Law in the Internet Society

Bifurcations – Part II

A key theme of my first paper was the way in which the Net contributed to a bifurcation of the exercising population. Much has been written about the Net's power to bring people together to share knowledge and so to create a global community where all knowledge is more widely distributed than before. However, such speculation may, in fact, be based on optimistic predictions of how information could be distributed and consumed, but not on how it necessarily is in the real world. Indeed, in the future the Net's unifying powers will be counteracted by the ways in which bit streams are actually distributed and consumed. Much of the current discussion about social divisions created by the Net focuses on the information disparities between those who can afford to access the Net regularly and those who cannot. However, in a world of $100 laptops and free software, this will soon cease to be the primary cause of divergences in what knowledge becomes widely acquired. Far more important than who has money and who does not will be who is curious and who is not; or, perhaps more importantly, who is curious about some things and who is curious about others.

Inconspicuous Consumption

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen asserts that the primary factor in cultural evolution and the spread of cultural practices is the conspicuous consumption of material resources in order to demonstrate one's possession of or ability to acquire them. While almost certainly accurate prior to the 21st century when what people sought to acquire was primarily material goods, his model may break down under 21st century conditions in which the acquisition of bit streams has become far more important. Every morning this summer when I got on the train, I could not help but notice that I was usually one of a tiny minority not conspicuously using an iPod. After several months, it occurred to me that an mp3 player might be a useful item to have and so I purchased one. Yet, while I quickly adopted the hardware in vogue among the masses, I almost certainly did not adopt their culture. With the exception of the few people who are trying to give themselves premature hearing loss, the way in which portable music players are used in public prevents everyone but the user from experiencing their contents.

It is true that Veblen discussed bit streams' role in conspicuous consumption—a man who sought prestige had to know the rituals of the ruling class. However, for such rituals to become widely accepted as a sign of affluence, they had to be transmitted through face-to-face interactions between the elites and the masses. The average man only knew which were the current books every gentleman had to read if he heard them mentioned frequently. However, the way in which culture is distributed through the Net and is consumed through the hardware at the ends of the Net leads to far fewer of such interactions.

As with the iPod example, the way in which the hardware that connects people to the Net is used to consume the culture spread through it is far more private than the ways in which culture was consumed in Veblen's era. People no longer congregate in groups in arenas or around devices used for the consumption of centrally-produced culture. Instead, everyone sits alone at night in their separate rooms with their separate screens as they consume an infinitely larger number of cultural products of only the type which they choose. It simply is no longer the case that an Orthodox Jew from New York driving through Pennsylvania might find himself listening to Christian rock because there was nothing “better” on the radio. Combine this with the human tendency to seek out only that which is familiar and the fact that information on the Net tends to be linked only to similar information, and there is no longer any reason why one would have to experience another's culture. This dynamic has even resulted in an expectation that one should never have to be exposed to another's culture. The only time I now hear another person's music is in the few seconds between when I get into a cab and when the driver feels compelled to turn off the radio so as not to impose on me music I might not be interested in.

The Proliferation of Genres

Thus, a caveat must be added to all the optimistic predictions about how the Net will enable a wider distribution of knowledge and culture. There will be substantially more information-sharing and innovation within areas of study and cultural genres, and their adherents will be able to pursue them in a way that was impossible only a decade ago. However, it is likely that the average person will become increasingly unaware of genres beyond what they are currently interested in, especially as they begin to evolve at a much more rapid rate.

An Implication

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the importance of people he calls “mavens” in the spread of social phenomena. In his model, these people collect as much specialized knowledge as they can, and by transferring this knowledge to highly networked people called “connectors,” they ensure that information is diffused throughout the population. The mavens Gladwell describes are important because the knowledge they acquire tends to be rather obscure—the man who capitalizes on his knowledge of an early frost in Brazil to stockpile ground coffee for the winter. In the future, as the Net divides the population into groups that are increasingly unaware of other genres and areas of learning, a new kind of maven will become necessary for knowledge to reach the general population. These people will not be those with specialized knowledge in any one field, but instead those with general knowledge of other types of bit streams which they can make known to connectors within different groups. People like, say, Malcolm Gladwell...

-- WardBenson - 30 Nov 2008

Added a comment box, hope you don't mind.

Leaving aside the lack of a methodology behind Malcolm Gladwell's work (although you might want to check out this recent book review) , I have a hard time accepting your argument. It's an interesting point that online consumption is inconspicuous consumption, but people still talk. We may not all hover around a single source of music and share in this consumption, but it's pretty easy to email a new song you heard, or a great article you read to a friend. Sites like Pandora for music, or one of thousands of sites/blogs that collects interesting articles/trends on the net is all the mavens anyone really needs.

The other assumption I'm not so positive about is that people only seek out what is comfortable and familiar. Even if you wanted to, i don't see how you could avoid the deluge of new information and culture that exists on the web and is accessible with a few clicks on the keyboard. For every person who wants to live in a contained bubble on the net, there must be at least a dozen who have a little curiosity. Moreover, while there may have once been some reticence to conspicuously consume new types of cultural for fear of judgment from one's peers, that is now completely gone. Although you can't hear what i'm listening to on the subway, you also can't give me a funny look if i start playing Spice Girls on my ipod.

-- AdamCohen - 17 Dec 2008

Loss of cultural cohesion is only one of the worrying potential consequences of the proliferation of choice bitstreams provide. The general preference for pull over push is well supported empirically. Social psychologists have been investigating conformation bias, belief preservation and attitude polarization within groups for several decades now, and their findings give cause for sobering reflection about whether more choice is always better.

People tend to search for information that confirms their existing beliefs, and they selectively avoid information and interpretations that are not in line with pre-existing beliefs. Those who regularly interact only with others that their beliefs, interests and outlook on life tend to adopt more radical and extreme positions than they would have in a more neutral environment. The dark side of everyone being able to choose whom he or she associates with and what culture, entertainment, knowledge and commentary he or she consumes may be the gradual splintering of society into groups that not only share little in common, but may actively despise each other.

-- AndreiVoinigescu - 17 Dec 2008


While I was probably negligent in not citing better, Andrei is correct that there is an enormous body of work in the field of the psychology of decision-making and judgment supporting the assertion that people by default seek out those facts and purveyors of facts which support their own beliefs. So, while it may be true that for every one person who says he wants to live in a contained bubble on the net there are twelve who say that they have little curiosity, the empirical findings suggest that all thirteen will, admittedly to varying degrees, tend to seek out the information that is familiar to them or affirms their pre-existing beliefs and biases. There is a reason, after all, why xenophobia always seems to be the norm instead of cosmopolitanism. As such, I don't think it can be argued from an empirical standpoint that human beings, by their nature, are likely to take full advantage of the powers of the net to expand beyond their current interests.

Using their knowledge of human psychology, the designers the content-distribution mechanisms of the Net construct them so as to capitalize on these tendencies, not to counteract them. My understanding of services like Pandora is that their developers' sole focus is on figuring out what music or other forms of content are most similar to what people are already consuming because they know that people generally want that the most. This is why the recommendations from Amazon are based on what people who bought the same books as you also bought or what books on the topics you prefer have sold well.

These services generally do not have any equivalent function to show you something in a genre in which you have previously shown no interest. Facebook used to have a random search function, but as far as I can tell it no longer does. Presumably, it is unlikely that people have any interest in knowing about “random” people now that their network is no longer confined to people they might already know (those at their college). Wikipedia has a random article function, but I can't imagine that it is widely used. Moreover, the net offers no real equivalent to being dragged to the ballet by your girlfriend, or any other mechanism by which people can be forced to consumer culture they do not believe themselves to be interested in.

-- WardBenson - 21 Dec 2008



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r4 - 21 Dec 2008 - 07:29:24 - WardBenson
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