_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Here in DC we have C-SPAN Radio, which carries a number of things that appear on C-SPAN TV. I've had my alarm clock radio tuned to it for a week or so (because my radio has mysteriously stopped receiving NPR), and around when I'm getting up, the morning call-in program is on. It is reliably depressing.

Yesterday the topic was, "Does Earth Day Matter?" To succinctly paraphrase the series of three callers I heard while convincing myself to get out of bed:
Caller 1: Earth Day is a joke, I wish the left wouldn't whine so much about pollution and animals when we have real problems, like gas being expensive.
Caller 2: Earth Day is a good thing, but it just seems like there's not anything we can do.
Caller 3: Earth Day is a scam by the left, anyone who thinks global warming is real is an idiot. In the 70's we were all worried about an ice age!

Caller 3 did succeed in getting me out of bed to turn the radio off...which was useful, I guess.

The things people say on air often illustrate:
1) Our tendency to reduce disagreements about political issues to a question of our own identity -- callers 1 and 3 both referred to "the left." It seems like Earth Day should provide a nice opportunity for a bit of consensus because it involves both practical (wanting uncontaminated water, concern about economic impacts of climate change, etc.) and squishy concerns, but instead, for some, it's automatically bogus because those people are behind it.
2) Our tendency to view things through all the hang-ups and narrow perspectives given to us by our personal experience -- Caller 1 was focused on gas prices, Caller 2 had a misguided (to me, anyway) focus on a single environmental issue (which I can't remember), and Caller 3 was hung up on how his teacher had warned of a coming ice age in the 70's. It's natural for us to use our personal experience to make sense of things, since that's all we have (aside from reading and talking to others), but I often don't realize what an obstacle that can be to a having a shared discussion of issues.

I've also noticed these dynamics on web sites that have user comments. YouTube is the worst, there tends to be lots of virtual shouting and name-calling. It seems like the discussion is most productive in small web communities where there are social norms that regulate the participants, though part of that might be that they bypass the "identity" issue by collecting people who share an identity in some way or another. But it does seem that sites such as Slashdot have some luck, even after they get pretty big, by regulating comments with a system that helps people find and reward the useful comments by allowing users to rate and tag what others say. Maybe the internet will get better over time at helping us have these discussions...

No comments: