As the Web has been earning it’s "2.0" status over the years, there’s been a lot of celebration of how it’s bringing us all closer together, bridging those communications gaps once so arduous to cross. People of all different socioeconomic levels, professions, interests, etc. were coming together in common meeting spaces to share ideas and stories. We smashed through the need for mitigating agents who judge and select what messages to pass on to the masses; and the masses were given a voice with which to respond. We could now talk to one another directly, without the constraints of social, professional or other circles we ran in. We were free to to explore the great wide open for ourselves.

Is this what we have now? Is this what we ever had?

One would think that in such a world there would be lessening polarization along religious, political, ethnic, class and other lines. Instead, it feels as if we’re pushing one another farther away, and hunkering deeper into to ideological foxholes.

There is probably some deep-seated human compulsion to gravitate towards those like us, so despite the wide variety of choice available to us on social networks, we glom onto those we know, and onto those who seem familiar. We seek those with similar interests, beliefs and experiences.

One really has to make an effort break their social habits, and connect with someone unfamiliar, outside their comfort zone. It can be a big step leaving a thoughtful comment or question in response to a blog post, tweet, podcast or Facebook status update you don’t agree with, or on a topic you want to learn more about.

It’s easy to troll and give a knee-jerk criticism, but not to actually engage an other person in dialogue about something new, and maybe even offensive to you.

The perceived beauty of social media—and the internet in general—is that it’s a vehicle in which to cross the boundaries of your own knowledge, biases and prejudices, in order to grow. There is limitless information out there, and a wealth of potential teachers, and even friends.

Unfortunately, not as many individuals seemed to take advantage of this opportunity as some might have initially hoped, or at least not as quickly. Instead, folks more or less have been sticking to what, and who, they know.

It can even be argued that things have been moving backward socially as technology advances. In his TED Talk, "Beware of Online Filter Bubbles", Eli Pariser discusses how filters (Those things in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. that suggest certain friends for you and raise specific posts to the top of your news feeds while burying others.) are hastening the rise of the echo chambers we tend to build around ourselves.

Our natural leanings towards those who think like us often manifest in our online presences as collections of friends/contacts saying lots of stuff we tend to agree with, and agreeing with lots of the stuff we say. Filters only strengthen this by figuring out our preferred demographic of friends, topics of articles to read, and the like, and pre-emptively suggesting them to us, or even inserting them right into our information streams, news feeds, lists, etc.

These filters automatically add bricks to the walls of our echo chambers, distancing us from those who are different in significant ways.

The problem is that we don’t learn by simply agreeing with everyone and everything around us. We need to hear dissenting opinions because they force us to constantly re-examine and sharpen our own stances, giving us a better understanding of things. We have to learn how to interact with people who are different from us because that’s what life in the modern world is all about. Otherwise, our thinking becomes stale, and our society brittle. Frankly, we won’t last long like that.

What’s the answer? Oh, if only I knew. Whatever it is, I think it will have to come out of a change in our thinking and behaviour as humans, and not from more change in technology.

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Recently, I signed up for an automatic monthly donation to www.openmedia.ca. Now I’m not rich, and my contribution is a modest one, but I know that it’s still important, and not just because they sent me a nice thank you note telling me so.

I know it’s important for the general public to start supporting organized efforts opposing big business and government interference in the  development of the internet. I know this is important because these companies, and the government agencies and representatives beholden to them, will not stop attempting to retard advancements with the web, because for them it means lost profits.

Sounds crazy?

Just do a little reading up on what Bell, Rogers and the CRTC have been up to in Canada (OpenMedia.ca is an excellent information source, by the by.) when it comes to "traffic shaping" or "user based billing". Look into Canada’s changing copyright law. South of the border, check out the recent SOPA debate. And this is just the local stuff.

The common denominator is that powerful entities do not want the internet to keep providing the ability to easily publish, broadcast or consume whatever we want, whenever we want. They want to set the terms, and, of course, the price. They have business models based on getting so many million viewers/readers/listeners for their set programs at prescribed times and selling very highly priced advertising attached to these eyes and ears.

This model just doesn’t work anymore given the flexibility technology provides when it comes to consuming content. Understandably, this is a monumental, frightening moment of change for the industry to face, so it almost makes sense for them to try restraining the natural progress of technology, legislation and culture itself. It doesn’t make it the right thing to do, though, and we shouldn’t accept it.

Thus far, the public has been putting up a good fight. Especially within the online community, there’s been a lot of awareness raising successfully translating into pressure being put on elected representatives to stop capitulating to big telecoms. However, I fear this is only the tip of the iceberg. Companies stand to lose untold fortunes and the very reigns of control over technology. I doubt that they’re going to give up because SOPA didn’t pass this time around, or the CRTC did allow Bell and Rogers to choke out the smaller competition unfairly (yet). Telecoms are going to keep attacking from various angles until they get what they want: a slower, ad-laden internet with limited content dictated by a select few.

The onslaught of weaselly lawyers trying to change legislation, back room business deals, greasy lobbying efforts, hammering media campaigns and so on is going to be relentless and overwhelming, which is exactly what they want. They want the public to be distracted, confused, bored and/or worn down enough so that there’s no effective opposition, giving them an opportunity to take down the web in its current form.

What organizations such as www.openmedia.ca and www.internetsociety.org do is help monitor the numerous fronts and let us know when there’s something happening (e.g. a government regulation the telecoms are trying to have changed) so that we can take direct, focused, collective action. They help illuminate issues so those against a free, open internet don’t have the cover of darkness to work under. They help marshal our resources and direct them to where they’re most needed, and will have the best impact.

Such organizations are empowering tools for the grassroots, and are necessary in maintaining an effective defense in what’s sure to be a long, multifaceted, continuous assault on our online freedom.

That’s why I know my small monthly is important.

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My extended absense from this blog is due in part to the work I’ve been doing with the Limestone New Media Group here in Kingston, including the production of a new monthly podcast. I figure since it’s taken time away from The w-Lister, I’m entitled to take a little content in return. So, here is Episode 1 of the LNMG Podcast which will cover a lot of topics falling within the interest of The w-Lister audience, with a Kingston area focus.

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