Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Echo Chamber Effect

Well, this has been discussed for years at least, but I'm just catching up on some of that discussion:

See, e.g.:

The 'Vulture' starts off with 'The echo chamber effect is hardly a recent phenomenon. In what perhaps may be an apocryphal quote, Pauline Kael is supposed to have said regarding the landslide victory of Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972, "I can't believe Nixon won. I don't know anybody who voted for him".'

This guy says he's a "Libertarian Christian", which is far from what I am, but part of the point of a "Truth Project", in my view (See rationalle for calling this blog "The Real Truth Project" - by the way, there are probably more "Real Truth Projects" than "Truth Projects", but I still like it because it reminds me of a childish "did not" / "did so" / "so are you" sort of argument which is the level we often get to in the epistemology business).

Um, I started a sentence didn't I, ... Part of the point of a "Truth Project" is the hope that people on both sides of many issues - those who aren't active and conscious propagandists at least, really would want to know the truth if it turned out that everything they think is wrong ... if they'd even consider the possibility.

Here's a guy with an attitude I like: where he writes things like:
"Make yourself uncomfortable. I don’t do it often enough, but whenever I step outside my comfort zone – I grow."

OK, so is the blogosphere an echo chamber? No, it's lots and lots of echo chambers. There is the right wing blog echochamber and its many sub-echo chambers, there are liberal echo chambers populated by people who don't know, or don't think they know a single Tea-partier, and there are the various racial echo chambers (which functioned very well way before there was an internet). Religious cults like the Jim Jones one, and the Branch Davidians are super compact echo chambers. There are the online Islamic extremist echo chambers, and the brick and morter ones (certain mosques, madrassas, the Al Quaeda training camp), and there are the mega churches, and the Christian publishing business which can provide you with Christian romance novels, Christian diet books, Christian Yoga books ... hey you never have to go outside ... There is my beloved community of historians who don't know anyone who voted for George Bush ...

But there is something a little special about the internet. If you have to find books and magazines in libraries and bookstores (unless you only go to Islamic bookstores / Christian bookstores / "Radical" bookstores ...) you go to a store and you have to at least walk by books and magazines with other points of view. On the internet, you can go to your favorite blog, and never go anywhere except via links from that blog (or from your other favorite blog).

And before the internet there was the explosion of broadcast bandwidth and turning half the AM radio spectrum over to extreme angry talk. And now we can go to WNYC singles events, and whether we like it or not, we can live in a political district that always votes for one party or the other.

And why, why why are we like this? Well what's the alternative? Listen to every point of view and then the world will seem to have no coherence?

Here's a theory -- suppose you live the way humans did for a few tens of thousands of years -- before this strange period of literacy and "civilization". You know a few hundred people tops, and you will probably never know anyone else -- hey the people on the other side of the hill don't even speak the same language. Your societal worldview is limited to what a few hundred people can keep in their memories. You will never have an accurate view of the world by modern standards. What you need is a theory, a narrative, that gives some reasonable account of things, tells you what to eat and what not to eat. What men do and what women do, and for a select few, what a shaman does maybe. and so on. It seems we're driven to expand our set of explanations til they reach certain bounds. We seem to always want to have a theory of when and how the world was created (whatever we mean by "the world"). Once we have theories we typically are repulsed by alternative theories. If it weren't that way, we and those few hundred other people we know would have a coherent world view to which new (minor) facts could stick.

OK, in the immortal words of Ian Shoales "I gotta go".

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