by John Gable
The Internet is having the greatest, positive transformative effect on our society since the printing press. And just like the printing press, it also drives polarization and chaos.
That isn't to say the Internet is not great. It is great. I drank the cool-aid well before working for Netscape in the 90s. The benefits are so obvious and omnipresent that I don't need to list them. And it holds the keys to a better, less polarized future.
But if you think it is all wine and roses, you are wrong. See how the Internet is helping divide us. (Don't worry, it can help unite us, too.)
To better understand the problem, and the opportunity, let's learn from history.
We think of the printing press as giving birth to the Reformation, and it did. But what is less commonly known is that it actually increased chaos and divided people, especially in the early years.
I believe we are in a similar stage with the Internet, an early "Dark Ages" stage where disruption and chaos are prominent and the Reformation hasn't yet taken hold.
It is up to us to move the Internet forward to a more enlightened stage.
The parallels are startling. From "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change" by Elizabeth Einstein, we learn the printing press was used to spread "seemingly authoritative" writings that were actually misinformation. Groups that had or wanted power could "exploit print's potential as mass medium and for propaganda."
Witch-hunts? Uncompromising literal fundamentalism? Increasingly extreme disagreements between Catholics and Protestants? All precipitated by print.
Instead of coming together to talk with each other in person where they could understand and appreciate each other's point of view and humanity, people started getting their information and gossip all alone, separated from others. "To read a printed report encourages individuals to draw apart," Einstein writes. "The wide distribution of identical bits of information provided an impersonal link between people who were unknown to each other."
All of these things can be said today about the Internet today. Misinformation - check. Manipulation of the masses by those who want power - check. Growing divides that sometimes become violent - check. Putting distance between people - check.
But both the printing press and the Internet also unite people. The Internet in particular is a social platform, a place where we communicate with friends, share personal experiences, even meet our spouses.
While the Internet is uniting us within groups of friends and within tribes, it is also helping fuel division between tribes, between people who don't get the same information, don't share the same worldview, and don't know each other.
Look at online comments and forums. Too often there is no real listening here but just voicing one opinion or worldview, usually ignorant and dismissive of the other side.
News media usually sways its coverage to fit their own bias or perspective. That is fine and good for opinion pieces, but not so good for news and facts. Just go to AllSides.com to see how much the news coverage varies across news outlets day to day.
Even searches on Google fall short, providing us the most popular or best-marketed results while often burying other relevant perspectives. So for important, controversial issues, we often only see one side and miss the other - leaving us more confident but ignorant of what we don't know and less tolerant, even dismissive of others who disagree.
So, what can you do to move us forward to a more enlightened stage?
First, get news and information from different perspectives.
When you read the news, pick different sources. And don't just read one bias that best fits you. If you generally read The New York Times and The Huffington Post, also check out Fox News and The Washington Times.
For issues important to you, realize that if you cannot make a compelling argument for the other side, you don't really see the full picture.
Start with a Google search, but then do some things differently. To avoid getting custom Google search results filtered by your personal profile, click the globe icon in the upper right. You can also go into private mode on your browser (Firefox, IE and Safari call it "private", Chrome calls it "incognito"). Now you have (mostly) unfiltered results.
Your results will still be slanted toward the most popular, best-marketed sites, so you might only see one perspective. To break through that bubble, either dig deep on multiple pages or use AllSides Search to automatically filter out different political perspectives. Want to get more into policy? Try AllSides Think Tank Search.
Then have conversations with people who you disagree with.
As always, nothing beats person-to-person contact. Living Room Conversations provides a process for talking and listening across differences, even about controversial political topics. Even if you are not going to do a formal conversation, there are lots of valuable tips to take away.
Online, use comments to be a reasonable voice that listens and recognizes others and contrary viewpoints. Encourage that good behavior in others by being a model yourself.
On Facebook, respectfully bring up a different perspective than what your friends have already offered. This gives others the permission to be different, and ultimately strengthens your personal bonds through openness and honesty.
Finally, support companies, groups and technologies that are moving the Internet and human interaction forward. Many of us are working hard to evolve the Internet and our online relationships to a better place - help us do that. If you see something you really like, contact them directly to learn how you can help.
Part of the solution to the problems caused by the printing press was that people learned that they couldn't believe everything they read, that writings frequently were biased or inflammatory, and that you still needed to come together person-to-person to appreciate each other and move forward.
Now it's time for us to learn how to use the Internet better.
Quotes about the printing press come from "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change" by historian Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, nicely summarized here by Clay Spinuzzi.
John Gable is founder and CEO of AllSides, a media technology company that helps you see, understand and discuss multiple perspectives. The crowd-driven technologies at AllSides.com provide bias ratings, news, issues, search and civil dialogs that reveal a wide variety of perspectives and build bridges between conflicting ideas and people.