Thought Contagions - The Threat of an Over-connected World

December 27, 2011

Holiday jingles are advertising the latest tools and gadgets promising light-speed access to the digital world. The season offers businesses a chance to garner consumer dollars, a much needed shot of capital in a struggling economy. While our loved ones hope to unwrap technological wonders – and the private sector hopes to sell them – there is a larger question about the impact digital tools have on our society and economy. For as many benefits as the Internet brings, some caution it also poses significant risks.

Bill Davidow, the author of Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet, thinks our digital connections are accelerating group beliefs that threaten to destabilize political and business environments. In a recent article, Davidow argued that thought contagions – “ideas that spread through groups of people and become the basis for action or belief” – often benefit most the people who introduce them, such as a stock trader who incites panic to capitalize on a trade or a politician whose message is embraced by the voting public. As Davidow put it, “The things people believe really do have consequences.”

An individual belief – such as “housing prices will always go up” – is hardly threatening. When a group of people share that belief, however, it has a real impact. If a large group believes housing pricings will rise, they will indeed go up…until they don’t. Then the belief crumbles and the bubble bursts. That is the threat. While “bubbles” or “trends” are an inherent part of the free market system, the Internet can magnify the ramifications from contagions. “The Internet is a cruel accelerator of both thought and economic contagions,” Davidow wrote. “Just as global air travel made biological contagions more of a worldwide threat, in an Internet-driven, overconnected world there will be many more thought contagions, with far more widespread consequences.”

One challenge is that thought contagions can drive believers into firm positions, making it difficult for them to find rational solutions and compromise (something we see played out in Washington’s heated political environment far too often), and in the financial world, as Davidow noted, contagions could spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.

There is little chance our digital interaction will slow any time soon (if ever), which means Davidow’s worries could come to fruition. Yet another example of how the Internet is changing the business and political landscape.