Obama pledges to unite a divided people. A new book highlights the enormous challenge he faces – and drives home that this challenge is only partially about political division.
The Internet as a unifier or divider
When the Internet emerged, it precipitated a vigorous debate: would it unite or divide? Would people use the power to connect in a way that would expose them to diverse viewpoints or would they seek other people who shared their views and become even more wedded to those views?
Here’s the concern. In the physical world, we live in communities where we are forced by circumstance to interact with others who hold diverse views, thereby tempering whatever strong views we might hold. In contrast, the virtual world holds no such constraints. We can seek out those who share our views wherever they reside in the world and choose to associate only with them.
Even the smallest fringe groups can find a critical mass of like-minded folks across the world, insulate themselves from divergent views and reinforce each other’s beliefs. Extreme beliefs become even more extreme as we find daily reinforcement for these views in our online cohorts, even if those around us in the physical world clearly hold other views. Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com is perhaps one of the most vocal proponents of this concern.
Anyone who has wandered through the vast echo chambers of the blogosphere is likely to be sympathetic to this view. Political bloggers on the right and left seem to be preaching to the choir – whether evangelical or secular. Radical Muslim jihadist sites rally the faithful wherever they reside in the world and create closeted communities where indoctrination and mobilization can proceed without distraction from secular sources. Digerati cluster in their own discussion forums and social networks, boasting they have never encountered anyone who is not on Twitter.
The truth may in fact be more nuanced. I actually was surprised at how little empirical research I could find to test whether the Internet in fact divides or unifies (I would certainly welcome pointers to research that addresses this issue). An interesting study recently published by Eszter Hargittai and two other researchers in Public Choice suggests that liberal and conservative bloggers tend to link much more frequently to those who share the blogger’s ideological position in their postings. While there is some linking in these postings to competing perspectives, roughly half of these links are what they call “straw man links,” pointing to content that the poster is seeking to discredit. Research by Kelly Garrett at the University of California, Irvine, indicates that users of the Internet tend to seek out information that supports their opinions, but do not actively avoid opposing views when they come across them.
Meanwhile, back in the physical world
But, while focusing on these trends in the virtual world, we have missed what is going on around us in the physical world. Over the past several decades, people in the United States have moved in growing numbers – and they are moving into more and more homogenous communities that reflect their own beliefs.
The migration pattern has been carefully documented in an interesting and alarming new book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop in collaboration with Robert Cushing. Bishop points out that over the past decade over 100 million Americans have moved from one county to another – 4-5% of the population each year.
We have always been a restless nation, a nation of immigrants and pioneers that journeyed over great distances to escape oppression and pursue opportunity. As Bishop observes,
There have always been patterns to migration and development. Southern blacks moved to Chicago in the 1950s. White Appalachians took the “hillbilly highway” north to booming Cleveland and Detroit after World War II. These were migrations in response to economic hardship and opportunity. The movements we saw from 1970 to 2000 were different. The flows were selective, and they varied by personal characteristics, not broad demographic descriptions. People were sorting, and the movements themselves were changing economies.
Bishop explains the sorting process in the following terms:
Freed from want and worry, people were reordering their lives around their values, their tastes, and their beliefs. . . . The Big Sort was big because it constituted a social and economic reordering around values, ways of life, and communities of interests. . . . Marketing analyst J. Walker Smith described the same phenomenon as extreme and widespread “self-invention,” a desire to shape and control our identities and our surroundings. . . . People are unwilling to live with trade-offs, he said. So they are “re-creating their environments to fit what they want in all kinds of ways, and one of the ways is that they are finding communities that fit their values – where they don’t have to live with neighbors or community groups that might force them to compromise their principles or their tastes.”
What has been the consequence? Bishop maintains that
We have built a country where everyone can choose the neighbors (and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of “those people” who live just a few miles away.
The clustering process
Reading this reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s wonderful book, The Diamond Age that described a world in the future where nations had receded into insignificance and the population had realigned into enclaves of highly distinctive cultures. Neal Stephenson’s eagerly awaited new book Anathem, to be released this month, apparently returns to this theme by predicting an even bigger sort – between an ADD pleasure-seeking society and those who pursue intellectual inquiry in monastic separation from the broader society. Maybe William Gibson really is right – “the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.”
Of course, marketers have known for a long time that we tend to live in clusters of like-minded folks. Claritas does very well with its Prizm segmentation data that ties specific zip codes to 66 distinct geo-demographic segments. This segmentation data was nicely summarized two decades ago in Michael J. Weiss’ The Clustering of America.
Bishop provides persuasive data that this process is intensifying and represents a long-term secular trend with no sign of slowing down. Bishop traces this fracturing of America to 1965 when widespread turmoil caused people to seek the company of others who shared their views. More recently, he suggests that the process has been sustained through patterns of clustering in cities based on economic drivers.
Where does this take us over time? Bishop is clearly concerned that this segmentation of America will intensify political conflict. He worries that members of communities become more extreme in their views as a result of reinforcement from their neighbors and diminishing contact with those who hold differing views. In the extreme, this may lead to the kind of political unbundling of the country anticipated by Juan Enriquez in his excellent book, The Untied States of America (although the segmentation described by Bishop at the county and even neighborhood level makes this political unbundling more challenging).
The bottom line
Bishop does a very good job of tracing out the potential implications and concerns of this sorting process for our civic life. But why should executives care about this process of geographic segmentation? Certainly it intensifies the need to mount segmented marketing programs to reach appropriate consumers, but the implications extend far beyond marketing.
Innovation within companies. Innovation depends upon cognitive diversity, as Scott Page persuasively argues in his book, The Difference (reviewed here). If this geographic sorting reduces cognitive diversity in specific locations, companies will need to choose locations for their operations carefully to tap into cognitive diversity across locations. Otherwise, they may become trapped in geographic silos that inhibit creative processes. More broadly, Bishop cites evidence that in fact innovation, at least as measured in terms of patent production, is accelerating in certain cities while decreasing in others. Certain values, interests and ways of life may foster innovation while others inhibit it. If this is the case, companies may need to develop innovation maps to drive decisions regarding location of operations.
Seeking serendipity. As we gather in geographic areas that reflect and reinforce our values, interests and ways of life rather than testing and challenging them, we may need to look for other ways to enhance serendipity – the chance encounters that introduce us to new resources or ways of looking at the world that we had not anticipated and that spark the creative process. Large, diverse metropolitan areas used to offer this kind of serendipity on a daily basis, as Jane Jacobs and others so persuasively demonstrated. Bishop’s Big Sort suggests that serendipity in geographic locations may become more limited. We’ll still run into lots of people we didn’t know, but the diversity of their perspectives will be much narrower.
What will we find to enhance serendipity? Perhaps this is ultimately where the Internet may play a positive role. The first generation of the World Wide Web was driven by search. The next generation of the WWW may be driven by environments and tools that enhance serendipity. Companies that find ways to amplify serendipity may reap the greatest economic rewards as we all struggle to improve our return on attention.
Seeking productive friction. Diversity and density create the potential for something else even more valuable – productive friction. When we have to live in close proximity to others with very different ways of looking at the world, three things happen. We often find ourselves working together, perhaps after a serendipitous encounter. But, because we have diverse perspectives, we will likely discover that we disagree, generating some heated discussions, or friction, but also some new insights as we confront differing perspectives. Finally, because we live in close proximity, we have strong incentives to find a productive resolution to the disagreements. Of course, it doesn’t always work out this way – witness the history (at least until recently) of cities like Belfast where friction became very dysfunctional. But the point is, if all the people around us share our perspectives, we are much less likely to generate friction. Without friction, we will probably end up being far less creative. Serendipitous encounters often lead to creative sparks but significant new knowledge creation tends to require sustained face to face engagement. As the Big Sort plays out, we may find that our quest for comfort saps our creativity.
Social instability. Bishop notes that part of the Big Sort is the tendency for people with higher education to migrate to certain cities, while people with lower education are migrating to other cities. This in turn has led to growing income disparities across cities, reinforced by the growing asymmetries in patent production mentioned earlier. Younger generations are more mobile than the older generation and the young are gathering in the more economically dynamic cities while the older generation remains in the less dynamic cities. How long can this process continue without some sort of backlash?
As discussed earlier, Bishop describes the Big Sort as a choice people make as a result of increasing affluence and more degrees of freedom in terms of location. But there is a dark side to the Big Sort. At least in part, it appears to be also driven by a quest for safety and stability in a time of accelerating change. Hunkering down with those who think like you can be very reassuring when everything around you seems to be in flux. If many of these enclaves are also increasingly marginalized, they may become seedbeds for opposition to the public policies that unleashed and sustained the change process.
Whether the Big Sort is driven more by fear or by freedom of association, I worry about its consequences for creativity and innovation. At the extreme, the Big Sort could become the basis for the Big Backlash. But even without this extreme outcome, we will all be a lot poorer as this social dynamic plays out.