As the second decade of the twenty-first century nears its end, we find our societies increasingly fragmented and polarised. Only slowly and through thorough research, we start to understand how this phenomenon is related to digital media like the internet and its offspring. Digital more and more defines reality, but our once unified, single, analogue reality is now fragmented into many different, competing realities.
Hence filter bubbles, fake news, and alternative facts. Filter bubbles, a concept coined by Eli Pariser, separate the world views of different groups from each other. Fake news go one step further, creating not only opinion but also deliberate disinformation. And finally, alternative facts introduce ambiguity on the level of basic evidence. When groups of people disagree not only on opinions, but also on facts, they are more effectively shielded from each other. It gets harder to come to an understanding.
Digital media facilitate these divisions in many ways. It is easier and cheaper to manipulate and move bits than atoms. On this foundation rests the entire digitisation as well as the digital transformation. But if bits are our reality (or at least define it), this means reality can be easily and cheaply manipulated. It can be manufactured and sold in new and since unknown ways, on a global scale. We witness a transformation of quantity into quality.
Globalisation or fragmentation?
Fragmentation of reality is nothing new, but has been a dominant theme of modernism in the early twentieth century. The well-known Rashomon effect, named after a 1950 film of the same name, happens when an event is given contradictory interpretations by different individuals involved. In this day and age, fragmentation hits especially hard since it seemingly contradicts the long-term trend towards globalisation.
For thirty years, since the fall of the iron curtain and the invention of the world wide web, we lived in a world that was increasingly becoming one, with communication, trade and travel spinning a web around the globe. Now we see the flip side of the coin, with fragmentations also occurring on a global scale. Digital amplifies both globalisation and fragmentation. We find ourselves in a VUCA world, which is characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
Like it or not, the VUCA world is a world where digital has taken over. By its very nature, the digital world is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. But it yearns for zeros and ones, black-and-white, yin-and-yang, either/or. The binary logic of a digital world forces fragmentation between ins and outs, haves and have-nots, illuminati and hoi polloi. In Silicon Valley groupthink, the universal basic income serves as instrument to tranquilise the unwashed masses, the digital have-nots.
To a certain extent, fragmentation is healthy and nothing to worry about. It only becomes problematic when and where societies lose their basic coherence – where it doesn't make sense, in the literal meaning of the word. Fragmentation needs to be counterbalanced by integration and globalisation. But the opposite is probably also true: Globalisation must be counterbalanced by fragmentation, by the niche, and by the local.