What is real? Part 1: Echo(es) and Narcissus(ism)

I’ve been writing this post in my head for over a year now. The thing that side lined it was the arrival of kid no. 2 coupled with an enormous amount of inertia. Originally, the theme for this post was “what is real?” and the need to be sceptical of unattributed information online. The internet has always specialized in specious information spreading like wildfire and social media has accelerated this to dizzying effect (Is Twitter Wrong has a representative collection of examples). And like always, there are people being taken advantage of or extorted by others deliberately misrepresenting themselves (e.g. Manti Te’o, the TV show Catfish, and sad reports of teenagers taking their own lives). There’s even people going to extreme lengths to lie about having cancer.

While skepticism is definitely a relevant topic and a lesson that my kids will need to learn, it basically boils down to “Check Snopes before you retweet that crazy thing.” Yes, scepticism requires critical thinking skills but it’s not a ground-breaking insight. Also constant vigilance to guard against being duped is mentally tiring and it stops you from enjoying things that are genuinely delightful. Maintaining a paranoid disposition and declaring everything that comes across your path as bullshit is not a particularly good way to live.

As this idea of “what is real?” continued to percolate in my head, another angle emerged. Last year during the US election season I noticed that of the 200+ people I follow on Twitter, only one (a friend from high school) is a visible Republican, and by visible I mean he occasionally tweets or reteweets a political opinion. In seeing his tweets I realized how much my twitter feed is a giant echo chamber. I’ve selectively chosen to follow a whole group of people who mostly share my point of view and I realized how limited my exposure to different perspectives is. If I’m being generous, I could compare it to living on a diet entirely of sushi rolls. If I’m being ungenerous, sausages.

Once I noticed my echo chamber I realized its influence on how I see the world. When everyone around you is saying the same thing, it feels like everyone everywhere is saying the same thing. It’s a very comfortable place. But when confronted with an extreme example of the other side, and it’s always the extreme examples that break through, you recoil to think how twisted that person must be to hold such an idea. The reality is that their journey to an extreme point of view was probably the result of the same echo chamber effect. 

My dad tells the story of when he was working in north-western Russia in the early 90s and everyone there read 8 or more newspapers on a regular basis. They all knew that every news source had their own bias and their own agenda. If you read all the newspapers you could gradually get an understanding of what was actually going on.

Despite the internet providing unprecedented access to all of the world’s ideas and news outlets, my news generally comes from a handful of established primary sources. Just keeping up with that can be daunting. You’ve got to give yourself space to think and reflect and just be and not always be chasing all the news you might be missing. Filters are necessary.

But as more and more of our media is automatically “personalized”, the filtering becomes less active and less visible and what feels like a conversation is actually just the sound of our own voices bouncing off a wall. The key is to be aware of the existence of your echo chamber and not mistake a mirror for a window.

Next time: What is real? Part 2: Confirmation Bias