December 14, 2008

The Future of the Internet III

Scenario 2: The Internet and the Evolution of Social Tolerance

Prediction and Reactions

PREDICTION:  Social tolerance has advanced significantly due in great part to the Internet. In 2020, people are more tolerant than they are today, thanks to wider exposure to others and their views that has been brought about by the Internet and other information and communication technologies. The greater tolerance shows up in several metrics, including declining levels of violence, lower levels of sectarian strife, and reduced incidence of overt acts of bigotry and hate crimes.

Expert Respondents’ Reactions (N=578)
Mostly Agree  32%
Mostly Disagree  56%
Did Not Respond  13%

All Respondents’ Reactions (N=1,196)
Mostly Agree  33%
Mostly Disagree  55%
Did Not Respond  11%
Note:  Since results are based on a nonrandom sample, a margin of error cannot be computed. The “prediction” was composed to elicit responses and is not a formal forecast.

Overview of Respondents’ Reactions

A majority of respondents disagreed with the proposed future. Many say while there is no doubt the Internet is expanding the potential for people to come to a better understanding of one another it also expands the potential for bigotry, hate, and terrorism, thus tolerance will not see net gains. They believe that the natural human tendencies to congregate with like-minded allies and act in tribes is too potent to be overcome by technology tools that expand communication and the flow of information. Still, about a third agreed with the premise, optimistic that gains will be made, while adding the qualifier that negative agendas will always also be well-served by advances in communications technologies.

More than half of respondents mostly disagreed with the idea that the Internet will help inspire a significant increase in social tolerance. A representative response came from Adam Peake, a policy analyst for the Center for Global Communications and a leader in the United Nations-facilitated World Summits on the Information Society and Internet Governance Forums. “Not in mankind’s nature,” he wrote. “The first global satellite link-up was 1967, BBC’s Our World: the Beatles ‘All You Need Is Love,’ and we still have war, genocide, and assassination (Lennon’s poignantly).”

Jamais Cascio, the founder of Open the Future, active in the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, commented, “Sadly, there’s little evidence that greater observational exposure to one’s ‘enemies’ automatically reduces hostility and increases tolerance. In many cases, it does the opposite, especially if that observational exposure is controlled or manipulated in some way.”

The same line of reasoning was followed by Alex Halavais, a professor and social informatics researcher at Quinnipiac University. “Wider exposure to different views does not guarantee more tolerance,” he wrote, “and there are plenty of opportunities for people to use the Internet to encourage factionalism and ignorance.”

Fred Baker, Cisco Systems Fellow, Internet Society and IETF leader, and an architect of the Internet, wrote, “Human nature will not have changed. There will be wider understanding of viewpoints, but tolerance of fundamental disagreement will not have improved.”

And Tom Vest, an IP network architect for RIPE NCC Science Group, expert on Internet protocol policy, and consultant for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, commented, “Absent some major external shock, effective education on the kind of global scale necessary to make this one come true will take much longer than 15 years. On average, people will not be much more tolerant/intolerant (or educated/ignorant) than they are today.”

Matt Gallivan, senior research analyst for National Public Radio in the US, wrote, “Sharing, interacting, and being exposed to ideas is great and all, but saying the Internet will eventually make human beings more tolerant is like saying that the Prius will reverse global warming; a little too much of an idealistic leap in logic. People are people are people. And people are terrible.”

Philip Lu, vice president and manager of research analysis for Wells Fargo Bank Internet Services, commented, “Just as social networking has allowed people to become more interconnected, this will also allow those with extreme views (who would otherwise be isolated) to connect to their ‘kindred’ spirits elsewhere. Therefore, I am not optimistic that violence will go down.”

Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody,” a book about the ramifications of the new forms of social interaction enabled by emerging technology, responded, “The net’s ability to enhance the sense of in-group membership will enhance fragmentation of previously large, multi-ethnic polities. (Consider that there are secession movements in Scotland and Belgium.) There may be lower levels of sectarian strife, but only in the same way and for the same reason that there are lower levels of sectarian strife in the former Yugoslavia today, relative to 1997.”

And Frederic Litto, president of the Brazil Distance Learning Association, wrote, “Much to the contrary, all our advancement in knowledge about evolution, human cognition, and medical diagnostics and treatment have done little to reduce human stupidity, hate, and violence. We may advance indefinitely into new worlds of technological competence and globalized knowledge about one another, but there’s no guarantee that universal education, sophisticated flows of communication, and international organizations attempting to reduce intolerance and acts against peace, will be entirely successful. This reminds me of Henry Thoreau’s famous retort (1870′s?) when told that the first long-distance telephone lines had been put into place linking the inhabitants of the states of Georgia and Vermont: ‘All well and good; but what if the peoples of Georgia and Vermont have nothing to say to each other?’”

Some Say the Internet Will Accelerate or Expand Fragmentation and Reinforce Prejudices

A number of respondents said the Internet’s capabilities enhance the opportunities for people with ill will and violent agendas.  “Are you kidding?” responded Dan Larson, CEO of PKD Foundation. “The more open and free people are to pass on their inner feelings about things/people, especially under the anonymity of the Internet—will only foster more and more vitriol and bigotry.”

Many expressed concerns over the use of networked communications to further the goals of groups that sometimes leverage the differences between themselves and others to gain unity. “I see more anger in society, more carelessness, less regard for rules of civility and behavior,” wrote Alexis Chontos, Webmaster for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. “There will be greater crime, an increase in the ‘you owe us’ mentality, less tolerance, more sectarianism, more hate crimes (religion against religion).”

Fred Ledley, founder and chairman of Mygenome, was even more certain of the negatives. “The Internet is a danger to social tolerance,” he wrote. “The easy distribution of hate and propaganda through the Internet allows dissemination of hateful material that would not previously have received attention. Worse, it makes it harder to appreciate what is fringe behavior by a small number of individuals, and what represents a true movement or organization. The prevalence of anti-semitic propaganda on the Web is a frightening example of what the Web can sustain.”

The propagation of propaganda and lies is a concern for Bruce Turner, director of planning services for a US regional transportation commission. “Bad info drives out good and the degree of intolerance will rise as superficial examinations of non-issues become more and more the order of the day,” he commented. “Bigots and governments spoofing as knowledgeable experts will make the information suspect and largely ignored. Bigotry and hate crimes will be facilitated for the remaining fringe who pay attention.”

Bernardo Huberman, senior fellow and director of the Social Computing Lab at HP Laboratories, commented, “Have you been on the Internet? It allows people to find their own insular communities that are outside the criticisms of others. See: furies.” An anonymous participant added, “There will be more tolerance on a whole, which will only aggravate extremists even more.” And another added, “By bringing people of every background together, the immediate effect is more and bloodier wars, perhaps not on the battlefield, but certainly in social movements and politics.”

Many shared the view that people will spend less time in face-to-face communications, and that this will damage their ability to have empathy and relate well to others. “Insofar as the virtual world permits less actual interaction, then individuals with dangerous biases will have no cause to question their beliefs,” wrote one anonymous contributor.

Many Respond That the Internet Will Contribute to the Expansion of Tolerance and Intolerance

Many mostly disagreed with the scenario because the Internet, like all technologies, serves both good and evil human motives equally well. “Although I believe the Internet is a net positive for tolerance and sociability, its impact will be gradual, even generational, and although positive on balance, it will also contribute to the cohesion and separateness of intolerant (and worse) subgroups,” responded Tom Hughes, COO at The Connors Group, a financial markets information company.

“Polarization will continue and the people on the extremes will be less tolerant of those opposite them,” wrote Don Heath, Internet pioneer and former president and CEO of the Internet Society. “At the same time, within homogenous groups (religious, political, social, financial, etc.) greater tolerance will likely occur…I hope I am wrong.”

William Winton, project manager for digital media at the 1105 Government Information Group, wrote, “The Internet is a two-edged sword. Its openness and ease-of-communication have also fostered the rise in on-line Jihadists, resurrected a flagging neo-Nazi movement and enable all sorts of intolerant movements, ideas, and people to flourish online. The jury will probably still be sequestered in 2020 as to whether the Internet has fostered ‘tolerance’ or merely ‘siloed’ hate.”

Richard Osborne, Web manager for the School of Education & Lifelong Learning at the University of Exeter, responded, “Humans are basically tribal and they will simply use the new virtual spaces to create new tribes or solidify and enhance existing ones.  Knowing more about someone online could just as easily lead to less tolerance as opposed to more—because you can read their views more fully you might find this enhances your dislike.”

Some Say the Internet Is Making a Positive Difference, Allowing People to Come to a Better Understanding

Still, some respondents agreed with the scenario. “I do see a long, slow road of improvement,” wrote Paul Jones, director of, based at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. An anonymous participant commented, “Levels of sectarian strife and overt bigotry and hate crimes will peak after 2020 (not before) in response to this wider exposure and increased public presence of cultural minorities.”

“One can only hope,” wrote BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis. “I wouldn’t go so far as predicting world peace through the Internet. Sadly, there will always be fanatics and criminals… But I do at least believe that the Internet’s ability to bridge nations and divides and bring together individuals can only be positive.”

“Access to information will increase cultural, social, and intellectual tolerance among people who have access,” responded Clement Chau, manager for the Developmental Technologies Research Group at Tufts University. “Because of this, we shall see that the control and access of information will become the primary concern for governments worldwide.”

“Increased access to information about different people will enhance our understanding of different cultures and promote greater intercultural sensitivity,” wrote Gary Kreps, chair of the department of communication at George Mason University. “People will recognize similarities in values and goals and use these shared values as a basis for coordination and cooperation.”

Joe McCarthy, self-described “principal instigator” at MyStrands, formerly principal scientist at Nokia Research Center in Palo Alto, wrote, “Yochai Benkler’s book ‘The Wealth of Networks’ shows how the Internet can help transform economics and society, and enable more people to be both self-sufficient and entrepreneurial. As more people are able to truly engage in this increasingly inclusive economy, there will be less violence. We’ll all come to see that ‘everyone’s a customer’…and that everyone’s a potential trading partner (on an individual, not just a national, stage).”

“I believe that as Derrick de Kerckhove so aptly named it, the Internet has created a global, connected intelligence,” wrote Barry Chudakov, principal of the Chudakov Company, a marketing strategies firm. “And while this connecting can be used to foment hate and divisiveness, the larger use of the Internet is to create intelligent communities. Further, one can encounter voices within these communities that build awareness of wider views than one may have known before. So it is the community-building, the focusing of shared interest, that has the potential at least to allow more and varied voices to be heard. Whether this will indeed result in greater tolerance and declining levels of violence and strife… let’s just say there is great potential for that to happen.”

Do Our Tools Shape Us or Do We Shape Our Tools? The Question of Technological Determinism

This question drew the attention of several respondents who are attuned to the concept known as “technological determinism.” A dominant view holds that advances in technology are the driving force behind social change and that they carry inherent effects—that our tools are vital to how we act and who we are. This view is referred to as technological determinism by those who argue against it—they say technological innovation is mostly shaped by society through the influence of economic, political, and cultural motivations.

“It would be marvelous if this were to happen, but be wary of attributing deterministic effects to the Internet and other ICTs, never mind assuming they will change human nature in this short a time scale,” wrote Victoria Nash, of the Oxford Internet Institute, formerly a fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research.

Benjamin M. Ben-Baruch, senior market intelligence consultant and applied sociologist for Aquent, wrote, “First, I disagree with the notion that social tolerance has advanced or increased. Second, I disagree with the notion that either technology or education tend to increase tolerance. There is, as far as I can discern, no body of evidence that supports such notions. To the extent that evidence exists, it supports the notion that both education and technology can be used to increase tolerance but only under conditions that are unlikely to be replicated broadly across large populations (at least in the foreseeable future).”

“To credit the Internet would be overly technologically deterministic,” responded Christine Boese, information architect for Avenue A-Razorfish. “There are aspects of both greater and lesser social tolerance online. If the technology tends to lead cultures in any particular direction, it is leading to greater polarization of extremes, and less of the middle. Does greater tolerance constitute the middle? Not in this case. The extremes find support for their views online, more so than in the less-connected, face-to-face world, so bigots find their views reinforced and even the far extremes of social relativists find their views reinforced…Is everyone really entitled to his or her own opinion, or are there very real and socially-constructed methods to evaluate whether some opinions and views are indeed superior to others? I believe the latter. Perhaps we should all go back and read that dated study by William Perry on the intellectual development of Harvard undergraduates in the homogenous 1950s.”