The ghetto of the modern Main Stream

As the rain falls outside here in Christchurch, I'm pondering the new President of the United States of America, my homeland... I'm also pondering the implications of the apparent demise of the Main Stream, which I think has much responsibility for his ascension. We've already passed the threshold of personalised information. The Internet's widespread adoption has rendered one-to-many, geographically tied broadcast media like newspapers, radio, and television obsolete. Gone are the "common shared experiences" of my generation, like the indelible iconic experiences of seeing the Challenger explode or the 9/11 planes crash into the Twin Towers, shared appreciation and familiarity with widely known books, songs, movies, and personalities of all sorts...

Going forward, those broadcast media are increasingly seen as an information Ghetto, corporations introducing ever more sensationalist and content-free "reality" programmes. The subset of the population still ingesting these old-tech media is limited to those who cannot use the new personalised "on demand" media offered by the 'net. that usually serve to reinforce narrow perspectives rather than inject new, unexpected, expanding influences. For that subset of the population who cannot, it is usually due to lack of technical understanding or inability to meet the very low threshold of technical investment required. This creates a strange demographic, still in the thrall of corporate media, that can be influenced. It's similar to the systemic bias of telephone political (and other) polls which, for cost reasons, only ring "land lines", thereby eliminating most young people who have never seen a point in having such infrastructure in the era of mobile communications.

The implications of this are subtle, but I think they're also scary. Mobile communications companies tend to be geographically focused, and as a result things like "civil emergency" (think tsunami alerts) are handled by governments regulating them to require a suitable channel... but what about political messages and platforms. Of course we do not want government owned/controlled channels (characteristic of an autocracy), but we find that, given a choice, people tend to reinforce their existing biases rather than voluntarily broadening their perspective. With a personalised information world, where any bias has big communities who almost completely filter out opposing views or arguments, this leads to a preponderance of echo chambers and a complete lack of challenge to poorly considered and often anti-social views... and no common political consciousness.

There is, however, significant political consequence. We see parallel societies co-existing uneasily, where differences of view are deeply held and even imersive, and entire sub-cultures emerge without challenge until they gain critical mass. I see this as an explanation for many of the divisive, right-wing, democratic, anti-elitist elections held in the west in the last year or two.

I suspect that this trend can cut both ways - personalised media allows people who previously were too "alternative" to ever feel comfortable in their societies to "find their tribe". That's good, I think. But it also enables those who are intolerant of their societies to fester and, alarmingly, to organise to undermine more tolerant (liberal) societies in which they surreptitiously thrive. I don't know how we can remedy this increasing balkanisation characterised by reduced discernment and critical thinking, and the systematic destruction of the media as former business models, dependent on population-level scale, which are no longer viable in a personalised content world. The new world into which we're storming at full tilt may well be brave, but it's got more than a dash of terror thrown in. Increasingly, it seems, there's no such thing as "an easy answer", that, though enticing, isn't also quite wrong.

(thanks for the proofreading, @bigblen!)