Tribalism Returns as an Essential Tool of the Information Age

It’s no secret that the internet has given us new ways to communicate.  But if you think the information revolution has come and gone, I’ve got news for you: it’s just getting started, and we’re already seeing a dramatic transformation in the way we learn about the world.  It’s also causing a shift in some of the roles we play in society, subtler but no less important.  If this sounds exciting and a bit unnerving, it’s definitely both!  Let me take you on a quick tour of what’s new about this, why it’s actually a bit of a throwback, and the key differences this time around.  I’ll end by exploring some of the tools you and I will need to navigate this new future.

A circle of people's feet

courtesy Grant Beecher

What’s New

Before the internet and the information revolution, most people learned about the world through mass media.  Scientific discoveries and journalistic stories alike were brought to you by TV, radio or newspaper.  Back then, you would have depended on one or two specific, monolithic sources for your information.  Today, you’ve got the internet!  You can access any newspaper you want, check the wisdom of the masses over at Wikipedia, or just connect with someone you know.  Better still, try all three and compare what you learn.  In short, the internet is both flexible and decentralized.  We’ve been given control over what information we get and from whom.

This leads to an important concern: with this vast sea of information at our fingertips, how do we decide which things are true and important?  After all, the number of different sources is essentially infinite, so it’s not feasible to do background research on all of them.  Well, the best shortcut for deciding what to trust is to decide whom you trust.  And in the internet era, the collection of people you trust manifests itself as a social network.  For example, say you come across an article about a new scientific discovery.  Would you take it more seriously if it was posted by a random person, or by a Facebook friend who you know to be a scientist?  The latter, of course.  Thus, social networks are – far from being a wasteland of cat photos and Farmville requests – actually the foundation of the new information society.

Why It’s Actually Old

As science writer Bora Zivkovic asserts in this fascinating essay, the  20th century’s centralized mode of information distribution was an aberration.  For most of human history, we didn’t have such authorities.  If you were to learn something true and useful about the world, that information was most likely come from someone you know and trust – a cousin or a friend, a neighbor or a priest.  In other words, we depended on social networks!  The word generally used for such groups of trusted contacts is tribes, so the state of things today is sometimes referred to as new tribalism.  Here’s another essay, this one from Van Menswoort, explaining the modern, techno-centric version of tribalism.

What’s Different This Time

The tribal structure may be making a comeback, but there are two things that make it a distinctly different phenomenon.  First, the internet is global.  That means that my tribe can include a Japanese businessman as easily as a college student in California, if I want.  Being able to choose our tribes also means that we have access to many more different ideas, cultures and perspectives than we did when our tribes were restricted by geography.

Second, we aren’t restricted to just one tribe anymore.  We can belong to a political mailing list, follow our favorite celebrity on Twitter and interact with various groups of friends on Facebook, at the same time and without conflict.  Being multi-tribal means that we can now tailor our tribes to specific shared needs, interests, or goals.

Linking hands in a circle

Once again, we depend on each other for information (image: stockxchng)

What We Need to Do

In Zivkovic’s article, he focuses on two key aspects of communication: science (“I know something about how the world works, let me tell you about it”) and journalism (“I know what’s happening in the world, let me tell you about it”).  He points out that before mass media, everyone participated in these kinds of communication, not just a few specialists.  And today, this is coming true again.  If we are to survive in a decentralized, information-based society, it is essential that all of us learn how to effectively communicate what we know about the world.  Likewise, the task of critically evaluating evidence now falls to us as individuals.   We must either understand enough about the world to decide whether a particular claim is true, or trust someone else who can.

To science and journalism I would add a third essential skill that is also now falling to individuals: curation.  I’ve written before about how we are all becoming curators of the information universe, but in short, it is up to us to decide what is important enough to pay attention to, so we can pass it along to the people we know.

On the flip side of the coin, we must also relinquish the quixotic quest for perfectly definitive knowledge.  In a world with infinite sources of information, in which our understanding of the world is unavoidably dependent on many other people, we have to be prepared to accept a degree of uncertainty.   With no overarching authority to guide us, we must stitch the truth together from a patchwork of different people and institutions, verifying things when we can and trusting carefully the rest of the time.

Living in a world without a widely accepted, unimpeachable source of information may be a scary prospect.  But remember, the 20th century offered us only the illusion of this anyway.  By investing all our trust in just one or two institutions, what we really accomplished was to outsource these concerns to an external authority.  It’s definitely harder to do the work ourselves, but I suspect it will ultimately be more rewarding as well.

One thing’s for sure:  The days when your local paper told you everything you needed to know about the world are long gone.  Today, it’s up to us to trace the footsteps of our ancestors, arming ourselves with reason and venturing forth into the world to figure things out for ourselves as best we can.

Your turn!  Do you agree with this framework?  Do you think we can thrive in a world like this?  Add your comments below.

2 thoughts on “Tribalism Returns as an Essential Tool of the Information Age

  1. Very interesting post, especially this morning after national and local elections. Connecting with people who are not in my immediate tribes has become one of my priorities in recent years. I want to be curious and open to learning how other people think, especially if we disagree. And I seek to understand the meanings they are attaching to the information they have. Your post helps me think about this in new ways.

    • I hadn’t thought of this in terms of politics, but that is a hugely influential type of tribe that many of us belong to! Your comment also reminds me that the word “tribalism” has a negative connotation too, the idea that we can cluster together to reinforce our own opinions and exclude people outside the tribe. That’s the kind of tribalism we should work against – just as you are doing.

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