Lately, I have felt trapped in an echo chamber, where I encounter only ideas and opinions that mirror my own. This leads to a feedback loop, whereby all the information I come across reinforce my already-held beliefs. There is very little push back, nothing to counter my opinions and to force me to question what I perceive to be the truth.
Some of this is my own fault. I voluntarily watch “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight”. Most of my news comes from The Atlantic, The New York Times, NPR, and Al-Monitor’ “Turkey Pulse”. I choose my friends and with whom I associate (I can count on one hand the number of friends who would consider themselves card-carrying members of the Republic party).
However, much of this siloing of my knowledge and access is a result of the algorithmic power of Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk. These social media capture data on the information I willingly provide (education, location, gender, age), as well as on the things I “like,” comment on, and click on, and provide me with more of the same. By capturing data on a particular article I read, Facebook assumes I want to see more of the same in the future and tailors my Newsfeed accordingly. It pigeonholes users in an attempt to please.
To wit, my newsfeed has been clogged with the following in the last month [and what that says about me]
- Countless Ice Bucket Challenge videos [white, upper middle class]
- Updates of the situation in Ferguson, Mo. and the debates over the increasing militarization of local police forces [a white girl, concerned with social justice, who can empathize with, but never truly understand the experiences of people of color]
- The developments of the deteriorating crisis in Syria and Iraq, due to the rise of IS [American, concerned with international developments, particularly in the Middle East]
- Undercover Colors, abhorrent statements by Cee-Lo Green, and the poor handling of assault cases on college campuses across the country [female, feminist; also, from North Carolina]
- The leaked nude photos of JLaw, et al. and why you absolutely should not look at them [feminist, plugged into technology and “the Cloud,” but not entirely sure just of what “the Cloud” is]
The only instance where I have gotten any kind of push back is with regard to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. In this case, my fair number of Jewish friends who have differing opinions from myself on the sovereignty of Palestine post articles with which I may not necessarily agree. But even with these friends, I am too chicken to engage in an actual debate. I peruse the articles they post, but do not vocalize my differing opinions for fear of jeopardizing our friendship.
And this unwillingness to engage in a health debate is rampant, and slowly suffocating us all. We teach small children to respect the opinions of others and to discuss their problems, rathe than fighting. Yet somewhere in the intervening twenty-odd years, we disregard, forget about, throw out these lessons. We retreat to our corners and play only with our peers who like the Red Power Ranger and think the Black Power Ranger is for suckers. Congress is in partisan deadlock, unwilling to compromise on even the smallest of issues. Rather than engaging opposing views, news outlets compete to see who can yell the loudest. We see the rise of extremism worldwide (and it’s not all Islamic) and a cascade of global crises, but fail to address their root causes. In this age of overwhelming access to information, we are more ignorant of opposing views than ever. What will be the long-term costs of such polarization?
I leave you, dear readers, with one last question — when was the last time you really engaged with, had a true debate with, a person or idea whose beliefs ran counter to your own? This question has been thrown in sharp relief for me as I attempt to read a book which has a premise I do not agree with (William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts), and the answer (for me, anyway) is a long, long, long time ago. I don’t agree with Easterly’s overarching thesis; I find myself arguing with the text and poking holes in Easterly’s logic. I have to force myself to pick up this book and read the next chapter.
But it’s not all horrible. Despite my and Easterly’s diverging views on the way in which development has happened, is happening, and should happen, Easterly’s got a few fair points that need to be weighed and taken into consideration by all members of the development field. I feel more engaged reading this book than I have with any other piece of non-literary writing that I’ve encountered in years. It makes me a better economist, development worker, and policy wonk than I would ever be if i just stuck with those those writers and thinkers with whom I agree.
This book and the ever-repetitive nature of my Facebook Newsfeed make me want to seek out real, substantive dialogue with people, writing, and ideas that I would normally eschew. I find myself craving the dissonance and debate. so, if you find anything that you think might challenge me, please send it along. May the hunt begin.
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A final aside: All of the articles and videos linked to to here are ones that have informed and reinforced, and did not really challenge, my worldview. So there’s that.