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Claire Gordon Headshot

Browsing Is Dead

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I'm ashamed. Late at night, in bed, with my laptop anchored snugly in my comforter, I watch YouTube clips of conservative pundits, usually ones with "ballistic," "explodes" and "gets served a cold glass of shut up juice" in the title. It's not that I'm trying to school myself in Republican talking points. There is nothing so noble about waking up to "Bill O'Reilly Discusses Lesbian Teens" branded across your Macbook screen.

These jaunts are more accurately likened to the colonial encounters of an Imperial scion. Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingrahm, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity are like the chieftains of a curious tribe, who I study from my haughty position of horizontal semi-consciousness.

Partisanship has evolved in recent years from caustic disagreement to primal in-group/out-group psychology. It's our sleepless news cycle, so says conventional wisdom, which incubates a particularly polarizing brand of rhetoric. The National Institute for Civil Discourse has just opened at the University of Arizona in the hope of diagnosing and treating this raucous demagoguery in our discourse today.

Civility began to disintegrate in the mid-1980s, when the Dixicrats and Rockefeller Republicans, who used to straddle the center, became extinct. (The early days of our Republic were full of duels and miscegenation allegations and cane-whippings on the house floor, but we chilled out at the end of the 19th century.)

Some trace the death of the Moderate to the civil rights movement, others to affordable residential air conditioning. Either way, the Democratic and Republican parties have become almost completely ideologically homogeneous. The two stopped agreeing. They stopped hanging out. And most dangerously, they stopped getting the same information.

Americans have often been mistaken on the issues. In 1985, 36% of Americans thought that either China, India or Monaco were part of the Soviet Union. But there's something new about our misinformation today: Liberals and conservatives don't know different things.

Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to wrongly believe that the economy is getting worse. Four times as many Democrats are in denial about Democratic legislators by and large supporting the bailout. 51% of G.O.P. primary voters don't think the president was born in this country.

The partisanship that existed in our earlier days was largely based on disagreement over philosophy. Today, it's largely based on a disagreement over facts.

I believe the reason behind this also explains the upsettingly small number of sexual, explicit Danish films I've seen in the last five years.

Browsing is dead.

In high school, going to my local movie rental outfit (RIP Prime Time Video) was a weekly ritual. I would shoot straight to the teen romcoms rack, but the adjacent foreign movies section often caught my eye - offering extreme sexual content that my parents would never usually let me see, except this was foreign and therefore art.

If I want to watch a movie now, I just search and download or stream on Netflix. My browsing is limited to the genres "end-of-the-world" and "suburban dysfunction," which Netflix says are my favorites.

Today, I owe my familiarity with Seinfeld and embarrassing expertise in Married With Children to the awkward timesharing of early 2000s British cable. Those shows happened to play right at 7pm, when Nickelodeon gave way to Paramount Comedy.

My TV habits are no longer so accidental. I just plug what I want into Hulu.

A professor once told me about the Sunday afternoons in college that he'd spend roaming the stacks, ending up on a dimly-lit mezzanine, reading a book on Slavic bathing practices that hadn't been touched for a century.

That sounded nice. But pounding keywords into Google Scholar is just so much more efficient.

The Internet, in every realm of experience, has reduced the friction between our desire and its object. It's a great thing. No need to comb lonely heart ads or classifieds for the girlfriend or second-hand toaster of your dreams. Just power up Craigslist.

But in reality, we often only discover that we wanted something after we've accidentally stumbled upon it. Online, we have less peripheral vision to lead us to surprising places.

There is a new kind of browsing emerging on the web: Social Search. Bing tells you what your friends have Facebook "liked," as do many blogs and online magazines. Google has just integrated Twitter, Flickr and Quora, so that your search results are annotated with what links your friends have shared. Already, much of our online information comes via friends on social networks and RSS feeds.

"It is odd and new to be living in the library; but there isn't anything odd and new about the library," writes Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. But there is something odd and new about this library - it consists solely of all your friends' favorite books.

I'm a sucker for this library, but it has its drawbacks.

"America is a much more tolerant country today is most conventional ways," said Bill Clinton, one of the honorary chairman of the new Institute for Civil Discourse. "The only place where we're bigoted now is that we only want to be around people who agree with us."

Rarely do we stray outside the news sites, blogs, TV shows or talk radio that we're used to. We have curated our media environments into cages, where opposing ideas rarely get in or out. After all, there's no better comfort food for the intellect than hearing a third party declare the righteousness of something you already believed.

Fewer of us these days read a paper broadsheet, where our gaze can drift to headlines that we wouldn't normally seek out. Opinions are increasingly formed alone, in the space between our faces and our screens, and not in an airy public sphere.

These days, some of us watch Glenn Beck, and others Jon Stewart's scathing parodies of him. We exist in parallel political universes, where opponents become Others, and intolerance hardens on each side. So often we blame Fox and MSNBC and particularly Fox for turning voters into ideologues. But it is the Great Media Dispersion that has insulated viewers of Fox and MSNBC and particularly Fox to such an extent that those crazed rants begin to make sense.

"We believe in abolishing the Department of Education," declared Senator Rand Paul at CPAC last week and the words "EVIL EVIL EVIL," immediately screeched through my brain. Is a $60 billion federal agency actually better than a locally controlled education system? Didn't think about it. Since then, I have thought about it, and Rand Paul is still wrong. But he isn't evil.

So now I'm trying to expose myself to conservative thinkers who aren't "ballistic" or "exploding." These last few days, in the minutes before I pass out, I'm watching Milton Friedman YouTube videos from the 1970s instead.

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