty-five miles from the little-known town of Mucker to meet the poet George William Russell —better known by the pseudonym “AE”—who lived in Dublin. Russell was twice Kavanagh’s age, remote from him geographically, socially and, to a large extent, culturally. But Kavanagh was intrigued by the poetry and determined to meet the author. The journey ended well. Russell fell into a long conversation with his unexpected visitor and loaned Kavanagh “sixty-odd pounds” of books “by the likes of French novelist Victor Hugo and the American poet Walt Whitman.” When Kavanagh died more than thirty years later, according to Kenner: “the examples of clean, clear, unpretentious writing he left behind, in part thanks to those books, would point a direction for a whole generation of young Irish writers.”
Earlier this week, speaking at the TED talks in Oxford, Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of the pioneering online community website tripod.com and co-founder of the Global Voices blogging network, considered how ideas migrate through the world of social media. The most obvious difference between Kenner’s world and Zuckerman’s is the sheer quantity of information involved. Each month 170 million people visit Twitter; each week 3.5 billion items of information are exchanged on Facebook; Youtube users currently post an amazing 24 hours worth of new video every minute of every day. As Zuckerman quips, “ if you wanted to watch a day’s worth of videos, it would take you almost four years, and that’s without stopping to sleep, use the bathroom or get the psychotherapy you’d desperately need.” Sadly, however, it seems that instead of ushering in a new age of transnational connectivity, this deluge of information has overwhelmed us.
We don’t browse foreign newspapers — as many thought we would – nearly as often as we enter online echo-chambers built by like-minded people. Most of us read the same websites as our friends, get news from the same sources, and ignore everything else. Although we can exchange information with strangers half a world away, at little or no cost, we tend to stick to our neighbourhoods. The resulting parochialism is evident in the ways our mainstream news media report on the world. In the 1970s, more than a third of US nightly newscasts was given over to international stories. Today that figure has fallen to between 12-15%. While the BBC fares much better, it too has predictable biases. Zuckerman points out that “the coverage of poor countries that used to be part of the British Empire is excellent, while the coverage of those that weren’t formerly pink on the map tends to be weak.”
Even in the developing world, the new technology has done little to internationalize its users. In India, for example, where surfers are “a lot wealthier, worldlier and English-literate than the average Indian citizen” a mere 6% of the news accessed online comes from foreign sources. These patterns are further complicated by the fact that many developed countries have large expatriate populations which use the internet to read news from home; so the disconnection may be greater than statistics suggest.
The legal scholar Cass Sunstein has written perceptively about the dangers of America’s increasing reliance on news media which reinforce political biases. In the book Republic.com, he cites extensive evidence that when groups with similar political tendencies discuss a controversial topic in the absence of dissent they almost always move further away from their opponents’ positions. In other words, the less exposed we are to different points of view, the easier it becomes to convince ourselves that what we think is right. Sadly, this trend towards self-reinforcing opinions has become more pronounced with the rise of cable television channels like Fox News and MSNBC, talk radio and the internet.
It is a sobering thought that in the midst of the world’s most significant economy, during the height of an information age, fewer and fewer people are engaging with new or different ideas. This herd behaviour is fairly typical of other countries and it has meant that while political conversation in the age of social media has the appearance of diversity –thousands of opinions are published, and these embrace a wide range of viewpoints –only a few mutually exclusive factions actually frame the general conversation. In this new media landscape, half-formed political responses quickly harden into unquestioned truths and the reasonable exchange of criticism all but disappears. The rise of the Tea Party movement in America is one predictable outcome of this state of affairs.
Fortunately, Ethan Zuckerman finds grounds for optimism. The Global Voices network which he co-founded is one example of the new technology enabling hundreds of new writers – many of them from the Caribbean – to find a worldwide audience. The TED talks, where he was speaking, are another inspiring mix of famous and obscure thinkers, nearly all of them with something memorable to say. These are classic elsewhere communities, waiting for the curious traveller. Sometimes, to adapt the Chinese proverb, the longest journeys begin with the first click.