Fighting the Web’s “Cocooning Effect”

Robert Wright is a journalist, scholar, and author of several best-selling books about science, evolutionary psychology, history, religion, and game theory, including "The Evolution of God," "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny," "The Moral Animal," and "Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information." He is a visiting scholar at The University of Pennsylvania and Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. He is also the co-founder and Editor in Chief of, a current events "diavlog" featured in The New York Times and elsewhere.

  • Transcript


Question: What excites you most about new media right now?

Robert Wright: I’m getting to the age where some new media are starting to seem threatening. I mean, first of all, I would say things beyond a certain age, things come along like Twitter and you’re like, do I have to figure this out? And so far, I haven’t surrendered. It’s like Facebook came along and I’m like, okay, I’ll join Facebook. And Twitter, okay I’m paying a little attention. But the older you get, the less enthusiastic you are about your social environment kind of being transformed.

Aside from that, there’s a separate problem that I think is a genuine problem, leaving aside my age, which is that in general, for a long time ever since the – well really long time, the tendency has been as information processing and transmission gets easier and cheaper, it’s been easier and easier to organize kind of smaller and smaller interest groups, you might say. Even back with computerized mass mail 40 or 50 years ago, that’s what allowed people to organize taxpayer’s into interest groups, or old people into interest groups, and now the internet basically is an extension of that same trend is leading of the further kind of balkanization of opinion. So, people go to their blogs where they basically it’s preaching to the choir, they hear things they already agree with and there’s this cocooning effect. And I think that’s a real problem. 

And Bloggingheads, I didn’t really start out thinking about it this way, but it has shown the capacity to some extent counteract that just because if you bring two people together in a conversation. I mean, we do split screen video dialogues, it’s harder for them, even if they strenuously disagree with things, it’s harder for them to be uncivil toward one another. And it’s harder for them to avoid the serious arguments that is being made by the other side. So, it’s been kind of interesting to see that effect and to try to cultivate a comment section that is fairly ideologically diverse because you don’t see that much of that on the internet. Most comment sections for most blogs are fairly ideologically homogenous. So, that’s an interesting, you know, it’s not going to save the world, but it’s an interesting attempt to some extent to transcend the really naturally kind of balkanizing and tribalizing tendencies of the internet.

Recorded on February 12, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen