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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

A little story or three on bias and connection

I am currently consulting on a book about empathy, and teaching an online course about liberal arts learning. This week in the course, we're considering scholarly sources and the value of recognizing bias. And in that way life likes to do, the two jobs got together in my head, pulled up chairs, ordered coffee, and became friends.

So, I wanted to share a little story (with a couple of stories stuffed inside) about Bias and Me.

This is my third book consultation in a year and through it and other life experiences -- which are what distinguish bias from prejudice in our class material -- I've come to perceive a trend: Sometimes men of a certain age, professional success, and global experience develop a bias against the new-old-days and in particular the present ways of so-called communicating.

(Foreshadowing: our protagonist Rini isn't sure the ol' days were so good nor the new ones so new or bad.)

In this job, it came to a point in a chapter on communication and empathy -- in particular, on social media. Some folks, based on their experiences riding high in various communications professions (like marketing and broadcast journalism) a few decades ago, have a pretty strong idea that "new media" are bad. The nature of social media is to divide and reduce the globe and all of us to angry, small-minded, non-thinking word- and meme-combatants.

(Fun fact: Wikipedia tells us "dumbing down" was a phrase in use in the 1930s. The good ol' days.)

Enter Rini, professor of media studies, analyzer of communication across cultures, user of Twitter (like, a lot). My bias is toward seeing people who dis "social media" as people who don't know social media, or at least have not observed or experienced its potential. Nothing pushes my buttons like implying the good-ol-days of newspapers and telephones and broadcast TV news and cups of tea in a parlor were the Unbiased Way God Intended Humans to Communicate. Let me pass you one of my spare copies of Amusing Ourselves to Death from 1985, okay?

So, I pulled together all these wicked positive data on how social media (Twitter) can save the world and along the way, I 1) had to wade through all these dominant data that show social media is designed to exacerbate our biases; 2) remembered a fantastic book I'd been reading earlier this year; and 3) remembered a fantastic academic paper I gave at the Popular Culture Association conference in Toronto in 2002.

And I recognized and sort of acknowledged my own bias that was suppressing a point of connection that was right there in the research. In 2002 I wrote about my observations and experiences of being a U2 fan online and in line at concerts where a hundred-fifty or so of us would gather from the wee hours of the morning on the day of a concert to ensure we got inside the arena first, to grab the closest spots in the general admission sections right up against the stages. We knew where to line up, who we might see again from the last city we attended, and what the parking and public bathroom situations were because of our interaction in online fan forums. (Many were using them, too, to arrange places to sleep and transportation to the next gig.)

This was pre-Twitter (though it continues in that vein through today), but it was a similar concept and it actually brought my client's and my competing biases together, introduced them, got them settled in comfy seats, and ordered them coffee and pie as they got to know each other.

My argument about the (potential and real) valuable outcomes of social media use is that it can connect humans who may be especially disconnected. Maybe geographically, more often sub-culturally. It allows people to say and hear what they might not otherwise say and hear. My client's argument about the (potential and real) harmful outcomes of social media use is that it can divide humans and cater to especially strong perceptual and confirmation biases. It walls them off from seeing or hearing what they would really rather never see or hear. In addition, this perspective goes, it makes us all "bowl alone," not talking to each other in person or making eye contact.

 So how about if we looked at some examples of people using social media to connect across such vast divides, face to face in situations that would otherwise justify fear and biases? That's where (techno)sociologist Zeynep Tufekci's Twitter and Tear Gas book comes in, and especially two extraordinary stories on p. 106-108. I highly recommend buying the book (proceeds support refugees), but it's also viewable without cost (link and click-through above). I won't retell her two stories of social media meets face to face here. They are striking examples of overcoming bias in particularly volatile circumstances, and they reflect arguably uneven examples of self-awareness and recognition of bias. Go read 'em.

So we come to one of the questions in this week's class: What is the value of recognizing one's own bias? For one, for me, it is the potential for productive, even genuine connection that can result, and the movement toward more whole, integrated understanding of (and empathy for) our co-humans. Bias isn't necessarily wrong or even bad, if we think of it as an angle. Angles gonna angle. Proportion is all out of whack. But we usually know how to make an effort to take in some other sides in the pursuit of truth and love.

(Plus recognizing bias's super useful in information literacy and doing academic research.)

post script: I want to note here that this ain't rose-colored and everything we perceive is not real and all we need is not just recognizing our bias. I still see that social media use can be fruitful even when it doesn't lead to in-person-breathing-the-same-air. But it's a good starting point that can help make a connection, which is needed in order to communicate and learn at all.

post-post script: I have a fair share of biases, and when I can get around to the right spot to recognize (or, more significantly, acknowledge) them, some fine combination of these happens to happen: I slow down. I shut up (for at least a minute). I get curious. I ask questions. I do research. I read another book (follow another Twitter handle). I might, but only briefly (because all of the above), feel embarrassed (or, more sophisticatedly, chagrined; or, less intensely, regretful). You?

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