How the internet is driving the fractionalisation of society

In my latest article on Mercatornet I reflect on the growing fractionalisation of society, facilitated and driven by the internet:

In the recent past everyone watched more or less the same TV shows. Now we can enjoy such a diversity of content that kids in the same class at school can effectively inhabit different planets of entertainment, just as their parents inhabit different worlds of news and online opinion.

There are still many points of convergence, but the option to not watch Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey or the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more viable than ever.

Linear TV focused our attention on a limited range of options, just like the two-party political system effectively concentrates genuinely diverse political views on a near-binary set of options.

The rise of the internet means that people can now air their diverse political views, whether it be weird and wonderful theories or simply the degree of personal support or opposition for a candidate.

And it’s not just a process of “airing” what is already there. Exposure to diverse opinions engenders greater diversification. We change, reflect upon, amend and consolidate our opinions as we realise how and why other people agree or disagree.

Uncommon voices

One of the problems with our present media culture is that we are inundated with the thoughts, opinions, and, deeper still, the tone of a class of people with broadly similar backgrounds and skills who write to match an established genre, whose works are validated in large part by being not too dissimilar from those of their colleagues.

So when someone from a very different background writes – and writes well – the contrast is startling.

At least that was my impression on reading the following piece on ABC’s The Drum; effectively a eulogy for a former Australian soldier, killed while fighting against Islamic State in Syria:

There is a great quote from the mountaineer Bill Denz, a former New Zealand army commando, who, having been jilted by the military and never sent to Vietnam, rationalised why he had chosen to climb mountains instead. “Young men must go into the mountains because they long for war,” he said.

Like Bill Denz, neither myself nor Ash had found a worthy “struggle” in the military. So, like all young men of our generation, we sought struggles elsewhere. I chose to pursue a life of mountain climbing and the life of a struggling writer. Ash chose to go and fight with the Kurds on the frontlines of Syria.

The piece is worth reading regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the author’s argument. It intrigues me that voices such as these can be all but forgotten in the clamour of day-to-day publishing, and shock us with an almost foreign certainty and conviction.

Reading the comments – panicked comments lamenting glorification of war and debating moral relativism in response to Islamic State – illustrates how easily we can slip into a comfortable familiarity with opinions that, despite our love or hate for them, rarely challenge us.

Do we really understand the breadth and depth of opinion our society? Do we really know how things stand, apart from opinion polls and self-referential media?  I suspect that the conventions of our social discourse are more tenuous than we realise, a superstructure that could all too suddenly fall away in the midst of real conflict because most of us – the agents and advocates of this discourse – have no real desire to defend our positions with anything more than words, or else would find that our positions offer nothing of substance to defend.

I hope I can stick close to what is real and ideal, against the heat and vanity of empty opinion.