Nicholas Kristof has something to say

Pax Arcana

Nicholas Kristof has something to say. It’s about the Internet, I think. I’m not sure. We’ll get to it in a minute, but in the meantime I just want to reassure people that this will not be a reprise of my hysterical ranting against Tom Friedman and his enablers.

While I disagree with Kristof often, I also think he’s a sincere man and one who does what he does for the right reasons — he has a bully pulpit at the NY Times and istead of using it to hobnob with the crowd at Davos (FRIEDMAN!!!), Kristof tries to stop things like sex trafficking and genocide.

That said, I’m really not sure what this is:

Some of the obituaries these days aren’t in the newspapers but are for the newspapers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the latest to pass away, save for a remnant that will exist only in cyberspace, and the public is increasingly seeking its news not from mainstream television networks or ink-on-dead-trees but from grazing online.

Sounds about right. In fact, I have never, in my entire life, read a Kristof column in print. I grew up in New Jersey reading the New York Times, but in the past 10 years have only read the print edition while on vacation or while killing time at Starbucks or something.

The Internet: It’s like spaghetti coming out of your computer

When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.

I know — it’s awesome right?

Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.

Oh… so it’s not awesome?

That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.

Right. Humans have always been that way. I’m confused, though — what does this have to do with the Internet?

One classic study sent mailings to Republicans and Democrats, offering them various kinds of political research, ostensibly from a neutral source. Both groups were most eager to receive intelligent arguments that strongly corroborated their pre-existing views.

Nothing confirms a story about the Internet like quoting a study involving “mailings” to registered Republicans and Democrats (aka “old people who don’t use the Internet”).

There was also modest interest in receiving manifestly silly arguments for the other party’s views (we feel good when we can caricature the other guys as dunces). But there was little interest in encountering solid arguments that might undermine one’s own position.

Thankfully, the Internet provides quick access to all manner of silly arguments, so no more mailings please Mr. Kristof!!

Let me get one thing out of the way: I’m sometimes guilty myself of selective truth-seeking on the Web. The blog I turn to for insight into Middle East news is often Professor Juan Cole’s, because he’s smart, well-informed and sensible — in other words, I often agree with his take. I’m less likely to peruse the blog of Daniel Pipes, another Middle East expert who is smart and well-informed — but who strikes me as less sensible, partly because I often disagree with him.

This just in — Nicholas D. Kristof is, in fact, a human being and not immune to his own biases. We must return him to the lab post-haste and replace his central processing unit with a more mincing version. Early tests indicate the subject believes it was the Internet that scrambled his wiring:

The effect of The Daily Me would be to insulate us further in our own hermetically sealed political chambers. One of last year’s more fascinating books was Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” He argues that Americans increasingly are segregating themselves into communities, clubs and churches where they are surrounded by people who think the way they do.

Is the Internet a club? A church? A community? Did I wake up in the matrix?

Almost half of Americans now live in counties that vote in landslides either for Democrats or for Republicans, he said. In the 1960s and 1970s, in similarly competitive national elections, only about one-third lived in landslide counties.

The Internet of the 1960s and 1970s did not force people to move their families into like-minded communities like today’s Internet does. Just last week a giant moving truck from the Internet Relocation Administration carted off my neighbor’s belongings to Nebraska. I think he must have clicked on Rush Limbaugh’s Web site or something.

“The nation grows more politically segregated — and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups,” Mr. Bishop writes.

Mr. Bishop wrote it, but I read it three times. And I still have no idea what the fuck that sentence means.

The result is polarization and intolerance. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor now working for President Obama, has conducted research showing that when liberals or conservatives discuss issues such as affirmative action or climate change with like-minded people, their views quickly become more homogeneous and more extreme than before the discussion. For example, some liberals in one study initially worried that action on climate change might hurt the poor, while some conservatives were sympathetic to affirmative action. But after discussing the issue with like-minded people for only 15 minutes, liberals became more liberal and conservatives more conservative.

It’s almost as though humans conform to the prevailing social cues of the group. I call this new kind of science “Sociology” and plan to publish a paper on this subject. I’ll call it “Conformism: People Usually Start to Think Like Other People in the Same Group.” I’m really prepared to break some new ground with this one, people.

But wait, wasn’t this piece about the Internet? All these studies seem to involve real people receiving mailings or discussing things in real live groups.

The decline of traditional news media will accelerate the rise of The Daily Me, and we’ll be irritated less by what we read and find our wisdom confirmed more often. The danger is that this self-selected “news” acts as a narcotic, lulling us into a self-confident stupor through which we will perceive in blacks and whites a world that typically unfolds in grays.

So all these studies that show that humans tend to replicate the behaviors of their peers in real-live social groups means that they will do the exact same thing on the Internet? I’d say that’s kind of a stretch, Kristof, but I suppose that would just be me reconfirming my bias against your argument — which I found on the Internet, where I normally only read things I agree with. OH MY GOD I’M SO CONFUSED!

So what’s the solution? Tax breaks for liberals who watch Bill O’Reilly or conservatives who watch Keith Olbermann? No, until President Obama brings us universal health care, we can’t risk the surge in heart attacks.

Bill O’Reilly = Not Internet
Keith Olbermann = Not Internet
Barack Obama = Not Internet

So perhaps the only way forward is for each of us to struggle on our own to work out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore. Think of it as a daily mental workout analogous to a trip to the gym; if you don’t work up a sweat, it doesn’t count.

Now excuse me while I go and read The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

Hokay, have fun Nick. I’m going to spend the rest of the day reinforcing my narrow belief system at Random Things Like Vikings and Zombies Mets Rule Science is Funny and Scotch is

The Daily Me [NYT]



Filed under journalism

4 responses to “Nicholas Kristof has something to say

  1. Perry Ellis

    Oh man that website would be awesome. Is there one for all that and bourbon and “super beer” too? ‘Cause that would be killer.

  2. Super beer has an overinflated sense of itself.

  3. Esquire

    Selective kitteh is selective.

  4. Pingback: Epic newspaper fail in 5, 4, 3, 2 … «

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