We’re trapped in a toxic cycle of fragmentation and centralisation

Fragmentation is getting a really bad press, right now. There are some good reasons for that.

Fragmentation is getting a really bad press, right now. There are some good reasons for that: it’s clear that many countries are seeing a rapid rise in political polarisation, and a lack of coherence in their populations. And yes, the internet is almost certainly the vehicle through which this has happened. In my own country, the two major parties are both on the verge of fragmenting, with Brexit being the major wedge that’s splitting them - and there’s decent evidence that the internet had a hand in that, too.

While the state of global politics is certainly a cause for concern, there’s a danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. We should be asking ourselves if fragmentation is actually a good or a bad thing?

At one level, it’s clearly bad. Part of the polarisation we’ve seen in our civic discourse in recent years can be attributed to it.

Dunbar’s fragmentation

As we’ve already discussed, humans tend to forms groups around the Dunbar number. Pre-internet, those groups were formed predominantly geographically. You maintained relationships only with those who you had geographic proximity to, or with whom your relationship was strong enough to overcome the distancing effects of, well, distance.

That tended to have a moderating effect on people’s politics. Because you were slicing by geography first, and then comparability and belief, it made it more than likely that you would have people within your social circle of different views, hobbies and interests. That had a natural moderating effect on your views, and helped you, at least, to see people with differing perspectives as exactly that: people.

The internet, of course, removes the boundaries of geography from our social interaction. Instead of forming groups by geography, we form them by interest, hobby, or political persuasion. In essence, we fill up Dunbar’s Number with a greater number of people who think the same way as us, and whom we don’t necessarily interact with physically nearly as much. That, in turn, leads to us restricting our geographically proximate social interactions, because we’re fulfilling that need elsewhere.

I’m a member of a very active local Facebook group for my town on the south coast of the UK. The biggest flashpoint in that group, not surprisingly, is Brexit. The flare ups are particularly acute because people - be they leavers or remainders - are used to spending time in a feed which primarily reflects their own beliefs back to them. Then, suddenly, they are presented with a radically different viewpoint through their geographic connection. Now, it’s not the norm. It’s uncomfortable, unpleasant. And it leads to flash points.

Fragmentation from Centralisation

But hang on. That’s a Facebook group. Facebook is almost the polar opposite of fragmentation, because it’s a global monoculture for social interaction. It’s not actually an example of fragmentation at all. It’s an example of centralisation.

As Martin alluded to last week, the problem isn’t actually fragmentation at all. Fragmentation is natural amongst people. It’s how they manage their social connections — and for the vast majority of us, social connections are vital — at a sustainable level. The problem is our ability to manage fragmentation along ideological grounds rather than geographic is somewhat lacking — and we can find evidence for that in the fact that most of the great conflicts of the world have been motivated by ideological split.

The growth of centralising digital services, which make it both easier for us to find ideological comrades, as well as making us less dependent on geographical connection is at the root of the current problem. Toxic online communities have always existed. It’s just become ever easier for them to grow through recruitment, as people encounter their ideas through the same service they're using to chat to their friends. And, as the algorithm shift what they see around their interest, those earlier, dissenting voices slowly fade from view.

In essence, fragmentation is fine, as long as your social groups are “fuzzy” around the edges. If you’re encountering dissenting voices and views amongst your friends, you’re less likely to calcify your beliefs around a malevolent ideology.

Fight fragmentation with fragmentation

So perhaps, somewhat counter-intuitively, the best response to our fragmentation problem is — more fragmentation. Most of us live in messy, complicated webs of interests. It is unreasonable for a single social service, a single online shop — and, perhaps, even a single search engine — to serve all those needs well. We need a diversity of services to cater to that fuzzy fragmentation of our time, our identities and our passions that make life so interesting.

And right now, digital is not delivering that.

The dangers of this centralisation were reflected yet again this week, with the news that Eero - a mesh Wi-fi networking company - had been bought by Amazon. Eero was one of those products which I had been desperately looking forward to arriving in Europe. Small, powerful and easy to manage mesh network? For someone who works from home in a three story town-house, and makes his living in digital, that sounds like bliss.

But now, I’m faced with the knowledge that if I do use Eero, at some point I’m likely to be contributing to Amazon’s ever-growing pool of knowledge about me and my family. And I’m really not comfortable with that.

While there’s an obvious appeal to corporates to centralise and own everything, in this age of surveillance capitalism, the benefits to us as consumers, are less obvious. And, in fact, we’ve known this for decades. That’s why competition and monopoly laws exist. Fragmentation of business breeds competition — and competition breeds innovation.


Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash