June 7, 2013


A Small World After All : A new book sheds light on how little of the world we see through our browsers (ASTRA TAYLOR, July/August 2013, BookForum)

The world is complex and interconnected, Zuckerman rightly insists, and the evolution of our communications system from a broadcast model to a networked one has added a new dimension to the mix. The Internet has made us all less dependent on professional journalists and editors for information about the wider world, allowing us to seek out information directly via online search or to receive it from friends through social media. But Zuckerman also contends that this enhanced convenience comes with a considerable risk: that we will be exposed to what we want to know at the expense of what we need to know. While we can find virtual communities that correspond to our every curiosity and kink, there's little pushing us beyond our comfort zones or into the unknown, even if the unknown may have serious implications for our lives. This problem was astutely satirized by a headline in The Onion that went viral after this spring's Boston Marathon bombings: "Study: Majority of Americans Not Informed Enough to Stereotype Chechens." (Meanwhile, in the scarcely distinguishable world outside of news satire, the embassy of the Czech Republic was forced, in the wake of evidence that the attack had been carried out by the ethnic-Chechen Tsarnaev brothers, to release a statement clarifying that "the Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities.") There are things we should probably know more about--like political and religious conflicts in Russia or basic geography. But even if we knew more than we do, there's no guarantee that the knowledge gained would prompt us to act in a particularly admirable fashion.

As the truth embedded in that joke shows, Americans are prone to drastically overestimating just how international they are. Average citizens may be dismayed to learn that most of their clothes are made in China and that their bottled water is shipped all the way from Fiji. They may be convinced that immigration is on the rise or feel like they get plenty of foreign news. Yet Zuckerman challenges the idea that the world has been flattened. Tariffs and subsidies distort supply chains, immigration regulations and patterns are deeply uneven, and the global flow of information across borders is constrained, primarily by our limited "interest and attention." As a consequence, we exist in a state of "imaginary cosmopolitanism," a condition fueled by a cognitive bias that exaggerates encounters with the unusual. Day-to-day homophily--the tendency of like to congregate with like--exerts a stronger influence over us than the desire for novelty or difference. In all aspects of our lives, off-line and on-, we compulsively and mostly unconsciously sort ourselves into groups and niches, reassuring cocoons from which we rarely venture.

To put it another way, parochialism is a symptom of audience empowerment. We search for information we already want or find new things through people we know, and since these people tend to resemble ourselves, a lot happens in the world that we never hear about.

You know someone suffers such parochialism when they deem facts to be tainted because they appear in the NY Times.
Posted by at June 7, 2013 5:28 AM

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