Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Is web 2.0 dumbing us down?

As some of you might know, I'm an avid listened of podcasts (mainly to make my daily hour long commute seem a little less wasteful). Two of the recent casts I listened to grabbed my specific attention.

The first is a presentation titled Republic 2.0 by Cass Sunstein. In this presentation mr. Sunstein explains the risks of web 2.0 to democracy. While the increased access to the expression and consumption of information and opinion seems like a wonderful thing, there are downsides to how we engage with blogs, wiki's and social networks. Due to the vast amount of information out there, but also because of the nature of these new social artifacts, we tend to expose ourselves only to information and opinions from those that we are close to (ideologically or otherwise). Research has shown that in homogeneous groups like these, polarization takes place: views and opinions become more singular and extreme.

This is a concern in itself, and something to keep in mind when considering aspects of our education system, such schools based on subgroups of our society over dimensions such as religion, class or even geography. The concern got a new dimension for me however after listening to one of the seminars of the Long Now Foundation In his talk, Ignore Confident Forecasters, Philip Tetlock shares some insights from his research on peoples ability to make appropriate predictions about complex future events (in this case in world politics). He found 2 types of thinking, leading to 2 distinct patterns of predictions. one group was classified as 'hedgehogs'. These were people that had a single specialism or conviction, and tried to explain everything in the world from this single perspective. The second group, the 'foxes' were more broad in their thinking, and the constructs they applied to solving problems. Foxes significantly outperformed the hedgehogs.

So this begs the question: If we allow ourselves to be exposed only to those views and people that we have sympathy with, something the web increasingly allows us to do, are we really depriving ourselves of the tools for a balanced and effective mental development?

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