December 8th, 2011

Is the internet making us more peaceful?

First published on Memeburn.

The modern, real-time web allows us to get instant notification of news and events around the world. More often than not, the stories that are newsworthy enough to spread quickly through the social web are ones of dramatic turmoil, and disaster.

Even in the past two months we have seen the important role that social media has played in spreading information about the unrest in the Middle East, and the Tsunami in Japan. Despite what we see every day, we humans are actually living in the most peaceful time of our history. Is it possible that the modern, social web is contributing to that?

Is the internet making us more peaceful?Influential Cognitive Psychologist Steven Pinker demonstrates in a Ted talk that despite appearances, we (especially in the west, but also worldwide) live in a continuously more peaceful and safe environment. Our chances of death at the hands of another person have declined immensely, and the average amount of deaths per conflict has declined drastically as well. The kind of cruelty that used to be commonplace in our societies just a couple of hundred years ago (or even a few decades ago) we now find abhorrent. In almost all places in the world public executions are a thing of the past, and the removal of body parts as run of the mill punishment for misdemeanors is non-existent.

Why is it that we have become generally less violent and more peaceful? One primary theory (by philosopher Peter Singer) relates to our exposure to, and understanding of the people that we were once violent to. We humans seem to have an in-built sense of empathy that is hardwired for application with family and close friends. This makes perfect sense because of genetic similarities and reciprocity: we have a sense of empathy towards family members because we are also interested in their (our) genes surviving, and we feel empathy towards friends because we are involved in reciprocal obligation based relationships with them. Obviously it is not quite this simple, but that’s the general idea.

This empathetic sense developed as we evolved in small groups of hunter-gatherers. We would have been related to many people in the group, and had strong social relationships with everyone. We would have never understood anything about the members of other groups, so it would have been easy to see them as ‘sub-human’ and therefore justify inflicting violence on them. As our social circles have widened, and especially in more recent times as the world has become more globalised, our understanding of other people has deepened.

Even a couple of hundred years ago we might have had long term social relationships with people from vastly different parts of the word to ourselves. These kinds of relationships serve to ‘humanise’ people very different from ourselves, and the more human they are to us, the less inclined we are to be violent to them.

Fast forward to the last ten years, and the amount of information we are consuming on a daily basis about other people’s lives and cultures is unprecedented. It does not have to be direct studies of other cultures, or profiles of foreign people on Facebook. Every bit of international news; every window into something produced by people from a different society to our own deepens our understanding of other humans. This deepening of understanding comes in the form of being better able to see things from other people’s perspectives – essentially being able to empathise with them. The innate empathy that developed because of its usefulness with friends and family has become generalised to encompass a wider and wider array of people.

It is possible now to see how the internet, and particularly the modern, social web, is contributing in a significant way to this progression. Every day more and more of the world’s inhabitants are getting online, and being exposed to the lives and habits of everyone else. The more this happens the more of a full picture we form of other people’s day to day existences, their troubles, their successes, their interests and their perspectives. The more this happens, the more our spheres of empathy widen and the more peaceful we become.

Of course we will always have sadistic and violent urges. Powerful people will always abuse their power, and conflict may well always be a part of the human condition. But it seems there is a distinct possibility that the younger members of our species, growing up with daily exposure to the lives of people from different countries and cultures, will one day become leaders of our societies who are more filled with empathy and understanding than ever before.

As long as we can avoid the world becoming like a set of YouTube comments, is it too far fetched to think that the internet can help propel us further along the pathway to peace that we are already on? With the right intentions, and a bit of faith and luck hopefully it’s not far fetched at all.

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