I've been chewing over this column by Nicholas Kristof since yesterday. Of course, he's not the first to observe the central paradox of our revolutionary new medium: it gives us infinitely more and varied perspectives, yet it also abets increasingly polarized debate. Kristof, in ruing the latter, gets the big picture right. But in making his argument he conflates two very different problems associated with digital media. He writes:
When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.
That is certainly true. But it's important to distinguish between online news and opinion. They are two different avenues of the web. If our current web habits hold, then, yes, they both lead down tunnels of our own making, but they are still two very different tunnels. Now I will state outright: that the internet gives us more news outlets to choose from is inarguably a good thing. The problem, however, is in how we consume this digital news. A commenter on Kristof's blog astutely pointed this out:
One of the great pleasures of my day is the daily ritual of reading newspapers vitually cover to cover. I read everything, or at the very least scan articles about topics in which I really have little interest. While my adult children tell me they get the same news online, I know that is not true. They get little blips of information; they don't click on anything beyond their immediate interests; they seldom read the kind of long investigative reports that can be found in world class newspapers.
Now that's an entirely different problem than the one Kristof next associates with blogs. He writes:
there's pretty good evidence that we generally don't truly want good information "” but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.
But this is not really the fault of blogs; that we gravitate to our own echo chambers is a commentary itself on human nature. The ramifications for healthy public debate--be it on global warming, stem cell research, or a Presidential election--are important to consider, especially as we complete the transition from print to a digital world.