More News, but Whose News?
The kind of hyper-personalization that is so frequently touted as the Internet's greatest asset could also be seen as one of its most negative effects.
Some of what we see happening in the consumption of news, in particular, could imply the erosion of genuine choice I expect the evolving media landscape to surreptitiously enforce. I'm not certain this is so much of a conscious effort as it is merely "the way of things" the modern system promotes, as if borne of a biological imperative.
The lowest common denominator factor dominates with greater frequency the environment in which our personal choices can be made. I would argue that this threatens, beneath the surface of unparalleled choice, to leave consumers little choice at all.
Modern media technology threatens, in the form of the Internet, to dissolve authentic regionalism in favor of a national hegemony. All passionate groups, disparate though they may be, are unified by a singular enthusiasm. The risk is that this hegemony will be based on a kind of dogmatic moral absolutism (or mindless lust for a particular thing, fad, or point of view) rather than a deliberate consensus made up by a patchwork quilt of community debate.
As Andrew Kohut pointed out in a recent article in the New York Times, in spite of a plethora of news from cable and the Internet, Americans don't necessarily know all that much. As an example, he pointed out that in August 1997 a Pew Research Center survey found that 79 percent of Americans were aware that the boxer Mike Tyson bit the ear of an opponent, while only 40 percent knew that Britain returned control of Hong Kong to China that same summer.
The self-segregating nature of information delivery systems can turn against the bonds of community if the physical community is replaced by a virtual one.
In the New York Times piece, Kohut pointed out that the worry about information segregation has been addressed before. Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, argued in his 2001 book "Republic.com" that the Internet's ability to provide such hyper-personalization, allowing users to filter out those things they don't care about, posed a threat to democracy itself.
Democracy depends in part, on people being exposed to information they would not necessarily have chosen for themselves, he said, a point that I've made before.
This is not to say that this is what will happen. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Americans, after trying everything else, eventually do the right thing. And for almost a century, we've demonstrated a capability of that. But the price of freedom is constant vigilance, and it is necessary to always be on the lookout for the schism between what technology promises to do, what it can do, and what we do with it.
If it were up to me, everyone in this business would be forced to read Shelly's "Frankenstein," as one of the morals is: just because you CAN do something, doesn't mean you should.