Knowing is Not Enough

Wikipedia will save the world. Information is tolerance. When the internet succeeds and all humanity finally has egalitarian access to all information everywhere, a new era of enlightenment will dawn.

Oh really?

We’ll just weigh all available evidence and come to reasonable conclusions about how the world should be, right? Or, I’ve got it this time: the real problem is that we all grew up in isolation. We never met a Muslim until we were seventeen, we never saw a picture of the whale that’s going extinct five thousand miles from our home. The internet will fix this. When we can get the true numbers on starving African children with a flick of the wrist, we will suddenly care. On the day that Israelis and Palestinians begin to IM each other about the new coolness on YouTube, there will be peace.

Humans do not seem to be naturally talented at bridging disagreements. Suppose you put a bunch of people with diverse opinions into a room. They discuss. When they walk out, instead of converging towards some sort of moderate position, the individuals often come out with more extreme views. This is called group polarization. Or, take someone who already believes in capital punishment and show them supporting evidence. Their conviction strengthens. Fair enough. Show them contradictory evidence. Their conviction still strengthens. What the fuck?

We are not built for reaching consensus, and probably a lot of what we hold dear is arbitrary anyway, which is to say that no principle of nature will ever really referee our disagreements over what is right. What we are built for is unclear, but pattern recognition seems to be important — we more readily see the patterns we’ve already recognized, which makes us much more likely to see evidence that already supports our beliefs. We¬† also respond peer pressure, because we have to live with the people that we have to live with. And we like to divide us from them at all scales, maybe so that we can hog all the good bits for “us”, but maybe just because it’s more fun to believe we’re better. Those guys are dweebs.

This is why I believe that mere communication — up to and including the global awesomeness of the internet — is not enough. Talking about it, getting everyone to the table, the deliberation of deliberative democracy — well, when we run the experiments, good discussions aren’t enough. They do seem to get everyone thinking about things in the same underlying framework, but usually still disagreeing. That is, talking about it lets us agree on the terms, such “left” versus “right” in Western politics or even “Muslim versus West” in global politics, but it doesn’t often produce a consensus on what the world should look like.

It is interesting to me that there are people whose entire life is brokering agreements: moderators, diplomats, those who work in conflict resolution of all kinds. It makes me wonder how successful they are, and what they know that I don’t. Turns out you can get an entire degree on this subject, for example. (Or at least read a book?) Anyway, I think this is probably an important thing to know. The internet is so new and so exciting, it’s easy to forget that we don’t actually know how to use it.

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