Our personal choices in food, travel, entertainment, music, fashion, sport, politics, hobbies etc… have all been methodically recorded since the dawning of the digital age. The fact is that our online profiles have been mapped and engineered to make us feel as comfortable as possible, with minimal negative jarring so marketers can better sell their products to us. Just go on a Google expedition searching for any specific product. Click on related links, visit relevant websites and make several enquiries on the search engine about a product and you will soon see just how powerful this is. Before too long, your social media and other website visits will start containing ads for the very same products you have been searching for. It’s ingenious marketing and although seen by some as a dubious ‘dark art’, it is also something we are all complicit in.
I love sport. I devour every bit of information about my favourite competitions, teams and athletes. I follow them on social media, subscribe to newsletters, click on related articles on websites. In essence, I am a genuinely connected member of my sporting choices. Thanks to the Internet I no longer need to sift through a newspaper and stumble across news from another sport or team. I can now filter information so seamlessly that I have created a world where only my preferences are shown. Other sports outside of my personal circle simply don’t get a look in so my ignorance of them grows and my understanding of the wider landscape slowly evaporates.
This is all pretty harmless for sport, music, fashion, food, entertainment etc… We’ve always had our favourite radio station because they play our favourite music. Buy and wear clothes that suit our particular personalities and eat food that appeals most to our palates. Sure you have narrower view of the rich tapestry of this world, but there’s no crime in limited knowledge in these things. However, the technology that has made it easier and more convenient to consume only personal bias, has become a global monster when it comes to politics and society, and in my view a major reason for the increase in extremism around the globe.
Now… let’s meet Alex.
Alex is a hard working person with a traditional view of the world. Love his/her family, works hard, pays taxes and generally feels they have a grasp on what being normal is. In essence, Alex lives by the ideal of a fair go for all. Although a simplistic caricature, this would be embraced as an accurate depiction of themselves by almost all of the adult population.
Alex hates the idea of people cheating the system and getting an unfair or undeserved advantage. This feeling is amplified when media organisations theatrically generate outrage claiming to speak on behalf of the downtrodden everyday honest citizen. Although the subject matter is often a genuine issue that deserves airing, the misrepresentation of the scope of the problem is good for ratings, which in turns drives more advertising dollars. Seeing the attention the topic has attracted, social media and news websites jump on the story as well. Click baiting with eye catching headlines, these stories grow in strength and when a topic shows consistency in attracting attention, a narrative is born.
Alex ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’ stories that echo his/her view on social media and even ‘Unfollows’ pages that offer a different opinion. At the same time, Alex’s profile is being developed and stories clicked on as the preferred news now start to filter through as simply THE news. In the never-ending quest for ratings and attention, the dialogue invariably hits onto the ugly spectre of bigotry which masquerades as national pride. Slowly but surely, Alex has filtered the information of the world so it always pleases his/her particular point of view. This is when Alex’s beliefs become hardened to what even they would’ve considered to be extreme only a few short years ago.
There is now not a chance of having an alternative viewpoint being presented to Alex because with such a huge part of life now spent online, an overwhelming majority of what Alex is ‘taught’ is filtered to agree with an existing opinion. There is little doubt that people today have much more concrete views and are certainly less flexible to diverse opinions. These beliefs have been hardened by years of seeing the world through a myopic view so when confronted with something different, the reaction is more militant.
The Internet is the modern world’s equivalent of the old town square where people of the village would congregate to chat about happenings and generally exchange news. Of course people didn’t agree with everything each other said, but the ‘filter’ then was to suffer in silence or avoid that person next time. Irrespectively, people knew that different opinions existed and why they existed, something that isn’t always the case today. The amazing connectivity that the Internet delivered the planet has ironically also made it easier to disconnect with diverse thinking. Much like a mixture of the genetic pool strengthens the next generation, a dearth of genetic variety weakens it. The same can be said for diverse opinions and civilisations.
Ultimately, in our darkest and deepest DNA, human nature seems to have a default setting to believe that someone else is always the cause of our problems. Whether it is the government, welfare recipients, the banks, big corporations, religions, minorities and ultimately people that just don’t look like us; humans generally look for someone else to blame and that’s when narrow mindedness and bigotry becomes very real and extremely dangerous.
How many of us judged the stupidity of the ‘uneducated’ world of the 1930’s when the rise of political extremism in Fascism and Communism saw humans legitimise another’s execution armed with a rhetoric of superiority. This was an era of political extremism on both sides of the ideological swing. History has taught us that the general public’s mass ignorance was a major contributing factor with any dissenting voices initially ridiculed, then drowned out and many ultimately exterminated.
Do we see any parallels in 2016 to what happened almost a century ago? The mechanics may be different but the raw ingredient of mass ignorance is certainly thriving. Could anyone have envisaged a world just a few years ago where an extreme organisation was able to recruit people to kill independently, merely by suggestion in support of an ideology? Or see a political figure rise to the top of a party and be just one step away from being the single most powerful person on the planet by openly spewing racist and sexist tirades, encouraging nuclear armament and threatening the world economy with outlandish trade policies? How about seeing a great nation that has led the world in so many areas over a thousand years decide to shrink back into isolation like a metaphorical frightened turtle.
This is now a world where diversity of opinion is no longer a curiosity but rather is seen as a dangerous threat to the status quo. In the quest to always be happy and avoid anything disagreeable, we have willingly (albeit unintentionally) embraced ignorance. So much so that we now live in the new Dark Ages. Little wonder that extremism is on the rise again!!!