The Promise of the Internet

I’ve thought of many of the topics in this video for a decade or so. Some of us who are old enough to have seen the rise of modern communication: 24-hour news, the internet, mobile phones, common-man videos, and of course social media. We have some sense that these things, which held so much promise at first, seem now to have gotten dark and twisted and done the opposite of what the promise was.

Some points from the video (from Veritasium):

  • The internet was supposed to make us smarter, better informed, more tolerant of other viewpoints, and hence happier.
  • The internet gave everyday people a platform on which to discuss and debate anything, and therefore determine what is true. We would therefore all become more accepting of the facts. That was the vision.
  • For a while, there were signs that this was happening.
  • However, the internet also became a platform for groups with extreme viewpoints and biases. People who previously had a difficult time finding others like them found it easier.
  • Groups share things. They share things in ways that are more and more enticing. This forms an evolution of ideas. The “best” posts win.
  • The same happens with idealogical arguments (not just cute pictures of kittens).
  • When two groups on the internet are debating, they’re not really debating each other. Instead, each community creates what they think the opponent’s argument is — within their own little bubble. Communities tweak those so-called opposing arguments to make them worse and worse; to make them the most awful versions of themselves.
  • (Editorial: we judge ourselves by our norms and trends — forgiving our own extremes, yet we judge others by their extremes).
  • We do this because those (supposedly) opposing arguments that we have conjured push our buttons, and THAT is what we share. We keep evolving opposing ideas to make them really, really bad. Those are the ideas that we spread.
  • In short, we evolve arguments to make them the worst forms of themselves.
  • (Editorial: even our own arguments evolve this way because they evolve to eliminate their weaknesses, by omission, or lie, or misdirection)
  • Furthermore, social media is organized to perpetuate this trend toward more and more awful. Engagement is king, and nothing engages us like something that pushes our buttons.
  • This is why more fake news was spread in the last election cycle than real news. Fake news pushes our buttons in a way that real news seldom can — hence the fake news gets spread more than the real news. It should not be surprising.
  • So… rather than the internet bringing us together, the internet is tearing us further apart.
  • This is why we now care less about facts than we ever did before. Because we are all steeped in confirmation bias — we seek things that agree with what we think. We are drawn to the familiar, and fear the unfamiliar.