Disrupted ideology, technology and radicalisation

Michael Baxter, Chief Economics Editor

The terrible and tragic events in Paris on the 13th November shocked the world. All people who care about the sanctity of human life were horrified. The underlying causes are many, but what role if any, was played by technology?

It is tempting to blame technology for violence. It is tempting to say that technology lies behind the violent society in which we live today, that to video games make war seem like a game, trivialising it in the process.  There is one snag with such an argument, it is based on the false assumption that we live in a more violent world.

According to statistics from the FBI,  the ratio of violent crime in the US in 2013 was approximately half the level in 1994. According to data from the ONS,  police reported violent crime in the UK is at its lowest since 1981, which is as far back as the data goes.

It even appears that death from war is declining.  Rewind the clock to the days before there were organised countries, and on average 500 people out of every 100,000 died in battle.  In 19th Century France that number had fallen to 70 out of 100,000, in the 20th century, despite suffering two world wars, the number fell to 60. Steven Pinker author of ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’ told the Huffington Post: “As we get smarter, we try to think up better ways of getting everyone to turn their swords into plowshares at the same time . . . Human life has become more precious than it used to be.”

So before we react to the latest terrorist atrocities, and talk about the scary times in which we live, bear in mind that the number of authoritarian countries have dropped from 90 in 1976 to just 25.

We live in an age that is less violent. Those who say computer games anesthetise us against violence, should bear this in mind.

If Pinker is right, violence can be fought by providing a better education, and disruptive technology, perhaps via  MOOCs, or new ways of teaching, such as the service offered by the Khan Academy,  may be able to provide outstanding education across the world for a fraction of what it might once have once cost.

That is the good news on technology. If we really do live in less violent times, and there is a causal link between improving education and less violence, then with the convergence of online and offline learning we should be set to enter a less violent period.

Yet that is not a reason to be complacent.  As a species, Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years.  For 95 per cent of that time we lived a hunter gatherer lifestyle, probably living in communities of around 145. As a species we have known agriculture for around 10,000 years, for less than 2 per cent of our time as farmers we have also lived in an industrial age. The Industrial revolution first began around 200 years ago, the majority of us have only been cognisant of the internet for around 10 per cent of that period.   Social media is changing the way we interact, in many ways it is drawing us closer together, forming groups made-up of people across the world.  According to the anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, the cognitive limit to how many people we can maintain stable social relationships with is around 145.  Yet some of us have thousands of friends on Facebook and on other social media channels.  Evolution has not prepared us for such a world, there is no reason why it should have.

Take as an example, a concept known as group polarisation.  Studies show that if you form a group made up of people who, as individuals, are mildly risk averse, then that group can become paralysed into indecision, afraid to a take any risk at all. If you form a group from people who, as individuals, are inclined to take a mild gamble from time to time, then that group can become a mad risk taker, gambling recklessly. Groups exaggerate the inclinations of the people who make up those groups.

It does not take much of a leap in imagination to see how the formation of groups can increase the chances of radicalisation.  Form a group made up of people who feel mildly disenfranchised by western culture, and you can see how that group can resort to terrorism.  You can see how, via social media, the formation of such groups can become more likely.

The idea of group polarisation is closely linked to group think. Psychologists have known for many years how groups behave differently, how individuals find it hard to go against the group to which they belong. Evolution has hardwired us into group compliance.

According to a study, Radicalisation in the Digital Era,  the internet can be associated with radicalisation in three key ways:

Firstly, it creates more opportunities to become radicalised . . . “as a result of being available to many people, and enabling connection with like-minded individuals from across the world 24/7. “

Secondly, the internet acts as an ‘echo chamber’ “for extremist beliefs.” It “may provide a greater opportunity than offline interactions to confirm existing beliefs.”

Thirdly, “the internet allows radicalisation to occur without physical contact.”

We are set to enter an age when technology, such as virtual reality, may make it even easier to achieve closer interactions within remote groups.

This does not mean that technology is a negative thing, it means it comes with a negative as well as a positive side.

The solution to ensuring the positives exceed negatives may lie with education, teaching us to question the so called wisdom of the crowd, for example, and in encouraging us to develop more enquiring minds.

Technology can be a powerful tool in the advancement of superior education, but here is a warning. We are, thanks to our evolution, social animals. It is vital that we never let our education system become so technology focused that the social aspect of education is lost.

In the book iDisrupted it was stated:

“We don’t go to school just to learn facts; maybe a more important part of school is learning social skills.

It has become fashionable to belittle the teaching of music, drama, dance and the like. We are told that what matters are maths, science and being able to communicate our native language, and maybe other languages.

But technology can help kids to do that – at least it can up to a point.

Technology may never be effective at teaching creative skills.

It most certainly cannot teach social skills, or sport – although it can help.

The danger is that we are seduced by the benefits of technology, and forget about the social aspects of education.

Play needs to be re-introduced to schools.

Maybe the Scandinavian model of delaying formal education until kids are a bit older – such as seven in Sweden and Finland (a similar practice is followed in some eastern European countries) – is more appropriate. Up to that age, school should be all fun, all play and very little computer usage.

As children get older, we could introduce technology to make learning more fun, and effective. However, we need to place emphasis on sport, creative subjects, practical subjects, and above all communication as well.”