Some years ago I found myself at West Point talking about the sort of things a pacifist and a group of Colonels and Generals might find interesting. It was near the holiday break and staff members had brought in a huge feast. I mentioned to a Colonel that it struck me as unusual to see a number of dishes labeled vegetarian or vegan. The next half hour turned out to be fascinating.
He was a professor of military history. He said most people don't think of the military as progressive or inclusive, but often it leads the rest of society. Historically men and women enlisted for a variety of reasons. You can categorize the reasons, but there were reasons for young people from most areas of society. The most difficult task in modern times, according to him, has been building trust among often very different groups that don't mix in society in general. The task is costly and has a long record of failure mixed in with success, but it led to a heterogeneous force - a good thing when you're trusting your life to the next person whose sexual orientation, skin, or a dozen other things color violates the "truths" you were taught growing up.
You rarely see this in companies where people look for good social fits - pre-trained people who can hit the ground running and mesh with existing teams. Some of the great companies have been singled out for their ability to do great HR. Being given a random assortment would be costly - too costly - and potentially lead to failure. But, the Colonel said, society is best served when we move towards inclusiveness.
The military has been failing for about twenty years. Private contractors have replaced regular military for non-combat posts. These are for-profit companies not tasked with the burden of getting people to learn how to get along with each other. New recruits find themselves trained for nonexistent jobs (another problem) and, as the rewards of the military shrink, the recruit pool is becoming more homogeneous. He made the case, for a variety of reasons, to return to the draft.
In the early and mid-90s some of us were trying to create interesting online education platforms -- MOOs, various forms of chat, video links and the like. We had some success and tended to dwell on the great links across barriers ... ten year olds in Inuvik showing ten year olds in Costa Rica what happens when you throw boiling water into -40° air and the response the Costa Ricans made, children in New Jersey interacting and building digital creations with kids from France and India. Native Americans in Northwest Montana learning story telling from language experts at Stanford. We thought we could build tools and use the connectivity of the Internet to build bridges where none were imagined.
We were so naive.
When we looked at what was really happening dispassionately we found something very different. The systems were being used heavily, not for connecting people of different cultures, but for kids chatting amongst themselves with those they physically knew. The good and bad of normal kid life was evident - including online bullying.
At the time I was interested in the Victorian Internet ... the 19th century telegraphy system. The 1860s had the equivalent of Byte magazine. Skimming twenty years at the New York Public Library was fascinating. What started out as a technical how-to publication morphed into something describing the social uses, and abuses, of telegraphy. Unauthorized chat was common among operators. They devised use patterns very similar to early IM use. The telegraph, where costs were artificially zero, became a tool that supported casual, always on, communication rather than being a tool of business.
For years we kept looking at students. It was clear usenet, MUDS, MOOs and the like were very self-segregating. We started seeing it in MySpace, but the real drama came with FaceBook. At first you had to be associated with a university. As soon as high school seniors got their acceptance letters many applied for a .edu email address and got their FaceBook login. From here they found their friends and, well, kept in touch. They self-selected roommates and did their part to reduce the diversity that a college offers. Not because they were anti-diversity, but because it was easier to have an established set of friends in this new environment. If they didn't know people, they'd listen and ask questions. By September they arrive on campus and physically reunite with the members of their new clique. They've routed about the serendipity of sudden change and recreated high school. Smartphones have only made this easier. I've heard Ivy League administrators bemoan this - their belief is one of the most valuable things they offer is the diversity they've created through their admissions process.
We know that diversity is good. Diverse work groups tend to outperform homogeneous groups and diversity lowers the probability of serious conflict. But in practice it can be, and often is, difficult. We have a tendency to seek the same. We create systems that are highly personalized giving us the chance to self segregate. We renew drivers licenses online, unfriend those with different views, tune to channels that offer the entertainment and point of view we like. We're getting very good at removing friction.
We may blame the googely googles the algorithms of Google, Facebook and others make us see corners of the online world through, but the first order effect is not that, but rather the path we choose. Most of us believe in diversity, but social science tells us we avoid challenge and self-segregate where possible without thinking about it.
We're removing fiction from interaction systems. Some of this is a good thing - a very good thing - but there's a balance. Consider the physical world as an analogy. You may want to reduce fiction to move faster but try to have a basketball game or just run on a perfectly flat sheet of wet ice. In the social sphere friction can have the serendipitous benefit of creating unexpected human interaction with people who are different. Some of my richest experiences and dearest friends are the result of this sort of friction.
It has been proposed that social media can mix up the people you listen to and make your experience more diverse. Unfortunately just giving people challenging content doesn't increase empathy and compassion, but often decreases it. The only viable technique is to know and trust real people who have very different world-views. It is a lean-forward process.
We have some very powerful but imperfect social tools. It is easy for us to use them to self-segregate and we may be doing this naturally without thinking about it. How many of your friends vote the same as you, have roughly the same religious beliefs, are of the same ethnicity, culture, sex, age and so on..? There's probably a distribution of challenge people accept, but we should be aware of our natural tendency to self-segregate and avoid challenge.
Oranges and Chocolate
° 6 oranges
° 3 or 4 tbl extra virgin olive oil
° 2 oz of good dark chocolate, 70 - 80%
° flakey finishing salt like Malden
° remove the peel and white pith and membrane from the oranges. Cut one end off each so the exposed end is 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter and reserve the ends. de-seed if seeded.
° slice the oranges thinly and arrange on a serving platter partly overlapping
° squeeze the juice from one or two of the orange ends over the slices and eat the others
° drizzle the EVOO, grate the chocolate over the oranges and sprinkle on the salt