The Big Sort and Twitter:The Kindred Spirit Machine

I have been actively using twitter for about two weeks now, and I have to say I am enjoying it far more than when I first joined twitter, 4 years ago. I have also been reading The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop. I had a few thoughts about the two experiences together.

I am really enjoying twitter. It is a great way to network among people who are the same kind of geeks as me. I can follow general science nerds (the amazing @BoraZ, or @JeanneGarb, @mcshanahan), cognitive science nerds (@abmarkman, @finiteattention), history of science nerds (@darwinsbulldog) fellow college professors and people who feel the same way I do about ed reform (@PlThomasEdD, @rpondiscio, @CohenD and the prolific @LarryFerlazzo). Not to mention, people who seem to fit many of those categories (@hardsci, @DrMRFrancis). Unlike facebook, the posts are much more topical to what I am interested in, which is generally a good thing. They are also, at least among the people I follow, less personal and more professional. Yes, something you can buy, that is designed to dry your washed ziploc bags to reuse themIn my family, when we met someone who seemed to hold the same kind of worldview as us, my parents would call them “kindred spirits.” Twitter is an amazing way to meet people across the country and the world who share my worldview. There is something special and magical, when my wife (the witty and amazing tweeter @RachelAnneLevy) can be chatting with someone on twitter, and realize that they each have ziploc bags drying on their kitchen faucet at that moment.

But reading the Big Sort makes me distrust the wonderful feelings I get from populating my world with these kindred spirits. This book has been on my to-read list for quite a while, but I have read a few book The Big Sort - By Bill Bishopreviews which really resonated with me, so I feel familiar with the argument already. I am also familiar with some of the research he cites about how groups of similar people make decisions. Basically the argument in the Big Sort is that in the past 30-40 years, Americans have become far more geographically mobile. What this increased choice has translated to is communities that are far more homogeneous than ever before. This homogeneity is not necessarily along racial and ethnic lines (although there are dimensions of that) but along lines of politics lifestyle and beliefs. As counties and neighborhoods become more politically homogeneous, the minorities stop expressing themselves and stop voting. Further, left unchecked, the homogeneous beliefs become more extreme.

I don’t doubt this (to me, this is more prevalent than Eli Pariser’s fear of dem-google results and Rep-google results). And one of the reasons that I like living in Ashland is that I can never be sure if I am talking with a Democrat or Republican. But what ends up happening is that no one talks about politics, which I am not sure is better. Which brings me back to twitter. I could try to find some reasonable conservative (isn’t there anyone besides David Brooks? no, David Frum doesn’t count), but I know that they would say something that pissed me off every now and then, and I don’t like being pissed off. Regulating our information is a way of regulating our emotions.

So I am left with a problem. Surrounding myself with like-minded people with similar thoughts, makes me stupider. But too many disagreements just makes me angry. Is there a happy middle ground? How can I have the mythical web argument with an ideologically opposite person without cursing, yelling, or the cheap arguments that lead down that road? I did have a great conversation with an old friend who is now an anarchist libertarian, and a passionate and clear thinker. But it was spinning in my head for days, and it didn’t feel good.

Would appreciate any advice any of y’all have out there, but this seems like a tough problem. I think we are better off living as close as we can manage with people who are different than us. Tribalism is such a strong natural human force, we can’t help but shape our tools to help us create tighter knit tribes. And increased tribalism leads to ignorance of our fellow man. This ignorance leads to fear. Yoda tells us the rest: “And fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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2 Responses to The Big Sort and Twitter:The Kindred Spirit Machine

  1. This is why civics education is so important. We need to work to develop the ability to respectfully debate with people with whom we fundamentally disagree. There are some people who I don’t agree with but with whom I can have productive conversations. Unfortunately, there are many other individuals that I disagree with and have a difficult time engaging in a productive conversation. Social studies courses should be the time and place where we can learn to engage in debates about difficult topics with individuals whom we do not agree with in a respectful and meaningful way. Unfortunately, in many states social studies education is being cut because it is not a STEM subject and is not perceived to be as beneficial in developing a globally competitive economy. I would argue, however, that learning to debate issues in a respectful and meaningful way with people that we don’t agree with is just as important to the development of a successful economy and society.

  2. Cedar Riener says:

    @American Society Today: Absolutely. Despite being a science teacher myself, I am much in favor of a lot of humanities education. One might say that philosophy classes in high school provide the least “21st century skills” but I think they actually offer the potential for just what you say.
    Same for social studies education of many stripes. Keep up the good fight.

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