Billy Stampfl: Our great American opportunity

Monday, September 11, 2017 - 4:08pm

The rise of the internet has ushered in an age of enhanced interconnectedness. New innovations like social media and smartphones link individuals in ways previously unimaginable. Advances in technology have allowed us to connect digitally across states, countries and continents. With social media and smartphones, the American people can share opinions, debate issues and achieve unprecedented progress. But we’re failing to take advantage of it, as we’re more divided now than ever. 

A Pew Research Center report in January found that 95 percent of Americans now own a cellphone, and 77 percent carry around a smartphone — up from 35 percent in 2011. The proportion of internet users in the United States is even higher: currently at 88 percent and rising every year.

The digitalization of the United States has completely shifted its socioeconomic landscape, and it has brought people together like never before. High school classmates used to wait 10 years to catch up after graduation; now, they can learn about one another’s lives daily through Facebook. The iPhone makes texting easy; a quick conversation with a cousin on the other side of the country is only a few clicks away. And these examples are old news — innovations like driverless cars and the cloud will pull Americans even closer together.

In fact, it’s unlikely the accelerating pace of connectivity will slow down. According to Moore’s law, which states the power of microchips doubles every two years, it is only going to keep speeding up. Moore’s law is why we’re in this moment right now, and it’s why we’re going to continue on a breakneck rate of digitalization — and connectivity — for the foreseeable future. High-powered computing means high-speed communications with significantly more people. So what’s the use of digitalization and its greatest outcome, connectivity?

At a conference in 1994, the late historian William H. McNeill expressed his belief that the primary engine of history is contact with strangers holding unfamiliar skills and notions. He believed in the importance of “our capacity to invent new ideas, practices and institutions.” Further, he said invention "… flourished best when contacts with strangers compelled different ways of thinking. ...”

McNeill’s hypothesis has a renewed gravity in 2017: There has never been a better time for new inventions and new ideas, because there has never been a period in human history steeped in so much contact with strangers — the kind of contact that induces new and different thinking. In short, digitalization breeds connectivity, and connectivity drives history through new ideas.

So why then are we becoming more politically divided? Political parties are racing to the extremes, and Americans are following, hurdling toward the far left or the far right and dismissing any opportunities for compromise and understanding. How could this be?

Much has been said about social media’s apparently negative impact on society. Prof. Edward Mendelson of Columbia University has written about the internet’s role in making our lives more public but less authentic and connected. Virginia Heffernan, in her book “Magic and Loss,” postulates that social media has become a platform for celebrating ourselves rather than starting a dialogue. Even former President Barack Obama has weighed in on the pitfalls of social media. Just before the election he said Facebook and Twitter have served to deepen political divisions.

These theories, though valid, simply define the dilemma. Our task is to use our newfound connectivity to actually connect.

Need another reason to think we have to start embracing connectedness? The Islamic State group lives and breathes on it; the terror group likely wouldn’t be relevant if it didn’t take advantage of digitalization — particularly through social media — to inspire jihadists around the globe. ISIS, unlike al-Qaida and the terror groups before it, deploys a strategy dependent less on control and more on rousing potential terrorists to do damage. Thus, jihadists have employed the digital age better than we have. Terrorists have adapted. The American people haven’t.

We need to embrace the opportunity that interconnectedness presents. In a country that has worked to fight racism, sexism and homophobia (and made great strides in each of those battles, notwithstanding different setbacks), one of our biggest issues now is that we can’t be around people who disagree with us. We’re stuck in silos, even though digitalization makes building bridges easier than ever before.

The choice between coming together and running apart will help define our country’s standing in an increasingly digital world. With globalization at full speed, doing nothing will only cause the United States to fail. Silencing the opposition by muting, blocking or unfollowing on social media won’t make us any better at understanding and compromising. We need social media to act as our friend: Facebook and Twitter should be geared toward conversation and the collective construction of ideas. After all, this is the purpose of the age in which we’re living — one of newfound influences, networks and platforms. This is the Age of Connectivity. It’s time we start taking advantage of it.

Billy Stampfl can be reached at bstampfl@umich.edu.