The promise of the internet and what we must do to bridge the divide

Caleb Walsh illustration

It's easy to forget just how powerfully revolutionary the potential of the internet is — especially when as a society it sometimes seems like we've come to use it primarily to look at cute cat memes and watch Netflix.

The internet audaciously promised to unite our world, creating new ways to communicate and share information across the globe. It held hope of revealing that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon wasn't merely a parlor game, but a reality. We were all much closer than it might initially appear.

And the internet has dramatically, in some ways, lived up to those promises. It's certainly changed how we understand our relationships to each other. But rather than unite us into one, singular world, we've found ourselves more deeply connected into many worlds — each walled off from the others.

This has allowed us to find new globe-stretching connections and communities. We can read articles written across the world — even if they aren't in a language we're fluent in with the help of Google Translate. We can purchase goods, spread a message and have conversations with anyone.

Ironically, these new digital globe-trotting superpowers, though, haven't pulled us together, but segmented us apart. The media landscape is more fragmented than ever. We live in the era of niche news — where access to all the information has overwhelmed us, so we've increasingly curated it down to what most satisfies us.

We live in bubbles of our own creation. And look, this can be a lot of fun. I love diving down the rabbit holes of my hobbies and passions online. It's amazing just how much you can learn and who you can connect with. The ability to find people like ourselves is such a relief. We're really not alone.

But this redefinition of community to those like-minded connections is also deeply dangerous. It's not that living in separate worlds is totally new, either. America has always been a fractured country. The nation as a melting pot is a hopeful and helpful myth — but never one we've been able to completely realize.

Our nation's original sin of slavery, baked into the Constitution, openly reveals the heartbreaking contradiction in the claim that the United States would be built on the principle that "all men are created equal" (not to mention the patriarchy purposefully baked into that particular choice of phrase). This original sin has stayed with us and continued to drive our disconnection.

Prior to the internet, this sin and other longstanding, related divisions were primarily exploited by internal forces. But the internet has now made it possible for global adversaries to enter the fray.

Russian interference in our elections was based not on building new divides, but taking advantage of those that already existed. Our bubbles make us vulnerable. Our disconnection with each other has become a national security issue — our ever-rising partisanship our Achilles' heel.

And for liberals reading this, it's not just conservatives who fell victim to manipulation. What limited access we have to Facebook's data from the Russian "hack" of our democracy reveals plenty of ads successfully targeting the left as well.

If we want to continue as a nation, we must start to tear down our walls and truly become a nation. We must pop our bubbles and build the kind of community promised in the potential of not only the internet, but also in our flawed founding documents.

For in the words of Benjamin Franklin: "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." ♦

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, studied at the College of Idaho and currently resides in Seattle. He has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBTQ rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.

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About The Author

John T. Reuter

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, studied at the College of Idaho and currently resides in Seattle. He has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.