Yet more evidence that the world has gotten to be a much smaller place….

…. and yet, at the same time we are farther away from each other than ever.

I am sitting in a Starbucks in Palo Alto, California, IMing with the Rocket Scientist, who is thousands of miles away on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic. Among other things, we were comparing weather: 74 and sunny versus cold and foggy with occasional snow. I win!

The Internet makes this possible, of course.  It makes a sea change from fourteen years ago when they had no wireless access, and the only time I heard from him was on an Iridium satellite phone (at $7 a minute) halfway through the field season to let all of us at home know how he was doing.  Now I can talk to him cheaply in real time (at least once the communications got set up, thanks to the Fabulous Sarah Huffman) as easily as if he were simply at work in his office or in a hotel room at a conference site.

Yet when it comes to other people in my life, the connections are more tenuous.  Mom lives three time zones away, and I talk to her more infrequently than I should. She does not have — nor does she want — Internet access, so IM is out of the question.  She gets her news from television and the newspaper, I get mine from the Internet.

I was thinking about all this from a larger societal perspective last night.  When I was growing up, there were pretty much five news sources available to my family and community: The St. Petersburg Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and for the more cerebral, PBS.  The fairness doctrine meant that media spin could be called out and addressed.  People had a diversity of opinions, but at least we were getting our facts from similar sources.

Now people have hundreds — thousands — of outlets from which to get their news: online editions of newspapers, blogs, cable networks, and yes, broadcast television stations. (Not to mention Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.)  Not only are there a variety of opinions available, but the facts that each individual is exposed to vary widely and selectively.  People more and more seem to pick the facts (in some case, “facts”) that support what they want to believe, instead of letting their beliefs be grounded in some common notion of reality. I wish I could be sure that I am not guilty of this, but I can’t. I try, but I know given the tsunami of information I am exposed to on a daily basis that trying to sift through it will require some selective culling in which my personal biases (I believe MSNBC but not Fox News, for example), and those of my friends who tend to point me towards news stories, will impact what facts I latch onto.  For someone who believes in the importance of factual accuracy, this is deeply troubling.

This is not something new — it’s been the case for years, at least through the past two Presidential election cycles. It just seems to be getting more pronounced all the time. It’s not often I yearn for “the good old days” (they were rarely as good as memory serves), but lately….

Oh, for it to be 1996* again…

Maybe I would be more sure that what I think is right really is.

*Not to mention the whole healthy American economy thing. Life before most of us had heard of credit default swaps seems a little more idyllic now.  Even if we had to live through the Monica Lewinsky scandal all over again.

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