That’s the title of a fairly recent lecture by Steven Berlin Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, a techno-optimist book that argued that while the content of popular culture is debatably getting dumber, its delivery system is not (the technical and mental proficiency required to grasp the enjoyment of pop culture is becoming more demanding).

He critiques the idea that the information age is creating an endless array of political echo chambers, each sealed off from the other with little prospect for cross-ideological dialogue. He also tackles the idea that politicians are more polarized than ever before. Partisan, yes, but not polarized. Reminiscent of the arguments of some over at the “libertarian Marxist” Sp!ked, that citizens of western countries today face a “crisis of legitimacy,” Johnson believes that the range of political debate is actually quite slim. Instead, we see increasingly shrill disagreement over minor differences in policy. (Bryan Caplan makes a similar point here.) This is encouraged by ever more particularized forms of media, from Rachel Maddow to Bill O’Reilly.

As for the internet, the idea that it is uniquely threatening to cross-cutting political dialogue is bogus. Unlike the newspapers and magazines of yore – he uses the example of National Review in 1985 – internet text utilizes hyperlinks. And common resources such as Wikipedia, used by nearly everyone with an inquiring mind and a journalistic impulse, are flush with opportunities to stumble upon some new bit of information (much of it politically neutral on the surface but inadvertently political – think agricultural science in 1960s China). In the Q&A Johnson admits that this creates only the potential for discussion and dialogue among partisans where in did not exist before. He is not certain if this is actually taking place.  

There is some inconclusive evidence on the topic of the balkanization of bloggers provided by Eszter Hargittai, Jason Gallo and Mathew Kane in their paper for the journal Public Choice, “Cross Ideological Discussions Among Conservative and Liberal Bloggers.” They find, in the ten month period in which they analyzed the level of cross- communication among top bloggers, no decrease or increase in the rate of hyperlinking. It’s been present since day one, but has not waxed or waned in frequency. (Ten months is a short time frame, admittedly.) At minimum this shows that the mere option of using a hyperlink, something not available to National Review (or Dissent) in 1985, is actually being exploited, which means the authors are viewing the thought processes and empirical claims of their counterparts in a fashion unavailable previously. But a study wasn’t necessary to show this.

Even if the more substantive act of discussion is absent, at the very least there is exposure where it could not have existed before. This alone would seem to bolster Johnson’s argument about the uniquely non-echo chamber status of today’s political discourse as compared to times past .

My previous inclination, which I still hold, was to grant that people are more visibly politically and ideologically segmented than ever, but that this only reflects the diversity of perspectives that had always existed. But I had also assumed that little cross-cutting discussion was taking place and that it was going to get worse (but not terrible, because the world apart from politics is better at bridging social divides – or making them irrelevant). I’m not so sure now.

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