Our Different Tech-Driven Realities Make Democracy Really Hard

Information technology and its interactions with our psychology have dramatically changed the underlying processes of democracy. Will we be able to adapt? | Source

We don’t often think about it, but our brains are all very different from one another. At the end of the day, sure, we mostly have the same brain regions, there are statistical correlations that show commonality of the interconnections between regions, and people can be grouped similarly by personality. But if we’re really honest about people’s psychology, it becomes apparent that we all have different strange things that trigger us: I have a personality that sees some authority as threatening; I know friends who love order and organization to the point of driving their behavior. Our differing brains lead us to interpret the world in different ways. The more different our brains are, the more distinct our interpretations will be.

If we are to achieve a society that functions cohesively and humanely, we need to recognize the depth of this truth. Unfortunately, technological progress has splintered the notion of shared experience to a degree that makes our cognitive and psychological differences dangerous. When much of our politics surrounds issues that we don’t experience firsthand, we are at the whim of the media, and the distribution platforms that carry their stories to us. These platforms can take advantage of our psychological differences to pull people into different realities — to the point that our realities are disjoint, and even simple conversation becomes incredibly difficult. At this critical juncture of human society, these are some of the paramount issues that must be understood in order to keep organized life going.

Psychology Drives Interpretation

Fields and practices like psychoanalysis or re-evaluation counseling advise us that many of our individual differences at this level can be traced back to the most formative periods of our lives: childhood. In fact, even sub-fields of psychology such as that of Attachment Theory show us that our cognitive models formed during childhood end up affecting us in relationships throughout our adult life. This idea can be revolutionary for many because it gives a lens through which to view our behavior and preferences: they are not just “the way it is,” static and unchanging, or predetermined by socioeconomic factors; they are also products of our experiences and those who we learned from.

As disgusting as the methods and results are, the stories of Cambridge Analytica, their parent company SCL, or other historical cases of propaganda illustrate how powerfully individual psychology motivates political attitudes.

Importantly, this notion should be extended beyond us as an individual; it should inform us that when we are interacting with others, they are also driven by cognitive models molded during especially formative times in life. When we do any work relating to politics, oppression, or teaching, we can use this idea to break free of stereotypes that hamper cooperative growth — those on the Right are stupid, those on the Left are elite snobs, you are an evil CEO, you are a lazy worker. There is constant temptation to view the world through these stereotypes which fail to separate between behavior and the psychology that drives it. In reality, people are very complex, and people’s politics are not solely determined by these identity markers — rich, poor, black, white, college-educated, high school dropout — but also by psychological factors completely distinct from identity.

Our psychology determines which interpretations of reality we are most likely to believe, and which will induce defensive reactions. It’s unfortunate that some of the actors who acted on this truth first are those which sought to manipulate societies — not to liberate them. As disgusting as the methods and results are, the stories of Cambridge Analytica, their parent company SCL, or other historical cases of propaganda illustrate how powerfully individual psychology motivates political attitudes. What stands to be a liberating notion — that individuals with different worldviews than ours are not necessarily bad people, but simply have had different experiences than we have — has instead become knowledge hoarded by a few, and used to coerce rather than educate.

A Democracy Must Share Experiences

One crucial insight that goes as far back as John Dewey’s 1927 analysis of democracy is that a functioning society governed by the many must share experiences to the degree of forming what he called the “Great Community.” He uses the idea of a community to signify a group of people who are connected to the point that consequences of events that happen are felt by each member of the group. By experiencing events similarly, he argues, a Great Community would be able to make democratic decisions because everybody would be operating with the same information.

If functional democracy depends on shared realities, we have our work cut out for us: we have to reshape technology in a way that promotes community rather than disunity.

Our society is far from the Great Community, and we may be arguably even farther than when Dewey wrote this analysis in 1927. As mentioned above, technology has facilitated the driving of millions of tiny wedges between people, as targeted stories pull people into reality bubbles, echo-chambers form online, and once-obscure ideologies found digital community. When so much many of the important political issues of our time happen across the planet, are only evident in statistical data, or happen systemically to groups who are in the minority (and we may not be a member of that group), much of our experience solely comes from what we see on the internet. What’s even scarier is that we need not even be manipulated to become polarized; our tendency to seek out news that already agrees with our psychology does the work. In our world of buffet-style news, we polarize ourselves as it is.

It is unclear how stable a democracy can be under these circumstances. Right now, it seems that stability is a luxury of the past. If functional democracy depends on shared realities, we have our work cut out for us: we have to reshape technology in a way that promotes community rather than disunity. We additionally have to build technology that does not allow for such detailed knowledge of individuals that malicious actors can pull their puppet strings and place them in communities of their choosing.

The Way Forward is Unclear, but Not Impossible

As if it weren’t difficult enough to understand each other in the world before social media and digital news, technological progress has exacerbated the problem to a new level. Given the way that news has become so diverse, the platforms that deliver it play into our tendency to pick news that agrees with us already, and that political actors are also actively manipulating what we see, a path forward towards a more cohesive social fabric seems… challenging, to say the least.

To work back to a world of shared experiences, we would either need to learn to radically empathize with those we currently see as insane, or change the way we experience the world. Both are significant hurdles, but not insurmountable. The idea that political views are partially driven by psychology, which is in turn driven by experience, should become widespread so as to humanize those whom we disagree with. Their most formative life experiences play a huge role in what seems comfortable for them to believe. Additionally, the notion of experience driving political views, deeply understood, shows us that the news people consume is crucial in determining their worldview. If a worldview seems dangerous, perhaps we should look at the media that drives it rather than fault the individual as a bad person.

These ideas need to become widespread so we realize a more nuanced view of the underlying drivers of political behavior. Dewey was not only shockingly insightful about democratic theory, but also keen in suggesting that strong education is key to a functioning democracy. I believe that if more people knew these ideas, many of the problems would start to fix themselves.

PhD student in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Tufts University, organizer with Sunrise Movement and MA Peace Action. Philosophy nerd.

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