Today’s Huddled Masses

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

I’ll make them mindless drones like the ones before.”

-Poem on the Statue of Liberty (2003 update)

one of the most compelling promises of the technological revolution is the ability for individuals to find knowledge and experiences that were not available to them before. the barrier to entry on the internet is so low that almost anyone can now publish their thoughts (like me!), no matter how illogical or misguided (like me!), and hopefully find answers to their questions (like me someday, i hope). it promises to bring together minorities, promote the cause of those without existing mass support, and expose people to things that they would not have seen otherwise.

but what i’m seeing a lot of lately is this technology being used to isolate groups from each other. now, instead of a misguided belief being held by a lone person in solitude, this person finds support online, in extremist groups that reinforce the isolationist belief without the objective examination that the internet promises. it seems that you really can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink–and further, once the horse sees other horses not drinking, he’ll feel more justified in avoiding the water himself.

a ny times article today on Bill Maher‘s new show, “Real Time with Bill Maher” summarizes it as “a flagrantly liberal talk show that provides like-minded viewers with instant gratification.” fantastic. now liberals can watch only things that pat them on the back and tell them they were right all along, while conservatives will be over on Fox News watching “The O’Reilly Factor“. it’s too bad, i used to admire Maher’s late night show–though he had a decidedly liberal bent, he was always fair to his guests and ridiculed bad logic more than opposing views.

but surely the internet is different, right? maybe not. i spend lots of time researching and reading about the power of networks to increase knowledge and build community. the new “killer apps” of the internet are programs that connect people with similar interests, in the hope that they will work together to build a greater whole. my favorite website,, is the current champion of this, with a system that they recently bragged received the highest customer satisfaction score ever for a service provider. people love being told who they are, what they like, and who they are similar to. i myself recently added all of my technology heros to my “favorite people” list, in the hope that the system would recommend things to make me more like them. similarly, google news thrives on its ability to show you what’s important based on factors “including how often and on what sites a story appears elsewhere on the web“–in other words, what everyone else is seeing.

but i have been feeling a bit uneasy lately about my new self-imposed tunnel vision. sure, i’m moving faster than ever down this path of knowledge, and every day i am exposed to new technologies, philosophies, and opportunities that i never would have seen before. but i wonder if that makes me a modern, thoughtful, man–or just a really well-trained lab rat. the danger of this approach, of course, is that i might have picked the wrong path in the first place. then i would just be running, “at an incredible rate“, away from where i should really be.

it’s nice in this situation to have someone who provides an authoritative viewpoint, so i “lean not on my own understanding“. of course you can have the same problems with picking the wrong path that existed before–but having studied that quite a bit, i am confident in my God’s authority, and it is certainly better than relying solely on strangers with selfish desires similar to mine.

using that viewpoint in a world of technology will require some radically different filtering methods. Jesus promoted the cause of the downtrodden, not those with lots of social capital. He spent His time helping others find truth, not trying to succeed himself. it was certainly an editorial point of view–the kingdom of God is not a democracy; its policies are not determined by page clicks or user polls. so it may well prove impossible to combine the collaborative power of group filtering with the divine mandate of objective truth. but if we can use the first to help discover the second, instead of isolating people by their beliefs we will have truly brought them together. let me know if you have ideas on how we might do this.