The Changing of Human Society

On Tuesday, I attended a discussion hosted by Media Future Now (at Google’s DC headquarters!) that focused on the diversity (or lack thereof) in print and broadcast journalism.

The conversation covered a large array of topics including the inability of the newsroom to fulfill its original purpose of serving the community, the difficulty for smaller organizations to attract and keep diverse talent and the necessity to understand a person’s being deeper than just demographic categories.

However, one of the most interesting peripheral points that was made is how the decline of the newspaper (and the rise of online news) will change our society as a whole.

One of the internet’s biggest advantages – the ability to cater to niche markets and audiences – is also potentially one of its greatest dangers.

When people received their news through newspapers, it was much more likely that they would wander and read articles in sections other than those in which they were interested. (For example, even if they were primarily a Business section reader, they would read the Arts section as well.) 

Now, because it’s possible to completely customize the news experiences online — by only reading entirely Business-focused publications or searching specifically for Business articles, for instance — we settle into exploring only the familiar.

This has astronomically dangerous implications for our society as the barrier to receive information has increased. (You need to actively seek out information which may not be readily available through these narrow information streams.)

The same scenario has already played out with the advent of cable television. When individuals could only receive their TV through three major networks, they were very likely to end up watching programs that they may have not otherwise actively sought out (but just happened to be on at the time). Now, with cable programming — and DVRs! — it’s very easy to ONLY watch SPECIFICALLY those shows that we are interested in.

The issue is that there’s something to be said about the loss of receving unintentional information. I may really enjoy the History Channel, but if I’ve never stumpled across it and taken the time to see if I like it, that’s a lost opportunity for personal enhancement – and at an aggregate level, a lost opportunity for society as a whole.

Progress, both individually and collectively, can’t take place if we stop learning. And the increased ability to block (or simply not actively look for) additional information through modern technology makes me wonder how our society will develop in the future…

(The whole thing would make for a great Vonnegut story, wouldn’t it?)