It’s a fact: while Americans have countless tools with which to connect with one another, we are also watching fragmentation, polarization, and de-diversification happen en masse. The American public is self-segregating, tearing at the social fabric of the country.
Many in the tech world imagined that the internet would connect people in unprecedented ways, allow for divisions to be bridged and wounds to heal – a Kumbaya dream of sorts. Today, those same dreamers find it quite unsettling to watch as the tools that were designed to bring people together are used by people to magnify divisions and undermine social solidarity.
These tools were built in a bubble, and that bubble has burst.
If you ask a college admissions officer at an elite institution to describe how they build a class of incoming freshmen, you will quickly realize that the American college system is a diversification project.
Unlike colleges in most parts of the world, the vast majority of freshmen at top-tier universities in the US live on campus with roommates who are assigned to them. Colleges approach housing assignments as an opportunity to pair diverse strangers with one another to build social ties. This makes sense given how many friendships emerge out of freshman dorms. By pairing middle-class kids with students from wealthier families, elite institutions help diversify the elites of the future.
This diversification project produces a tremendous amount of conflict. Although plenty of people adore their college roommates and relish the opportunity to get to know people from different walks of life as part of their college experience, there is an amazing amount of angst about dorm assignments and the troubles that brew once folks try to live together in close quarters. At many universities, residential life is often in the business of student therapy as students complain about their roommates and dorm-mates.
Yet just like in the military, learning how to negotiate conflict and diversity in close quarters can be tremendously effective in weaving the social fabric.