Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Bouncer at the Echo Chamber

I'm troubled by echo chambers – and it increasingly feels like that's all there is at the moment. Maybe it's 'cos I spend too much time consuming and thinking about digital content, where the MO is 'throw a million things at the wall, see which ones get pageviews, then do more of that' (see Facebook groups, HuffPo, YouTubers, Daily Mail online, any content producer really). Perpetuation and reinforcement is the name of the game.

I'm starting to feel like everyone has a private club going on in their head, complete with a gruff bouncer who surveys all the 'stuff' (opinions, articles, research, conversations etc) that wants to come in. This bouncer has a limited set of possible responses:

  • The warm welcome
    Here comes some content that agrees with your preconceptions. It reinforces your worldview, it validates your arguments or vindicates your prejudices. It adds power to your 'side'.
    This designer's client doesn't understand typography either! Michael Gove made a maths gaffe! That benefits cheat had an Asian-sounding name! This religious moraliser was corrupt all along!
    It doesn't matter what the 'side' is, the dynamic's the same – just gleefully thrilled to be able to welcome another person to the party. Even better if they're a VIP.
'Ello, mate! How ya doin'? Love the get-up! Come on in, the gang's all here. You'll be right at home.'
  • The grudging let-off
    Hmm. Next in the queue is some content that definitely isn't the right type. It doesn't align with your preconceptions. It's decidedly shifty. It makes you feel uncomfortable just looking at it. It's trainers in a shoes-only establishment.
    Actually, I'd vote Republican. But Donnie Darko was a masterpiece! Jesus loves you. Everyone in power is part of a massive conspiracy against all that is good.
    Thing is, though... you like the person the content's coming in with (yes, I'm mixing my metaphors, get over it). So it's grudgingly allowed in – but it's definitely not allowed to request any music or order any funky cocktails. The opinion can exist, as a favour to your friend, but mustn't change anything.

    'Alright, I won't chuck you out just yet. But I've got my eye on you, sunshine. And you'd best leave when she does.'
  • The hostile shut-out
    And then there's, well, everything else. Everything else is terrible. A blot, a stain, a disaster, an 'undesirable' that mustn't be allowed to darken your door or spoil your party. This content, at best, doesn't coincide with your preconceptions. At worst, it actively opposes them. And it doesn't have have any redeeming features, like having been brought along by a person you have a crush on.
    If you're feeling generous, you will just fix this content with a hard, disapproving stare from across the street and then glower at it until you're sure it knows its place and has retreated far out of sight again. If you, or it, are feeling a bit more facety, then it's time to get tough. Bring on the aggro. Chuck that despicable different opinion forcefully out on its backside, in full view of everyone else, to make an example of it. Maybe give it a few kicks for good measure. Your friends will back you up, no doubt.

    'Get OUT. And don't even think about coming back. Scum.'
  • The didn't-even-leave-the-house
    Last, but probably not least (though how would you ever know?), there's actually everything else. Because for any of the above to come into play, you need to at least be aware of the content in the first place. And with things like the press's sheeplike clustering around a handful of identikit stories and issues, Facebook's EdgeRank, Twitter's 'follow-unfollow' setup, even the way geography and income severely limit your exposure to people unlike yourself, the chances are that you are only ever seeing a very tiny, tailor-made tip of an unimaginably massive iceberg of 'stuff'.
    There are entirely different categories of situation, thought and experience that you'll simply never come into contact with. To stretch the bouncer metaphor, it would be like having an amoeba or an alien or a dinosaur rock up in the queue. Do they get to come in? Fortunately, you never have to worry about such a bewilderingly bizarre and category-smashing decision because it will never cross your path. Phew, right?
I know this is nothing new. I'm sure I could find plenty of content 'on my side', expressing the same concerns, from all through history, probably. And the world's still turning, so maybe it's all fine. But it still troubles me. Where's the room for challenge? The preconception bouncer is so strict and the guest list so short – does anything different or new ever get in, or actually are we fated to be Guardianistas or Sun-readers all our life?

I don't know when these preconceptions get set but, I tell ya, it puts a serious dent in one's confidence in ideologies of individual choice, free will/strong volition, man-as-rational-actor etc... (like, all the ideologies that characterise 21st century Western life).


Or maybe reassure me with a story of open-mindedness, embracing challenge and a time your outlook was changed. Unless valuing all of those things is just another echo-chamber typology into which I'm already locked! The plot thickens...