Blown To Bits

Does the Internet Result in Narrower Thinking?

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

For years, people have been observing that the wonderful surfeit of information sources available through the Web can result, paradoxically, in a narrowing of our perspectives. In the political realm, for example, liberals can now get all their news from liberal sites, and conservatives from conservative sites. As Cass Sunstein observes in Infotopia, speaking and listening only to people who think like us has a polarizing force — everyone just gets more extreme.

The Boston Globe has a good review today of a paper published in Science some months ago reporting that groupthink is affecting even scientific research publications — the lists of cited papers are becoming more homogeneous, not more varied, as the information sources diversify. There is even an analogy with popular music — yes, there is a “long tail” of music now available for special tastes, but the small number of big winners dominate music sales now more than ever. And so it is with scientific papers — with most available online, a smaller number are cited more often than in the past.

The paper suggests that Web search is fundamentally different from search through paper records, which puts more context around sources and causes us to be more critical before pursuing a reference. Clicking on links thoughtlessly is just too easy, and we are losing something in the process.

Hardly an open-and-shut case — the article mentions several dissents — but it makes sense to me.

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