The internet is a wonderful thing. As in no previous time in history, anyone with a connected computer can search the world’s store of knowledge, interact in real-time with people halfway around the globe, view artifacts hidden away in museums in cities one will never get to visit, and more. Yet it has its downside. While much of the world is but a few keystrokes and clicks away, the internet allows us to filter the information that we receive to such an extent that we never have to be exposed to a dissenting point-of-view, if we so choose. Sadly, many are choosing just that.
In a grand irony, the internet, despite allowing easy access to a large portion of the world’s intellectual and cultural output, makes it easier than ever before to sequester ourselves away, to hide from viewpoints that challenge our assumptions, to fortify ourselves with a near impenetrable armour of information and propaganda, and to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals. We can read blogs, forums or feeds that support our basic beliefs on just about any subject, get news from sources that promote our specific political, religious, or moral worldview, and find information to denigrate those who dare to think differently. This is dangerous. For it is when one is exposed only to those ideas that support one’s beliefs and ideologies that the art of critical thinking is lost.
Learning and growth is achieved through critical reflection brought about by intellectual disequilibrium; when opposing facts, beliefs and ideas are presented to us it forces us to think, inquire and question. This new information may not change what we believe true, but the very act of thinking about these ideas helps us reach a new understanding of the strengths and weakness of our own positions and gives insight as to why others think the way they do. However, more than personal growth is at stake.
When one surrounds themselves with a given worldview, one is never brought into this state of healthy intellectual imbalance. Without disequilibrium, the need to think about issues critically never presents itself. Without the opportunity or need to think deeply about issues the ability for critical thinking atrophies, withers away and dies. When the ability to think critically is lost, civil discourse becomes impossible. When civil discourse is impossible, discussion of the issues at hand becomes a war of competing ideologies, with neither side listening to (nor able to understand) the other. When this happens the tension builds with each salvo fired, the emnity grows, and the will and desire to understand the ideas of the other lessens, and the need to further distance ourselves from dissenting thoughts increases.
In short, the internet has enabled us to draw up virtual borders delimited by ideology, and create intangible “states” whose citizens are openly hostile to those who choose not to pledge allegiance to the Weltanschuung of that particular piece of intellectual real-estate. This is dangerous. Just as the fragmentation of the Balkan Peninsula into ethnic, religious and political enclaves lead to years of bloodshed, anguish, mistrust, hatred, and strife, the type of intellectual Balkanization made possible by the advent of the internet is just as worrisome. While the internet is perhaps unparalleled in human history as a means of connecting with and understanding the so-called Other, it is also a tool that can promote divisiveness if used unwisely.