The personalization – and polarization – of America

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

The personalization movement, enabled significantly by communication and design technologies as well as global manufacturing supply chains, is well under way…

If I want to, I can personalize – and often even custom design – my shoes, my clothes, my jewelry, my car, my house, my computer, my soda, my candy, my cell phone ringtone, and so on. Even when I can’t design myself what I purchase, the seemingly limitless choices that I have allow me to customize my lifestyle in infinite variations (how many kinds of toothpaste or dog food are there?). Sites like CafePress even allow me to custom brand my own goods if the current range of choices isn’t satisfactory.

The personalization movement applies to where we work as well. Richard Florida has written extensively about how we are sorting ourselves into communities of talent. Creative, talented people are migrating to certain cities and college towns. Companies are following people rather than the other way around. As a result, the vast majority of economic productivity and growth is coming from these ‘creative communities’ while smaller communities or non-creative cities are left behind.

Not only does the personalization movement extend to our jobs, it also applies to our homes. As The Big Sort describes, even within our communities we are clustering with other like-minded people. Whole neighborhoods reflect particular lifestyles and exhibit little ideological or lifestyle diversity. Finding someone in your neighborhood that doesn’t look, act, or think like you is becoming increasingly difficult.

Never before have our politics been so polarized. The so-called ‘independent voter’ is all but nonexistent. Voters that actually listen to both sides and then make a decision comprise less than 10% of the voting population. The rest of us already have sorted ourselves out on one side or the other. The key to politics today is mobilizing the voter base on your side, not persuading independents. The key to the 2008 Presidential election will be the Right’s mobilization of church groups, civic organizations, and other groups that traditionally exhibit stronger ties versus the Left’s mobilization of younger voters, urban areas, and other groups that traditionally exhibit looser ties.

Personalization even extends to education. Between private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, online schools, and home schools, the options for parents to customize their children’s education have never been greater. The same goes for our religious institutions, as churches, temples, mosques, and other places of worship increasingly segment their services to target particular groups.

As I noted in my earlier post about narrowcasting, we also are personalizing our information streams. Our magazines, music sources, television stations, Internet sites, and news channels all are more customizable and individualized than ever before. The likelihood that we might run into information that runs counter to our existing beliefs is less and less probable with each passing day.

So where’s our common ground? As we increasingly utilize digital technologies, employment choices, neighborhood selection, and other lifestyle decisions to segment ourselves, where will we find the glue that holds our country together? Shouldn’t we be talking about this as a society? Doesn’t this need to be discussed somewhere in our educational system?

9 Responses to “The personalization – and polarization – of America”

  1. An interesting post, Scott. Perhaps this is just a transitional period, though. Suddenly thrust into this long-tail world of choices, we choose and run to what we already know. We join the communities that reflect the broad categories we’ve accepted and lived with all of our lives. But perhaps as time moves on and we become more comfortable in this environment of personalization, we branch out and become more eclectic, rejecting broad categories like creative/non-creative, Democrat/Republican, homeschool/public school. Perhaps we will see more blending into truly personal styles – the accountant who makes jewelry and sells it on the internet on the side, the pro-life Democrat, the homeschooler who takes calculus at the local school for 40 minutes a day via distance learning. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but hopefully polarization gives way to something better.

  2. The danger of polarization rests with the various factions of humanity viewing each other as alien and different. When we fail to recognize that we all have much more in common as fellow inhabitants of the Earth for the same brief life span the consequences are grave. The best way I’ve heard this summarized is in Robert Kennedy’s speech on the mindless menace of violence following the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr.

    Link here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=0_Vll-t0H6A

  3. YouTube as our common ground? ;) Seriously,though, I think you make an excellent point.

    And since part of the wisdom of crowds is diversity–and since part of creativity is pulling in things from a variety of sources–then the need for a wide perspective is important.

    On the other hand, it seems that digital technologies give us the opportunity to hear many more voices–even if we are “segmented”–there is the opportunity for many more to be heard at a grass-roots level.

    Is it a trade-off? Are schools reaching outside to hear these other voices?

  4. @Carolyn: The possibilities for us hearing more diverse voices have never been easier. But the reality is that we are segmenting ourselves in every aspect of our lives…

    @Mike: Professor Ronald Inglehart in the early 1970s ‘hypothesized that when people grow up in relative abundance … what they wanted out of life … changed. [They would be] more concerned with self-expression, the environment, and individual choice.’ Classic Maslow here: survival gets replaced by security gets replaced by social connections gets replaced by self-fulfillment (p. 84 in The Big Sort).

  5. Scott-
    When we go about filtering the information we get from the Internet, we do narrow down the voices we listen to for opinion. In order for a country to be unified we need to listen to the many viewpoints that make up the larger group. People have been talking about the demise of the daily newspaper, they would rather get their news from their Internet sources, after all the paper is a day old. I like the paper, because it gives me information that I would not seek out on the Internet, and gives me opinions I would not read in my daily perusal of blogs.

    Narrowcasting is good for some things, but we do need to add other voices, or we end up in the dreaded “echo chamber of opinions” Read any right or left wing blog and you see that in action, and for that matter many of the well known edubloggers.

    To give a baseball analogy. I am a Red Sox fan living in the land of Yankees. The local paper and television give us Yankee news and little other baseball stuff. This is the same in many regions of the country with “their” teams. If I listened to just this news, I may become brainwashed into the evil empire way of baseball, but reading other publications and seeing other news sources, I get my baseball fix. I want to hear other things, and need to know what the heck the Tampa Bay (devil) Rays are doing.

    News is the same, we need to hear various sources and be able to use our internal filters to form our opinions. I do not like the idea of the fracturing of society into small groups, but like large groups of diverse opinions.

  6. Scott, what you’re describing so well are the dangers of homophily, which I wrote about a few months ago.

    http://michelemartin.typepad.com/thebambooprojectblog//2008/04/combating-birds.html

    I think that we have to be very deliberate in trying to seek out new experiences and connections with new people because “birds of a feather” syndrome is just so easy anyway, and our technologies and options make it even easier now. Some of this is about finding and connecting to new communities and some is about being open to what those other communities have to teach us.

    Ironically, I have to say that as someone who comes from the adult learning perspective, I find that the K-20 system seems really closed to new ideas. Of course, workplace learning professionals can be closed, too, so it goes both ways. Presumably learning, though, is about being open to change, so how interesting that we can get so upset that others aren’t open when frequently we are extremely closed ourselves.

    This is, to me, on of our larger civic issues at this point in time. The more we disconnect from each other, the more polarized we become. That’s a recipe for disaster in my book.

    Thanks for bringing up this really important topic.

  7. To tag along with tsakshaug, narrowcasting is good for some things. It is perfect for learning how to do a specific skill. I don’t think it is all that great for running a diverse country. For that we need to look at all sides of the issue.

    I think there is a fear that we may find out our ideas are wrong. So we go out in search of ideas that support our own. That is the easy thing to do.

    I would hope people take the time to listen to what the contrary position is on important issues.

    Groups can turn pretty ugly when an idea contrary to theirs comes along. I wish we were more civil and more thoughtful when that idea happens along. I have seen some pretty ugly flaming incidents.

    I wonder if physical security is playing a part in this as well. The Republican Convention is coming to town and groups of protesters are arguing their parade permit is too restrictive.

    I wish they could make their point any where, any time and in any civil way they want. I do hope the permit isn’t being issued to control the message. If your ideas can’t stand up to a protest, they may need to be rethought.

    I also understand that there is a need to keep order in the streets. I am old enough to remember the 68 Chicago Convention. Ugly. Local law enforcement and the Secret Service will want to avoid that.

    At the same time I worry that our leaders are being protected so much that they do not know what the people are thinking. When President Bush wasn’t aware of the the price of gas was going over $4 a gallon, one had to wonder how he was so unaware.

  8. This is, to me, on of our larger civic issues at this point in time. The more we disconnect from each other, the more polarized we become. That’s a recipe for disaster in my book.

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