To the Editor:

Well, who saw it coming? It was not supposed to be like this. This is, after all, the Age of Communication. With modern communication technology, we thought, we would all be happily connected. With our internet, our iPhones, our smart phones and our many different social media apps we would be able to, for the first time, talk to anybody, anywhere. Different views would be exchanged. Different opinions would be heard. No one would be marginalized. We would all have a voice. We would all learn from each other and become the richer for it. A new age of openness, sharing, learning and enlightenment would appear. So, what happened? Perhaps it was the Law of the Unintended Consequences.

Some time ago, I ran across the phrase ‘information stovepipe’. It describes what humans actually do, as opposed to what the social prophets would have us believe humans will do. An information stovepipe is when you get all your information from sources with which you already agree. You listen only to media sources which you ‘know’ will tell you the truth. You only subscribe to websites which you ‘know’ are giving you accurate information. All your friends and all your social connections are only with those who think the same way you do – which is, of course, the right way. And modern communication technology is perfect for this. You can create, consciously or not, an information stovepipe, where only those facts, opinions and thoughts which agree with and support your beliefs appear. Everything else you can ignore or block. Which is exactly what we do. So, why is this bad? Because you (and everybody else in your stovepipe) increasingly gets a very distorted picture of what is actually happening in the real world. And it’s a picture which is constantly being reinforced. Your stovepipe and the narrow range of opinion it contains becomes your reality.

Probably the best modern example of this information stovepipe at work was when Clinton lost to Trump. For years beforehand, the Democrats and their supporters were utterly convinced Clinton would win the election. Everyone (in that stovepipe) confirmed and reinforced this belief. The media, chat groups, opinion polls, political pundits, all agreed. A Clinton win was absolutely guaranteed. And then she lost. The shock to the Democrats and their supporters was profound. They literally could not believe it. Nothing in their stovepipe had suggested that this was even possible. The explanation had to be, therefore, that Trump somehow stole the election, and they spent the next four years trying, fruitlessly, to prove it. Of course, four years later, when Trump lost to Biden, the Republicans, with their own stovepipe, also refused to believe it and are still claiming that the Democrats, somehow, rigged the vote, and stole the election. Both sides were and are convinced they are right. Their information stovepipes assured them that this was true and continues to do so.

And here? This is Canada and so such things can’t happen here, right? Well, if you need confirmation that we live in a tyranny and that the government is fascist, there’s lots of Canadian stovepipes out there just waiting to assure you it’s all completely true. Likewise, if you need assurance that anyone who does not agree with you is a misogynistic, racist, homophobe, and probably a Nazi, then there’s any number of other Canadian stovepipes just panting to support you and your viewpoint. Take a quick peek at Twitter these days. (On second thought, don’t.)

How on earth did we get here? What was supposed to bring us together has quickly and deeply divided us and those divides are getting wider. Our personal communication technology, introduced and grasped with such joy and anticipation, has turned on us. Rather than introducing openness and dialogue, it allowed us to wall ourselves up in our cozy stovepipes while blocking and/or shrieking abuse at those outside. An unintended consequence indeed.

So, what to do? Well, in the big picture, nothing. It’s too late. The techno genie is out of the bottle and, short of making smart phones illegal (interesting thought though), there’s no going back. And yes, we will continue to build and live in our stovepipes, because that’s what humans do. Besides, we like it.

But down at the individual level there is indeed something you can do. Be aware. Be aware that exactly like all those stupid people, hateful groups and lying media that you would not be caught dead talking with or listening to, you yourself almost certainly exist in a comfortable stovepipe of your own. Be aware that, while considering yourself and your stovepipe pals to be reasonable, calm, rational, logical, and of course, right, you are viewed by others, perhaps many others, as a deluded, hateful extremist who is deliberately misrepresenting the truth.

And if you become that aware, then maybe, just maybe, you will also become aware enough to know that if we don’t start talking and listening, respectfully, to those outside our own comfortable information stovepipe, then things could end very, very badly for us.

Colin Affleck, L’Orignal