Web 2.0 has had a profound impact on the way most of us live our lives. It has enabled us to communicate, create and consume on a scale that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Perhaps most profoundly, it has arguably established a level playing field upon which anybody with an internet connection and rudimentary IT skills can express their opinion and make an impact in the world. Twitter, Facebook, blogs – all of these are said to be the new drivers of democratisation, giving a voice to the once voiceless.
Nowhere has this disruptive shift been more documented than in the social movements that sprung up in 2011 and which have continued into 2012. Even before the dust had begun to settle on the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, commentators from all sides were quick to celebrate the internet and its new communication platforms as central – in fact necessary – to their proliferation. As the Spanish social theorist Manuel Castells wrote in his latest book, Networks of Outrage and Hope:
… The digital social networks based on the internet and on wireless platforms are decisive tools for mobilising, for organising, for deliberating, for coordinating and for deciding. Yet the role of the internet goes beyond instrumentality: it creates the conditions for a form of shared practice that allows a leaderless movement to survive, deliberate, coordinate and expand. It protects the movement against the repression of their liberated physical spaces by maintaining communication among the people within the movement and with society at large in the long march of social change that is required to overcome institutionalised domination.
So far so good. Yet as attractive as this argument is, and as a compelling and readable as Castells’s new work is, it is also true that the internet, particularly Web 2.0 platforms, are as much a force for division as they are for collaboration and unity.
We shouldn’t forget that an enhanced ability to communicate works both ways. Yes, it can help people to form new connections with likeminded individuals and to express their opinions to a wider audience. But as these individuals form closer bonds with one another, they may also lose their connections to others – this is the ultimate in vs. out critique of social bonding capital.
According to the ‘networked individualism’ theory of Canadian sociologist Barry Wellman, a new social phenomenon has emerged whereby people increasingly seek out communities that can affirm their chosen identities, rather than allow their native communities to naturally mould their identity. No doubt the internet and Web 2.0 tools are playing a central role in driving this further forward. Castells himself intimates as much within his new book:
The key success of an SNS (social networking site) is not anonymity, but on the contrary, self-presentation of a real person connecting to real persons. People build networks to be with others, and to be with others they want to be with, on the basis of criteria that include those people who they already know or those they would like to know.
What this suggests is that the emergence of Web 2.0 platforms may be part of the reason for the polarisation gripping modern day politics. If I self-define as a liberal, websites like Twitter and Facebook have made it easy for me to connect with liberal crowds and solidify and further ingrain my identity. Likewise, if I see myself as a conservative, I can similarly be absorbed by corresponding online communities on the right of the political spectrum.
There is also another cause of division to contend with here. As well as enabling people to connect more easily with partisan communities, Web 2.0 also creates a space for people to create and store opinionated content themselves. This sounds harmless in itself, but what happens if hearing the echo of our own output – tweets, blogs, or Facebook comments – spurs us on to write more partisan content?
In his latest book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt describes an interesting experiment undertaken by Drew Westen that looked at what drives partisan behaviour. During the 2004 presidential election, Westen asked a group of partisan democrats and republicans to watch a series of slides that showed their chosen candidate, Bush or Kerry, making hypocritical judgements. Using fMRI brain scanners, they found that participants experienced negative emotions when shown information about their candidate’s hypocrisy (e.g. Bush praising then denigrating Enron’s CEO) and felt positive emotions (i.e. a measure of dopamine) when they were ‘released’ from this negative information. In effect, they gained pleasure from surviving their political challenge.
Haidt goes on to say that since partisans engage in this type of attack-and-defence activity on a regular basis, they become literally ‘addicted’ to extreme prejudice. To return to the rise of Web 2.0, if these new online communication tools make it easier for people to share and hear the political opinions of others, it may also mean they speed up and amplify the cycle of negative-positive emotions and in turn get people ‘hooked’ on spouting off. More importantly, by allowing anybody, not just the partisan, an easy way of throwing their two pennies worth into the mix, it arguably provides a stepping stone for once placid people to enter the arena of extreme partisanship.
Not long ago, I described 3 particular ‘meta concepts’ that are present or emerging in the RSA’s work. These were:
(i) Mental complexity and adult development – the notion that there exists a ‘hidden curriculum’ of mental tasks in life that require a certain level of mental complexity in order to navigate effectively. Central to this concept is the importance of how we know, not just what we know, and of taking things as object that were once subject.
(ii) Cultural theory – the notion that there are, to varying extents, four dominant cultures at play in the world: egalitarianism, hierarchicalism, individualism and fatalism. Proponents of this theory argue that efforts to tackle major challenges usually need to embrace and draw upon a mixture of all of these (except fatalism). This is particularly true of ‘wicked’ problems, which unlike ‘tame’ ones cannot be addressed through ‘elegant’ but blunt solutions e.g. using only hierarchical sanctions to combat crime or individualist incentives to overcome climate change.
(iii) Values modes – the notion that most people fall into 3 predominant value groups: settlers, prospectors and pioneers. Which type best defines you depends upon the extent to which you are ‘inner directed’ or ‘outer directed’. The lesson for policymakers is that policies and political messages need to be tailored to fit each group, otherwise efforts at changing behaviour may prove fruitless.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the reason why I’m trying to identify these broader concepts is because they help us to make sense of the world, acting in a way as umbrellas for all the other minor lessons and rules that seek to guide our day-to-day actions. To put it another way, the likes of cultural theory, mental complexity and values modes offer maps of life’s terrain, whereas tit bits of information and the latest research insights only give a narrow set of directions to where we want to go, some of which often appear to contradict the paths laid out by others.
Since posting that blog, I had a chance to read Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind. This, I believe, may act as a contender for a 4th spot in the guidebook of meta concepts. Haidt’s book is an extraordinarily rich account of the origins of moral psychology and a revealing exploration of how the different states of our moral minds are able to shape group behaviour and drive divisions in political and religious communities.
Trying to distil the book’s contents into a single line or two is an impossible task, but his central thesis can be broadly understand as follows: there exist in the world a variety of intrinsically-borne ‘moral matrices’ that have helped to bind people into successful groups, but which have also left us divided on lots of different issues. When Haidt talks about ‘moral matrices’, he is referring to the different assortment of ‘moral foundations’ – what might be colloquially termed as morals or values – that each individual or group has. To put it in simpler terms, Haidt draws parallels between moral foundations and taste receptors; just as everybody has different preferences of flavours, so too do they have their own distinctive moral palates.
Moral Foundations Theory, as it is formally known, identifies 6 particular moral foundations that make up our moral matrices, some of which are more prevalent than others. Each of these are summarised in the table below.
Drawing upon the data gathered on his research website YourMorals.org, Haidt argues that liberals tend to have moral matrices that are built with only 3 of the Foundations – Care, Fairness and Liberty – whereas conservatives have moral matrices that rest upon all 6. As a result of the sheer breadth of their moral palates, the messages and policies of conservatives are more likely to resonate with a wider segment of the population than are those of liberals (or liberatarians).
The Righteous Mind goes on to explore many issues in depth, but the Moral Foundations Theory alone is likely to have sizeable implications for the way in which we seek to pursue political, social and economic progress. We are already seeing, for instance, how the left are attempting to tap into people’s Fairness foundation receptors (a sensitivity for proportionality, not just equality). Think Labour’s recent internal debate about introducing conditionality within the welfare state. Conversely, witness how Mitt Romney’s speech to the GOP convention was littered with phrases that were intended to prompt people’s Care foundation (it will be interesting to see what comes out when Obama gives his own speech in a week or so’s time).
I imagine the Moral Foundations Theory could also be a useful resource beyond the world of political messaging and grand policymaking. For example, could it tell us anything about how to make behaviour change initiatives more effective? Or about how teaching methods could better support children with different moral dispositions?