Dampening the Echo

David Weinberger has a nice essay at Salon about the “echo chamber” meme that seems to be pervading analysis of Howard Dean’s fall and the supposed insularity of the internet.

Behind the echo chamber controversy lies the question of whether the Internet causes people to solidify their beliefs or to diversify them. Does it open people up or shut them down?

This is a really tough question, and not just because it’s hard to quantify.

First, it assumes that it’s bad to solidify beliefs because that closes one’s mind. But beliefs aren’t simply propositions to which we assent. They are also the foundation for action and for political solidarity. The relationships of belief and doubt, and belief and actions, are far more subtle than the echo chamber meme credits. Deaniacs and Bushies alike need places where they can gather with supporters and exalt and commiserate – and do so without naysayers from the other side

Second, the existence of echo chambers doesn’t mean that the participants only go to echo chambers. Even if I spend most of my online time in my echo chamber of choice, the minority of my time may bring me into contact with a more diverse range of opinions than I would have encountered without the Net. That seems to me to be the relevant statistic, however elusive it might be.

Besides, we humans – echo chamber participants or echo chamber castigators – rarely engage in deep, meaningful and truly open conversation with people who fundamentally disagree with us. I have never debated a neo-Nazi, and if I did, I wouldn’t do so with an open mind: No way is that son of a bitch going to convince me that he’s right. No apologies. Being grounded in some beliefs is a condition for having any beliefs. And that has nothing to do with echo chambers

So, does the Internet open people up or shut them down? The existence of echo chambers by itself doesn’t answer the question. And we should probably worry whether “open” and “shut” are themselves metaphors that shut down our understanding of how we decide, believe and act.

This is the best refutation I’ve seen yet of the all too common passive-aggressive argument on the part of some conservatives, such as David Brooks, that liberals should stop being so angry about the policies of Bush because it just isn’t seemly. Or the argument that Arnold Kling makes saying that conservatives are more interested in discussing consequences instead of motives. Just face the facts that everyone is arguing from a position, and that having a position is sometimes a good thing.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.