On the Digital Age

Every imaginable peer group

In the past, if you had an oddball obsession, for example a strange political viewpoint, a minority faith or a sexual fetish, you'd rarely chance upon somebody who shared your view. Now it's easy. You'll find them on the web, maybe even hundreds of them. As a group you'll be able to reinforce your beliefs and defend your interests. Consider the idea of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, no longer living in a compound in Waco but instead dispersed and living in different countries, yet connected by the Web. Think also of sexual deviants, suppressing their wild fantasies until they find a dozen fellow travellers who think that fantasy is not only acceptable but positively lush. Or political extremists who believe in racial genocide. All will find a home on the web and the comforts of home.

Society is about to get a lot weirder. The rough corners of our personalities have in the past been rubbed off by contact with our neighbours, people holding different views. Now they can remain sharp. Most people will probably continue to enjoy real social contact and moderate their views in order to get along with the crowd, but anybody who doesn't want to do that now has an easy exit path. Live your life online. Have your prejudice confirmed, your obsession seen as commonplace, your violence praised.

That's one way to look at it. Here's another. If you travel the world widely and visit enough dark corners, you'll find that almost all weird obsessions are regarded as normal somewhere, be they political, religious or sexual. There are places where it's acceptable to kill non-believers, where Hitler is venerated, where virginity is always lost to an older relative. In Western liberal society we assume that education and money and political freedom eventually bring an end to such extremes, but that's usually because a consensus view takes hold. That might not work if you can easily opt out of the consensus.

Our rough edges get worn off by social contact, and that's usually based on geography, by the people we get to meet locally. That's why you have to travel extensively to find social extremes, they're in little pockets that the outside world barely touches. So you could say that the web will not promote social extremes that didn't previously exist, what it will do is take existing weirdness and allow it to spread. There will be few homogeneous societies that share a common viewpoint, all will become fragmented.

Western liberals might throw up their arms in despair, but it isn't only our society that will become more fragmented, so will the societies that kill non-believers, venerate Hitler, and commit incest. Ultimately, these communities self-perpetuate because they have so little outside contact, and that's not going to last.

It's anybody's guess what the end result will be, whether there will be a net increase in homogenisation or a net decrease. But we can at least make a reasonable punt on the metrological forces involved, even if we can't quite predict the weather.

  1. Tribal units that were previously homogenous, usually based on geography, will become less intact. This will happen at village level, city level, and most importantly at country level. The web makes national boundaries less significant, because communities can easily be formed that ignore these boundaries.
  2. Some communities that hold extreme views will flourish, while at the same time others will be weakened by exposure to the greater world.
  3. There is an opportunity for a single homogenised world consensus culture to emerge. Personally I think it's too early for this to happen, maybe we stand a chance in a few more generations. More likely for the moment we split into blocks, with the three main units being a Western block, an Islamic block, and a Chinese block. Then at a slightly lower level a Russian block, Indian, and so on.
  4. There is certainly an opportunity for powerful international political movements to develop within the web.

Looking at the items above, they are either concerned with small-scale communities or large-scale. The bit that's missing is medium scale, about the size of a nation state. It's my opinion that the internet does not strengthen communities at a national scale, only below this scale and above it. It's a force that will weaken nation states as institutions.


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