Is the internet dividing us? Is it Something Else?

Photo by Hannah Wei on Unsplash

Over 100 years ago, French sociologist and a founding thinker of that topic, Emile Durkheim made some interesting observations that we might apply to our current world and the role the internet is playing in our societies. And while I argue the internet does indeed play a role, we can’t blame the internet. It’s just a technology. Technologies are not opinionated. But humans certainly are. It is our cultures and societies that shape technologies, to help us adapt to our evolution. So what is actually happening?

Durkheim had two macro-level views of society. The first was mechanical solidarity. In this form of society, the division of labour remains fairly simple and there are a consistent set of values that reinforce each other. It’s such a powerful collective consciousness, way of thinking and being, that there is little room for individuality.

The second is what he called organic solidarity. This too relates to the division labour. In this idea, he suggests that as societies become more complex, especially in production processes and also bureaucracy, individuals play increasingly specialized roles. As a result, they become less similar in their views, interests, values and beliefs. So we end up having less in common with one another. Yet at the same time, we become more dependent on one another.

The farmer depends on the manufacturer of the farm equipment, the equipment manufacturer more dependent on the chip manufacturers and software developers and of course, the internet. You can quickly see the massive divisions of labour and degrees of specialization. Just twenty years ago, tractors on a farm didn’t rely on GPS systems, software developers, chips and touch-screen manufacturers etc.

Durkheim says that, in such a system, individualism grows at the expense of common values, beliefs and normative rules of society. Enter the internet.

We talk now of the “gig economy” and the “great resignation”, which may more accurately be termed the “great exploration.” It is only the great resignation for shareholders and corporate executive. Employees are not resigning from work, they’re able to explore new ideas and opportunities, largely because of the internet and our digital society.

In the corporate world and thus the gig economy, we are seeing ever more specialised job roles. Social media managers, algorithmists, data scientists, data wranglers, mobile versus desktop app developers, Full Stack developers, DevOps and so on.

As a result of social media coming along, enabled by the internet, the barriers between industrialism and civil society that were based around analog media (print, radio, television) collapsed. Now, anyone with an opinion or idea, could get it to the masses. The issues we see in social politics today have been around for hundreds of years in various forms. The internet, mostly via social media, have enabled them to enter the broader consciousness of society. The divisions of today have always been there. Now they’re amplified and available to anyone with a device that can connect to the internet.

It is inarguable that our world has become more complex, more reliant on technology. More connected. All of this more than ever before. Bureaucracies in both government and business have become bigger and more cumbersome. The division of labour too, has never been so complicated.

Hence, if we follow Durkheim’s thinking, we are very much in an organic solidarity phase. As the world is largely based now on a Western capitalist system and technologies like the internet, have evolved to support that system (think eCommerce and Amazon, Shopify, Ali Baba, Google, Baidu etc.) we’ve had a massive division of labour and shifts in society.

So the simple answer is that yes, the internet is dividing us. But it is also more complicated. It’s not just a division of ideas, it’s the division of labour. It is also the start of re-thinking how our sociocultural systems need to work, how we want them to work.

In the near term, i believe, we are going to go through a greater period of more individualistic divisions. Because people have the ability to socialize ideas, organize and coordinate like never before, we will see ever greater pressures put on systems that were designed prior to the internet. They were not designed for such a multitude of ideas or the easiness of an individual to quit a job in a large corporation and go do their own thing more easily.

We may come to see a new form of civil economic collectivism. Unions 2.0 if you will. It was the rise of unions that enabled a balance between industrial capitalism that saw workers not as human, but as exploitable machines. Unions struck a balance. But the unions of today have failed to keep up. They too, were designed for a system that didn’t have the internet.

Populism, nationalism, Alt Right, Alt Left, are all symptoms of this organic solidarity. We’re seeing a greater drive again towards unionization. Especially in the technology industry where front-line employees are again being treated as cogs in the wheel. The division of wealth is fast approaching where in our history, we have seen social revolutions.

We don’t yet have something that resembles mechanical solidarity. We won’t ever again. Unless we shut off the internet and that is not plausible. It would cause economic collapse. Perhaps we will form a humanist solidarity? Perhaps that will come out of the biggest survival and adaption challenge we have faced since we climbed down from the trees. Climate change. Perhaps it will be something else.

All I know is, for the near term, perhaps a few decades or longer, we will be in for a bit of turbulence. As the Chinese proverb goes, “May you live in interesting times.” We are certainly in those. And while there may be great divisions now, much confusion and new sociocultural systems evolving, we will evolve. We will adapt. Exciting new opportunities are ahead of us. Humans are specialists at surviving across many niches. Our digital age represents a new niche to adapt to.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

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Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious