The web was supposed democratise information and everyone everywhere to have a voice. But have we become trapped in our own algorithms?
If you are not a musician you may never have stepped inside an actual echo chamber. These are usually small rooms with reflective, tile-like walls. The echo or ‘reverb’ of any sound in the room is magnified. If you think you sound great singing in the shower, now you know why.
Today, it is also a term applied to the way we consume media. We cautiously select who to follow and befriend. We subscribe or pay for content with care. Dissenters, the mistaken and downright malevolent are turned away at the door. As a result, we create personal echo chambers amplifying and reverberating our own views and opinions.
Even if we choose not to actively filter content, the web’s algorithms are doing this for us – serving up a diet of news and information designed to appeal to someone like us. This was a key finding in research conducted by the Pew Centre this year – ‘algorithmic categorisations’ are set to deepen social and political divides.
Here is the great irony. Early writers on the impact of the web said it would democratise information – it would reinstate the ‘banter of the bazar’. We would hear a true cacophony of voices because everyone, everywhere would be able to join the conversation.
Yet we have built warm, convivial enclaves where everyone is nodding in vehement agreement. A quarrel is most likely the result of a misunderstanding, not a strongly opposing view.
The allure of an echo chamber is understandable given the appalling online behaviour of a minority. Reading about the horrific harassment some have faced on the web makes us all wary of who we let in.
But I recommend leaving the door ajar. Allow in the occasional divergent or contrary view. Echo chambers may be reassuring but they are rarely educational. They are likely to entrench our views rather than challenge or expand them. Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens recently gave a speech titled, The Dying Art of Disagreement. “To disagree well you must first understand well,” says Stephens. Disagreements should “arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.”
Here’s just one personal example – last year I watched Newt Gingrich speak at the annual Aspen Ideas Festival. A right-wing politician and stalwart of the Republican Party, he was reportedly on Trump’s list as a possible Vice President and would have happily accepted the position if asked. His views and opinions are not my own but for that very reason I found them all the more fascinating and instructive.
The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” More than 2,000 years later, his advice remains more pertinent than ever.