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work, experimental and otherwise by Keenan Cummings

The Internet’s Mind-Shrinking Powers

I recently listened to this debate from the NPR Intelligence Squared (US Edition) Podcast. They put forth the question “Does the internet close our minds politically?

I repond with an emphatic “no”. But aside from all the good vibes I get from the future potential of the internet, it comes down to some simple (albeit difficult to measure) science. 

Humans have this wonderful and beautiful tendency to form lil’ clubs and cliques — what Seth Godin refers to as tribes. That tendancy yields some cosmic radness: the Beautiful Losers, lunatic Football fandom, Buddhist monk ninjas, and yes, even graphic designers.

Because of this, we self select. We pick and chose people and media that tend to reinforce our views of the world. The best measure of the internet’s mind-closing (or expanding), world-view-narrowing (or widening) powers is not in the search algorithms and social networks that promise content that is topically and socially relevant. Those interactions just mirror our real-life natural tendancies. The important measure is whether we have a greater or lesser chance of encountering differing world views online than we do in real life. That difference is what defines the internet as either a view-expanding or view-narrowing medium. 

Someone smarter than I might be able to work this into an equation of sorts. My guess is that by sheer chance and convenience, we have more opportunity online to encounter unfamiliar views than we do in real life. I have little interest in death meta,l and the cost in energy, time, and awkwardness of attending a session of the Denver Heavy Metal Society Meetup is too great a risk. However, I have stumbled across chiptune death metal on youtube, and browsed a page of hand drawn death metal band logos (and pop band logos in death metal style). By degrees I am exposed to something new. And by degrees, my view is broadened.

Sure, we self select. And why would we build an internet that doesn’t behave as we do ourselves? But overall the internet has a tendency to randomly throw us into a room with a bunch of people we don’t know and even though we might often chose to run back to our comfortable corner, we are the better for the experience. 

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