No echoing the echo chamber here

4 minute read

Seems to be a theme going in the press today: The Internet is making us stupid by connecting us with the things we like.

Yes, when I write it that way, it sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it?

But that’s the thesis of an essay by Natasha Singer in the NY Times: “The Trouble With the Echo Chamber Online”, and a separate essay by Jonah Lehrer in the Wall Street Journal: “When We’re Cowed by the Crowd”.

Singer posits that the problem is Google giving us search results that we want, not irrelevant ones.

If you type bank into Google, the search engine recognizes your general location, sending results like Bank of America to users in the United States or Bank of Canada to those north of the border. If you choose to share more data, by logging into Gmail and enabling a function called Web history, Google records the sites you visit and the links you click. Now if you search for apple, it learns and remembers whether you are looking for an iPad or a Coxs Orange Pippin.

OK, seems like a pretty awesome thing to me. I’m here in Rome, and when I search for a location on my phone, it gives me the location in Rome! Not only does that give me the information faster, it saves me (expensive) bandwidth. Win!

But Singer worries that this will harm our democracy. No, stop laughing. Really.

But, in a effort to single out users for tailored recommendations or advertisements, personalization tends to sort people into categories that may limit their options. It is a system that cocoons users, diminishing the kind of exposure to opposing viewpoints necessary for a healthy democracy, says Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and the author of You Are Not a Gadget.

This argument is bunk. At no time in history have people been exposed to a wider range of opposing viewpoints. And you know what? Most of them are bunk.

We have always had algorithms to select content. In the past, those algorithms were inside the heads of a small number of newspaper editors and media programming executives. Most of these people knew each other socially, and all of them were locked in competition for eyeballs with the same small group of people, thinking in minor variations on the same theme. That’s why you see things like different newspapers, owned by different companies, publishing opinion pieces on the same out-of-the-blue internet theme on the same day! It’s like a throwback to the past.

I like Google better. Who is more likely to get the truth about bunk theories – somebody who Googles, or somebody who flips his television to the History Channel?

Lehrer picks up a related theme: the “wisdom of the crowd”. The idea is like the “ask the audience” lifeline on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Ask enough people who don’t know the answer, and the result of the poll is more likely to be correct than if you asked any one of them. Lehrer notes a recent study that showed that a crowd where people can exchange guesses with each other is actually worse at this kind of thing than if they all remain mutually mute.

So if you find yourself in Slumdog Millionaire, you’d better gag the audience.

We can all see that this “wisdom of the crowd” thing has pretty limited utility. Guessing number of ping pong balls in wading pool, yes. Unified field theory, no. That’s why we don’t make decisions by polling random ignorant people.

Oh, I know, you’re going to say that’s exactly what we do in a democracy! But really it isn’t at all. Shaping the information environment before an election is a multibillion dollar effort by political parties, candidates, independent organizations, and the media. The public in modern democracy is highly informed. It’s just that each person is highly informed about a small window of things. The internet helps us to connect with other people who know about the same things, allowing coordination of action among dispersed people on a scale rarely seen before.

Lehrer thinks all this communication is making us stupid. No, stop laughing. Really!

And yet, while the Web has enabled new forms of collective action, it has also enabled new kinds of collective stupidity. Groupthink is now more widespread, as we cope with the excess of available information by outsourcing our beliefs to celebrities, pundits and Facebook friends. Instead of thinking for ourselves, we simply cite what's already been cited.

Yep, it’s that groupthink thing. The echo chamber.

Someone who uses the word, groupthink, invariably means, “I can’t stand that everyone doesn’t think like me!” Oh, if you weren’t deluded by your cult of celebrity, surely you would listen to reason!

Bunk. If you have an argument that can’t make traction against somebody’s Facebook friends, it’s not a very good argument. If you don’t like it, make it better.

Yes there is a social influence effect on decision-making. That’s the way humans think. We’re social creatures, and our friends and relatives are important. It’s important that we get to choose our friends. It’s important that we get to choose what we want to know. A society where we can’t choose those things would be a tyranny.

So if you want to influence people’s ideas in our social world, you need to engage with their social networks. Seems like the sort of think that could use a better algorithm.