Echo-chambers and post-truth world

December 13, 2017 § 2 Comments


We make our own echo-chambers. We consistently interact with what we like, laying more and more bricks to first build the wall, and then to reinforce it. The inside is exactly what we want, built to sate our every want, that we forget to make provisions for windows and doors. Our ability to question and reason, the key to open a mind are useless in a world without doors and windows.


The boundary to knowledge in the past had been through exclusion- conscious discrimination which sought to ‘other’ and create a notion that not everyone was deserving enough. Today, a lot of us have the world at the palm of our hands, with almost anything we want to know only a search away. Yet, this world almost tangibly present in our lives is locked behind keywords and our inability to judge the veracity of the information we find and consume.

How old is the universe? This may seem an innocuous question to the general reader who knows the age of the universe. Or do you? A search result will tell you it is 13.772 Billion years old. That isn’t definite, there is a margin of error to it. As science advances our ability to learn more about our world increases, and we will come to better define this.

Is that the only answer though? The above answer is for the question, how old is the universe according to science.

How old is the universe according to the vedas? How old is the universe according to creationism? How old is the universe according to Islam?

You are welcome to search for these answers.

What seems like a primary fact on which you base your view of the universe in fact is subject to what you already know, what you have already learnt.

If you have learnt and come to know an answer other than a scientific one and happen to google the age of the universe, you will encounter the scientific answer. This creates a point of conflict. This confuses you. To check the veracity of this, you turn to your primary source of your knowledge- your teacher.

Your primary source reiterates what you know and dismisses anything contrary as hearsay. You then move on to questioning others- family and friends, and as more and more sources confirm it, your uncertainty gives way to a certainty, and certainty to a definite belief in what you know. This becomes the first brick of your echo-chamber.

You slowly but surely start building the wall around yourself, allowing only those who believe in the same thing, tweaking the keywords till all you find is what fits in with what you believe is correct.

The veracity of information is dependent on where you find it, who knows it, and how many people you know, know it to be true. Others in your circle believe in the same way. You come together to build a confederation, where you all hear the same thing, an information vouched for again and again, ricocheting of the walls again and again, that it cannot be anything but the truth. Your echo-chamber is complete- from your real life to digital life all you hear is what you want to hear.

If this happened simply because you chose to, it would be the way it has come to be with humanity in general. But it didn’t happen simple because you chose this. There is more to it.

Remember how you never “liked” the posts of your schoolmate whose views where contrary to yours? How many more posts did you encounter from the person? Have you seen promoted content similar to what you read a while back? Remember that advertisement calling you to action to defend an apparent offence against your faith?

Echo-chambers are good for business, and as our businesses becoming increasingly adept at knowing what you “like”, and what you don’t, they become better at creating that comfortable world where what you think to be true is what you know to be true.

Based on what you browse and engage with, the algorithm deployed to keep a tab on you help in creating echo-chambers and they leave nothing to chance. They slowly add more and more layers between you and anything different.

While the machines add layers outside, we tend to move further towards the (self) centre, and add layers inside- convinced that anything that doesn’t conform or fit in with what we know to be true is wrong.

When you do manage to look outside the metaphorical fortress and encounter anything contrarian, there is a backlash. This confrontation turns into a war, and again is good for those who write the codes. We obsessively trade in an exchange with nothing but the defence of what we know to be true the only goal at whatever cost.

We live in a post-truth world. A world where not just the importance and relevance of facts are diminishing, but a world where the premise of a fact is now in doubt. Modern scientific view is now seen as an invasion on older medieval thought and as intellectual imperialism.

As much as we fight to keep the internet democratic and open, we are forgetting that any exchange requires rules of engagement. And as the internet and technology seamlessly integrate into our life and living, we need to ensure that we don’t come to live in echo-chambers. You can’t stop people from believing what they want, but we can certainly stop accelerating the pace at which the walls of the fortresses are built, lest a tweet triggers a world war.

The world is becoming increasingly e-enabled, and the largest challenges in front of us are to feed ourselves and stay alive in a world of dwindling resources and hostile climatic conditions. This requires universal cooperation on real issues- you can live on imaginary food and water only for so long. It is time to knock down our echo-chambers to at least provide for a few windows, set our rules of engagement and work together to stop the world from becoming an unbearable place.

The first step towards this is to make the algorithms more unbiased, and opening our minds to expose ourselves to views other than what we believe to be true. While your view may allow you to consider certain human lives as more valuable than others, you need to realize that there are others who feel the same about you. Either of you dead is still a statistic- you can fight over the reasons, and you can fight over the causes- but dead people are dead people- however they died, for whatever died. And as much as a celestial abode with infinite pleasures or being particles that doesn’t belong to a human being are tempting, a dead person is only just more useful than alive ones who live indifferent to everything else other than themselves.

We live in a time where we not only have access to information, but are forced to consume information. Consensus on the past and the future have always been difficult, but we are at a stage where we fail to agree on the present- rising sea water levels and global temperatures; the state of lives in the next neighbourhood, the next state and the next country; the scarcity of resources; exploding population, beyond what is sustainable on Earth.

If we do not take cognisance of these facts and instead defend our existing political, religious, racial and gender biases, our world will soon become unbearable to live. What will remain to be seen will be whether a tweet will start a world war, or rising sea levels will consume us. We may find a way to Mars, but first we need to find a way to listen to ourselves.


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