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Diversity Series: Escaping the trap of the technological walled garden

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Is technology limiting our diversity of opinions? As part of Dialogue Magazine's Diversity Series, Paul Keery discusses how we are unconsciously and consciously excluding information, how to approach diverse opinions, and encourage students to consistently analyze and understand each other's differentiating viewpoints.

How Technology is Limiting Our Viewpoints

It used to be a common axiom, upheld and cherished by those who believed in democracy and freedom of expression: there are always two sides to every story. Diversity of opinion was the basis upon which our society was built. All sides of an issue could be heard, and governments, with citizen input, could arrive at compromises between different viewpoints that worked for a large plurality of its citizens.

Now, thanks to the greatest revolution in information distribution since the printing press, we may well squander one of the hardest-earned inheritances in human history. The internet provides us with access to information undreamed of twenty years ago, but it also is acting to limit our access to information, and turning us into ideologues, unwilling or unable to acknowledge that other people's viewpoints are equally valid and worthy of consideration. People are doing this both consciously and unconsciously.

Many users are unaware of it, but searches on Google or Facebook are affected by a user's previous choices; the results of searches about the same topic by different individuals will return different results, based on the history of previous searches and result selections by the user. This can be turned off, but it requires a conscious decision to do this. Google users, for example, can turn off their "Web History" (a record of a user's previous searches), and Google will change and expand its search parameters.

There is also a concern that search engine algorithms can be adjusted to reduce the likelihood of certain websites appearing, especially if those programming the search engine dislike the information or viewpoints appearing on those websites. Again, this is something that is beyond the control of individual users, but it could affect a user's access to information.

Individuals are Consciously Excluding Information

But, to make matters worse, users can consciously choose to restrict the information that they receive over the internet. News aggregators, in which news items are gathered from various sources and are presented in compact form for the user to read or ignore, are very popular. But these can be programmed by the user to reflect the user's preferences; items or commentary that the user disagrees with can be eliminated altogether. This allows the user to live in a "walled garden" she has built for herself, blissfully and willfully unaware of opposing viewpoints.

From there, demonizing opposing views and the person who holds those views is becoming increasingly common. And so the internet has become a vale of walled gardens, each interested only in its narrow little world, and each quick to insult and ridicule the other at the slightest provocation.

No society can hope to govern itself successfully if its members cannot even acknowledge each other's right to hold a different viewpoint, and that all those holding different viewpoints have legitimate concerns and interests to uphold. We have come to glorify absolutist ideologues on either extreme of the political spectrum, where once we honored those who could find ways to build workable compromises.

The Role of Educators in Protecting Diversity of Opinion

Educators have a particular responsibility to ensure that students understand and respect diversity of opinion. How can students be taught to develop their critical thinking skills if they are not presented with all sides of a debate to study and analyze?

How Educators Can Protect Diversity of Opinion

Educators need to update the old axiom for the twenty-first century to read that there are always two sides to every story – especially when there is only one. If any person in a debate tries to demonize or deny another viewpoint, that effort should start warning alarms blaring in any educator's mind: what is that person trying to hide from me? Students should be taught to recognize this tactic as well.

Second, educators need to develop sources of alternative viewpoints that students can easily find and study. Fortunately, Canadians are well served by our major national newspaper chains, each of which offers its own perspective on events and occupies its own place on the political spectrum. The Opinion and Commentary pages of each publication are especially valuable in this regard. They can be found, online and on the political spectrum, as follows:

Newspaper Political Orientation Website
The Globe and Mail Centre / Liberal
The National Post Centre / Conservative
Sun Media Conservative
The Toronto Star Liberal

Students may save the articles by using the "Print" command on their browsers, and then clicking on the "Save As PDF" option; students may then reread and analyze the article at their leisure.

News aggregator websites will allow students to examine many different articles about many different subjects. For a liberal/left wing perspective, students could visit the Huffington Post aggregator, while a conservative/right wing perspective can be found at Instapundit. Visiting these two websites is like visiting two different planets; the difference in viewpoint and values is wider than the Grand Canyon.

It would also be possible to visit websites of Canadian television networks such as the CBC, CTV, CBC Newsworld, or Sun Media in Canada, or any of the multitude of television networks' websites available worldwide. However, it is more difficult to stream news broadcasts, and it may not be possible to record a broadcast for further review.

By visiting every website, students can readily find and examine a number of viewpoints about almost any political, social or economic issue of the day.

Encouraging Students to Analyze, Discuss and Debate Various Viewpoints

An educator must also encourage analysis, discussion and debate by her students of the articles and viewpoints they encounter on these sources. Class discussion, as long as the educator makes it clear to the students that discussion will end if it loses focus on issues and degenerates into personal insults, can be a very valuable method of encouraging an appreciation for differing viewpoints–and for fomenting the acceptance of the principle that people can agree to disagree and still respect each other.

Educators may also assign students to read and analyze different viewpoints about an issue in order to develop and synthesize their own views. This written assignment would require students to explain why they agree with one viewpoint–and why, giving reasons, they disagree with another viewpoint.

In this way, educators can help students to break out of their walled gardens, and develop the most important skill needed in a democratic society: the desire and ability to listen to, respect, and compromise with others in order to achieve goals.

This may be one of the greatest challenges educators shall ever face. If we remain shuttered within our walled gardens, and continue to demonize each other, none of our gardens will survive–and our democratic story will be over and told. 

—Paul Keery
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