Monday, January 20, 2014

Tyranny of Numbers in the Digital Age

From The Star:
This tyranny of numbers, distracting from more far-sighted views, goes hand in hand with the “selective exposure” that the Internet encourages.
The Internet’s illusion of proximity to the like-minded, no matter how dispersed — the fellowship it creates in the virtual sphere that affects our behaviour in the real one — is one of its most distinctive properties. In the digital age, we gather all too easily alongside those whose messages are consonant with our own. Our aggregation into groups of the like-minded confers legitimacy through the mass of numbers, rather than by engagement with rival opinions that might enrich us. It says, “Look how many think just like me! I must be right and you must be wrong!” and allows us to disregard our true neighbours and the worth of their opinions and grievances.
Engagement across the parapets — what we used to call “dialectics” and regard as a positive thing — is destined to be a rare phenomenon until that moment when it becomes a property of the web that we debate rival views unhesitatingly. Until that moment, perhaps, when some bright Silicon Valley dude invents a site with categories for Friends, sure, but also “Rivals,” “Opponents” and “Nemeses” and a respectful way to contend with them.
The variety of opinions and healthy argument that we used to depend upon in the march towards the better society are casualties of exactly the kind of discussion — better said, the lack of it — the Internet promotes. We click on a video with the most prior views, trust the tweeter with the most followers, and as we push that with which we are in agreement, for whatever reasons bad or good, the count of likes vaults forward and creates a momentum of its own. It does not occur to us to ask if a thousand lemming views amount to the gatekeeping of one intelligent expert. To wonder as much is to pander to “elites.” It is to put the opinions of a select leading few above those of the following masses and to challenge the vindication of numbers in today’s counting world. (Read more.)

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