Friday, September 08, 2006

Your Circles and Mine

As far as I have been able to tell, the press has in the last few days been full both of tributes to the animal enthusiast Steve Irwin (who freakishly died when he was stung by a stingray) and even occasionally by criticism of all the attention paid to his death. I was struck by all the coverage for the simple reason thatI had never heard of him. I do not say this in the tradition of the proud cultural snob who waves for all to see his ignorance of popular culture. Instead, the lesson I take from my ignorance is the way in which citizens of the same country or members of the same culture can travel in completely different circles, with completely different frames of reference, which they use in interpreting world events.

It has been said that Goethe was the last man who knew everything worth knowing, and it is certainly true that knowledge (not just science, but familiarity with literature, history, etc.) has grown so dramatically that no one can hope to know more than a tiny fraction of it. For all I know, the phrase "Renaissance man," defining someone who knows a lot about a lot of things, may be meant to capture this idea that being truly knowledgeable was only then truly feasible.

But nowadays, ignorance is confined not just the academic knowledge, but to knowing even the broad contours of what other people know. Sometimes this is harmless; there is little damage when most people are ignorant about the finer details of stamp collecting. But in modern democratic societies built on the premise that a knowledgeable public will on average choose the wisest policies, the fragmentation of information calls that premise into doubt.

The federal government felt compelled the other day to release a report rebutting conspiracy theories about the September 11 attacks. Recent polling data has shown that something like a quarter of Americans are willing to entertain a theory that the government was involved in the attacks. The essence of conspiracism is to read only things that confirm what you already believe, and to take any seemingly credible evidence to the contrary by a seemingly independent organization as evidence that the conspiracy runs even deeper. Your information set becomes ever more unrepresentative, and so you become less and less likely to believe anything that calls into question what you already believe. Once you go down the road of selecting evidence only from the echo chamber of people who see the world the way you do, there may be no going back.

I vaguely recall recently seeing a report on how Internet political discussion groups lend themselves to even more extreme beliefs among people who entered them with less extreme beliefs. Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with extreme beliefs, provided the data themselves are extreme. But the fragmentation of information, which has been around for a while but which is more important than ever because of the new communications technology, makes the fragmentation of the culture all the greater. Our greater wealth allows us to move around the country to find people who are like us, lending a greater spurious uniformity to our immediate friends and neighbors. People in Manhattan pride themselves on their tribal diversity, but probably have little contact with evangelicals in Oklahoma, and thus know them only as a stereotype. (The evangelicals in Oklahoma have the same problem.) Even the lack of common cultural reference points serves to further disintegrate society. People who don't know who Steve Irwin was are probably vastly overrepresented among my acquaintances, and so if someone outside that circle wants to make a point by making reference to him, I would until a few days ago have had no idea what he's talking about. And Steve Irwin of course is just a symbol of a much larger cultural gap that makes it much harder for us to understand one another. As long as we live, work, and otherwise associate with people with the same cultural reference points as we have, we are probably alright as individuals, but the health of the broader society may come into question. Of course, this immediately suggests a need for a common culture to be taught in the schools to give us those reference points, but as any soldier in the culture wars will tell you, agreeing on what those points actually are is another problem altogether.


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