Beware the Digital Echo Chamber

Information and education both represent powerful forces for good.  We all universally know and accept this. The more people that benefit from education, the more compassionate, tolerant, and peaceful both people, and their societies as a whole become.

Michael Schemer’s excellent book “The Moral Arc” present’s a compelling case for optimism, as the global population becomes more tolerant and peaceful, and our proximity to violence and suffering continues to diminish as we all become awash with worldly information and new enlightened ways of thinking.   This progression has tracked a positive trajectory since the enlightenment period (Well, apart from a couple of blips last century when we descended into total war!).

Moral Arc

Of course, anyone who watches the news regularly may well disagree here.   News worthy items need action and drama to stimulate public interest, and often news outlets have vested interests and motivations that undermine their impartiality.  For these and other reasons, Shermer urges us all to pay attention to the trend lines and not just the headlines.

After all, graphs that show improving statistics in respect to greater education of the poor, or reduced violence figures in a given demographic, are a little bit dry on the big screen.   What we tend to get instead often resembles Game of Thrones, and many headlines are often heralded by a public health warning for added affect.

Our most powerful tool through which to empower people with information today is obviously going to be the Internet.    Nothing is more accessible, nothing is as rich and diverse, and nothing has ever been as up to date.   There is no doubt whatsoever that on balance, the Internet is a huge benefit to the global common good.

That said, there are drawbacks to the Internet that are often overlooked, and here I feel we need to focus some more attention..

Born in the mid 70’s I can clearly recall having 3 TV channels through which all contact with the world was received.   The 3 channels had things I liked, and things I didn’t like.   Things I was interested in, and things I was bored by.    In 1982 along came Channel 4, which was a little bit risqué and subversive, a little bit naughty and anti-establishment, and things became a little more interesting.

tv channels

30 years later and I’m flicking through the cluster of Sky TV Channels that are dedicated to the kids and teenagers programs, trying to find something more stimulating than SpongeBob Square Pants for my 2 young children to occupy them for the 20 minutes before dinner is ready.   I click just 1 channel too far and I get some wild-eyed preacher informing us all (including my young impressionable children) that we are fundamentally flawed creatures, destined for an eternity in a fiery torture chamber, unless we submit to his particular brand of omnipotent, invisible (yet still clearly angry) sky wizard.

And here’s me worried about SpongeBob becoming an eventual advert for the creative benefits of hallucinogenics!

As more channels become available, they become more specific and able to cater for niche interests.   You have entire channels dedicated to food, sci-fi, comedy, lifestyle, crafts, cars, history, music, nature, engineering, technology, religion,  and much much more.

And yet, television is still just a passive medium.

The Internet is not just passive, it’s interactive!  There is even more choice in abundance. It is quite literally unlimited.

The Internet is a conduit to the rest of the world, but it also creates spaces through which you can isolate yourself from the rest of the world.

The Internet allows you to find your own niche corner and interact only with those that share your interests, your ideas, or your worldviews.

The Internet will provide spaces to have your beliefs reinforced, as much as it can to have them challenged.

The Internet will provide spaces that will accentuate your ideas, as much as it can dilute or augment them with alternative views.

If you chose ignorance (as many often will), the Internet will guide you to those who also wish to remain ignorant of facts that you yourself wish to hide yourself from.

Consider the office meeting analogy.   It is often purported that group-think is a bad thing, because the more “out there” or extreme opinions and suggestions, can get reinforced and amplified through the anonymity characteristic of a group, resulting in some perverse decision making.

Group-think will often result in negative outcomes driven by a some form of innate pack-mentality.

groupthink

Take that a degree further and you can have a situation mob rule.   Consider crowds of football supporters for instance.   Common interest group cohesion, causing one to behave abnormally and out of character.   It’s a primitive psychological thing, I myself, have sat in the home supporters side at a football match and had to check myself for fear of shouting obscenities at strangers within earshot of minors.

The digital equivalent to these analogue examples are the special interest groups or communities found in various forms throughout the Internet.    The Internet is so big and so diverse hiding in clear sight has become all too easy for these enclaves, which in itself sounds paradoxical.

There are dark little corners of the Internet and some of these are  extremely harmful and even deadly.

Some groups or forums will simply and harmlessly help you develop or extend your hobbies, whilst others may guide you in the art of bomb making, or hypnotise you into some kind of suicide pact.

This barrage of psychological experimentation that the Internet conducts on the human psyche will only get heavier as technology develops.

Yes, the Internet is the ally of education, and information and exposure to new ways of thinking drive moral progression, world peace, and individual fulfillment.   It’s woefully understated that the Internet literally makes the world a far better place!

But the Internet can and will drive these benefits faster and harder if we could all pay more attention to this harmful and regressive artifact of the unlimited choice that the Internet presents us with.

Let’s be aware that these nefarious echo chambers disease our Internet.

Let’s encourage people to stray into areas where their ideas will be challenged (as all good ideas should withstand or benefit from being challenged).

Cultural integration of communities with a variety of influences is acknowledged in the real world as a sound strategy for social and moral progression within societies.   The same is also true in the digital world.

Let’s introduce people to the wider world of new ideas, and shine a big light into the dark little corners of our global information network.

Echo chamber 2

Thank you for reading my blog.

This is my 3rd blog so far.   If you liked this (or if you didn’t) please feel free to comment or share.

Here are links to my 1st blog on Artificial Consciousness:

Apocalypse how?

And my 2nd on Machine Intelligence:

The Art of Official Intelligence

Yours,

Occam’s Laser

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