So I have news, lots of news.
If you’re the sort of person who just wants to jump into what I’ve launched and started building with the help of others, you can go here now, see what we’re launching, and come back to read this later. For the rest of you, long theoretical navel-gazing it is…
A New Project
I’m working on a new initiative with AASCU’s American Democracy Project. I’ve chosen “Digital Polarization” as my focus. This phrase, which enjoyed a bit of use around the time of Benjamin Barber’s work in the 1990s but has not been used much since, is chosen partially because it is remains a bit of a blank slate: we get to write what it means in terms of this project . I mean to use it as a bit of a catch-all to start an array of discussions on what I see as a set of emerging and related trends:
The impact of algorithmic filters and user behavior on what we see in platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which tend to limit our exposure to opinions and lifestyles different than our own.
The rise and normalization of “fake news” on the Internet, which not only bolsters one’s worldview, but can provide an entirely separate factual universe to its readers
The spread of harassment, mob behavior, and “callout culture” on platforms like Twitter, where minority voices and opinions are often bullied into silence.
State-sponsored hacking campaigns that use techniques such as weaponized transparency to try and fuel distrust in democratic institutions.
All good. So why, then, “digital polarization” as the term?
It’s probably a good time to say that on net I think the Internet and the web have been a tremendous force for good. Anyone who knows my history knows that I’ve given 20 years of my life to figuring out how to use the internet to build better learning experiences and better communities, and I didn’t dedicate my life to these things because I thought they were insignificant. I still believe that we are looking at the biggest increase in human capability since the invention of the printing press, and that with the right sort of care and feeding our digital environments can make us better, more caring, and more intelligent people.
But to do justice to the possibilities means we must take the downsides of these environments seriously and address them. The virtual community of today isn’t really virtual — it’s not an afterthought or an add-on. It’s where we live. And I think we are seeing some cracks in the community infrastructure.
And so as I’ve been thinking about these questions, I’ve been looking at some of history’s great internet curmudgeons. For example, I don’t agree with everything in Barber’s 1998 work Which Technology and Which Democracy?, but so much of it is prescient, as is this snippet:
Digitalization is, quite literally, a divisive, even polarizing, epistemological strategy. It prefers bytes to whole knowledge and opts for spread sheet presentation rather than integrated knowledge. It creates knowledge niches for niche markets and customizes data in ways that can be useful to individuals but does little for common ground. For plebiscitary democrats, it may help keep individuals apart from one another so that their commonalty can be monopolized by a populist tyrant, but for the same reasons it obstructs the quest for common ground necessary to representative democracy and indispensable to strong democracy.
Barber’s being clever here, and playing on multiple meanings of polarization. In one sense, he is predicting political polarization and fragmentation due to new digital technologies. In another he is playing on the nature of the digital, which is quite literally polarizing — based on one and zeros, likes and shares, rate-ups and rate-downs.
Barber goes on, pointing out that this polarized, digital world values information over knowledge, snippets over integrated works, segmentation over community. He’s overly harsh on the digital here, and not as aware, I think, of the possibilities of the web as I’d like. But he is dead on about the risks, as the last several years have shown us. At its best the net gives us voices and perspectives we would have never discovered otherwise, needed insights to pressing problems just when we need them. But at its worst, our net-mediated digital world becomes an endless stream of binary actions — like/don’t like, share/pass, agree/disagree, all in an architecture that slowly segments and slips us into our correct market position a click at a time, delivering us a personalized, segregated world. We can’t laud the successes of one half of this equation without making a serious attempt to deal with the other side of the story.
The “digital polarization” term never took off, but maybe as we watch the parade of fake news and calculated outrage streaming us these days its as good a time as any to reflect along with our students on the ways in which the current digital environment impacts democracy. And I think digital polarization is a good place to start.
This is not just about information literacy, by the way. It’s not about digital literacy either. Certainly those things are involved, but that’s the starting point.
The point is to get students to understand the mechanisms and biases of Facebook and Twitter in ways that most digital literacy programs never touch. The point is not to simply decode what’s out there, but to analyze what is missing from our current online environment, and, if possible supply it.
And that’s important. As I’ve said before, as a web evangelist in education its so easy to slip into uncritical practice and try to get students to adopt an existing set of web behaviors. But the peculiar power of higher education is we aren’t stuck with existing practice — we can imagine new practice, better practice. And, in some cases, it’s high time we did.
A Student-Powered Snopes, and More
And so we have the Digital Polarization Initiative. The idea is to put together both a curriculum that encourages critical reflection on the ways in which our current digital environment impacts civic discourse, and to provide a space for students to do real work that helps to address the more corrosive effects of our current system.
Right now I am in the process of building curriculum, but we have the basics of one of the projects set up and outlined on the site. The News Analysis project asks students to apply their research skills and disciplinary knowledge to review news stories and common claims for accuracy and context. Part of the motivation here is for students to learn how to identify fake news and misinformation. Part of the motivation is for students to do real public work: their analysis become part of a publicly available wiki that others can consult. And part of it is try try and model the sort of digital practice that democracy needs right now.
In my dream world, students not only track down fake news, but investigate and provide fair presentations of expert opinion on claims like “the global warming this year was not man-made but related to El Niño” or “Cutting bacon out of your diet reduces your risk of bowel cancer by 20%.” Importantly, they will do that in the context of wiki, a forgotten technology in the past few years, but one that asks that we rise above arguing our personal case and try instead to summarize community knowledge. Wiki is also a technology that asks that we engage respectfully with others as collaborators rather than adversaries, which is probably something we could use right about now.
There will be other projects as well. Analyzing the news that comes through our different feeds is an easy first step, but I’d love to work with others on related projects that either examine the nature of present online discourse or address its deficiencies. And we’re trying to build curriculum there as well to share with others.
In any case, check it out. We’re looking to launch it in January for students, and build up a pool of faculty collaborators over the next couple weeks.