Nigel Warburton in Aeon (Queuing for food in Haiti. Photo by William Daniels/Panos):
It is a cliché to say that the internet has transformed the nature and speed of our links with people around the world, but it is true. I no longer need to rely on national news reporting to learn about what is happening around the globe: I can discover citizen journalists Tweeting, blogging, or uploading their stories to YouTube, and I can get access to Al Jazeera or Fox News as readily as I can to the BBC. This connection is not merely passive, delivered by journalists who alone have access to the people in far-off lands. I can, through comments on blogs, email, Facebook, and Twitter, interact with the people about whom the news is being written. I might even be able to Skype them. I can express opinions without having them filtered by the media. And it isn’t only facts and angles on the news that we can share. We are connected by trade and outsourcing in ways that were unimaginable 10 years ago. Our fellow workers and collaborators might just as easily live in India as in London.
In Republic.com (2001), the American legal scholar Cass Sunstein expressed the fear that the internet would make us more entrenched in our own prejudices, because of our ability to filter the information that we receive from it. We would find our own niches and create a kind of firewall to the rest of the world, allowing only selected angles and information: the ‘Daily Me’, as he put it. Racists would filter out anti-racist views, liberals wouldn’t need to read conservatives and gun freaks could have their stance on the world confirmed. That risk might still exist for some. Yet even within conventional media, new voices are being heard, their videos and Tweets providing first-person, human stories with an immediacy that no second-hand report could achieve. And this is happening on a scale that is breathtaking.
One source of evil in the world is people’s inability to ‘decentre’ — to imagine what it would be like to be different, under attack from killer drones, or tortured, or beaten by state-controlled thugs at a protest rally. The internet has provided a window on our common humanity; indeed, it allows us to see more than many of us are comfortable to take in. Nevertheless, in principle, it gives us a greater connection with a wider range of people around the world than ever before. We can’t claim ignorance if we have wi-fi. It remains to be seen whether this connection will lead to greater polarisation of viewpoints, or a new sense of what we have in common.
In recent years, two Princeton-based philosophers, Peter Singer and Kwame Anthony Appiah, have presented competing views of our human connectedness. For Singer, it is obvious that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad, no matter who endures them or where they are located. If we could prevent such things occurring, he maintains, most of us would. Singer does not couch his arguments in terms of cosmopolitanism, but he does want to minimise suffering on a world scale. His utilitarian tradition gives equal weight to all those who are in need, without privileging those who happen to be most like us.