Are you feeling angry? Log on the Net!

David Ignatius explains that the world feels chaotic because of technology, especially that rage-enabling Internet.

This is not a knock on old media. Really. Even if the supreme irony of David Ignatius' column, From 'Connectedness' to Conflict, is that it is being delivered to most of the world electronically, it is fundamentally flawed in its thinking. Here are a few bits:

One of the baseline assumptions of U.S. foreign policy is that "connectedness" is a good thing. Linkage to the global economy fosters the growth of democracy and free markets, the theory goes, and that in turn creates the conditions for stability and security. But if that's true, why is an increasingly "connected" world such a mess? 

...Raja Sidawi, a Syrian businessman who owns Petroleum Intelligence Weekly and is one of the most astute analysts of the Arab world I know. He argues that Barnett misses the fact that as elites around the world become more connected with the global economy, they become more disconnected from their own cultures and political systems. The local elites "lose touch with what's going on around them," opening up a vacuum that is filled by religious parties and sectarian groups, Sidawi contends. The modernizers think they are plugging their nations into the global economy, but what's also happening is that they are unplugging themselves politically at home.

A second explanation of the connectedness paradox comes from Charles M. McLean, who runs a trend-analysis company called Denver Research Group Inc... . McLean argues that the Internet is a "rage enabler." By providing instant, persistent, real-time stimuli, the new technology takes anger to a higher level. "Rage needs to be fed or stimulated continually to build or maintain it," he explains. The Internet provides that instantaneous, persistent poke in the eye. What's more, it provides an environment in which enraged people can gather at cause-centered Web sites and make themselves even angrier. The technology, McLean notes, "eliminates the opportunity for filtering or rage-dissipating communications to intrude." I think McLean is right.

There are many reasons for the increasing tension in the world, the least of which is the Internet. Ignatius sees a problem and looks for one cause, the Internet.The whole Earth is getting more crowded. It's polluted. And where did all those forests go? Religions have embraced extremism within their mainstreams. There's less food than we need. Water is running short. You get my point. Ignatius sees a problem and looks for one cause.

Does connectedness cause conflict? Probably, to some degree, it does. The two reasons cited by Ignatius, that elites, who apparently used to moderate between cultures and keep their masses calm, are more disconnected, and that the Internet is a "rage enabling" technology are sophistic and, well, elitist. 

The elites of the world have been disconnected from the hoi polloi since time immemorial. It is the very definition of "elite," which comes from the word "the elect." Historically, families like the Rothschilds, Fuggers and Rockefellers (since John D., who became an elite from poor beginnings), as well as elite scientists, such as Gallileo, Leibniz, Newton and Einstein have lived apart from their local communities and in close communication with their peers around the world.

But what is galling about the argument suggested by Mr. Sidawi is that it presumes that without the elite to hold the leash, the masses are inclined to extremism and fantasy rather than tolerance and deliberative fact-based governance. Certainly, elites have embraced extremism, too. Osama bin Laden and George Bush, for example, are in their own ways extremists and both come from very priveleged families in the most elite classes of their countries.

Mr. Ignatius endorses this idea that the elites are necessary to control the masses, saying the modernizers have unplugged from their political homes. Perhaps it is the political homeland itslef that has become unplugged from the places where people dwell as people recognized that their elites left them behind a long time ago.

As society globalized, beginning well before the Internet, at least as long ago as 1400 C.E., when China and Europe began active trading, the elite have been unplugged from their home markets, living amidst international commerce wherever they happen to put down their bags. Now the rest of us are doing it and it has become a problem, because the elite can no longer retreat from the world or parts of it that they abuse. That's not a bad thing. It's probably time the elite acknowledge that they were never in charge, that they only enjoyed an advantage that they worked hard to prolong, because we're certainly not going back to wearing the elite's leash.

Ignatius' second theory, which comes from Charles McLean, that the Net is a "rage enabler" is also well wide of the mark. It suggests the Net is tuned to only one frequency, the shrill and angry pitches of human communication. Newspapers used to be tagged with that damning judgment, as well, when they were the most democratic form of communication. Now that they are largely in the hands of the elite—that is the transnational, politically independent owners of media companies of all political colors—the Internet is new center for communication within and between communities.

Yes, rage can travel through the Net, but so can judicious thought, reasoned debate and, pardon the pun, rational rants. There is no shortage of filters, as Mr. McLean suggests, rather there are so many that it is easy to fall prey to following your own prejudices. With millions of voices publishing, you could read all day and only reinforce the assumptions you came to the Net with, which is one of the weaknesses of the Net that is being aggravated by the preponderance of self-selecting meme trackers and shared reading list offerings out there.

The problem, however, is not endemic to the Net. it's a human trait that repeats itself with every new mode of communication. We're still young as digital society/socieites (there are certainly more than one), but we're not suffering from too much connectedness. Instead, we're learning to deal with it. One challenge we have is to overcome the idea that some elite has a better idea of how to endure or thrive in this connected environment. There are certainly plenty of upsides to getting over elitism and embracing egalitarian communication that make the struggle to adjust in the short term more than worthwhile.