Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Dea(r)th of Debate

Let's be fair, the Internet has been defined as the free and fair exchange of other people's ideas.

Which it isn't.

It can also be defined as a market place of ideas and opinions, a realm of cultured discourse where opposing views can be argued in an atmosphere of civility and understanding and where diversity of opinion.

It isn't that either.

The last couple of years have seen a massive decline in the quality of debate on the Internet in general and in political forums in particular. Instead of a symphony of ideas, we have a cacophony of tedious repetitive points-scoring. It's reached the point when I can't be bothered to waste my time on sites like which, for all their traffic, are in terminal decline.

Why is this?

There are many reasons and causes - one is I think the changing economic times. When times are good and people have security of employment and/or wealth, debate tends to be couched in a positive light. The background tone is more optimistic and thoughtful. Yes, there are disagreements but these are far more of style then substance.

The global recession since 2007-8 has fundamentally changed society and the terms of the debate itself. People are insecure, angry and don't care who shows it. They want to get back to the good old days of cheap food, cheap fuel, cheap money and property values increasing 10% year-on-year. The world of today is colder and less secure - dire warnings of economic armnageddon abound. The collapse of the Eurozone has been mooted on almost a daily basis for the past three years as has a wider global financial collapse.

People don't react well to fear and insecurity - they retreat to certainties, they don't want to listen to other ideas, they are unwilling or unable to change their viewpoint. They are trapped in the safe zone of their own prejudices and misconceptions.

The other aspect of all this is the way the Internet has affected us all personally and socially. It now seems that for some people - the unemployed, the isolated or the plain socially inadequate - the Internet has become their principal means of social interaction and communication with the outside world. It's wonderful - the Internet is always therre, it's anonymous if you want it to be. You can spend hours, whole days, in front of your computer, regaling the world with your ideas and opinions.

This legion of the lost now dominates chatrooms and forums across the Web. Small cliques take over the various forums, dominating discussion and debate, not by quality but by sheer quantity. Faced with those who can spend hours on a subject, those whose normal lives dictate a much briefer appearance are marginalised and end up withdrawing. Debate becomes more and more restricted to the few as these individuals repeat ad nauseam and ad infinitum their opinions.

Far from empowering and enfranchising the majority, the Internet, as a tool for discussion, has become a closed shop, dominated by those for whom it is the only form of social interaction.

It's a sad development - perhaps it's time to ask whether Freedom of Speech should be more about quality of speech than quantity of speech.

Perhaps some of these individuals should just get out more, talk to other people and understand that debate and discussion isn't simply the ceaseless repetition of their own viewpoint.

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