In Defence of the Echo Chamber

It’s (probably) my last blog post of 2016. A lot of bloggers would take the opportunity to reflect back on the year just gone, but frankly, I’d rather not. Instead I’m going to talk about something that’s attracted a lot of attention recenly, at any rate in my web circles: the ‘echo chamber.’

The echo chamber, in case you’re not familiar with the concept, is the effect whereby opaque algorithms on various websites – Facebook is usually cited as the main culprit – filter our feeds so that we’re only presented with the stuff we’re more likely to like. Which, in the case of political content, can lead to us only seeing posts we already agree with, and hence to the false impression that everyone sees things the same way. I’ve seen this effect blamed for complacency and increased polarisation, and in some extreme cases for the fracturing of society as different groups fail to build bridges between each other.

Well, for what it’s worth, I’m here to defend the echo chamber.


Medieval Reactions twitter, on point as usual

Why? And how? Ok, so the starting point, as so often when people whinge about the impact of new technology, is to point out that there’s nothing actually new about living in a relative bubble. Most people tend to predominantly hang out with other people who broadly share their outlook on life – whether deliberately, or just from the fact that people with similar backgrounds often have similar world views. And most British newspapers offer a decidedly partisan viewpoint. If anything, the internet has made it a great deal easier these days to find a wide range of opinions on any given issue at the touch of a button. Whether you touch that button, or not, is of course up to you.

Keeping yourself well-informed is ultimately the responsibility of the individual, and there are plenty of tools available both on- and off-line, whether a news aggregator app or your local corner shop. So your Facebook feed gives you a distorted view of the world – go look elsewhere for your balanced news and views, and encourage your friends to do likewise.

The other point in defence of the echo chamber is that, unless you want to go crazy, you need to apply some kind of filtering to your online life. Building bridges and fostering debate is all very well if you’re at the level of polite disagreement between reasonable adults, but let’s be honest, that isn’t always the case. Sadly, there are an awful lot of people out there with strongly-held opinions that are misinformed, bigoted, irrational, or just plain wrong. Seeing their views is infuriating at best, offensive at worst, and trying to debate with them is like playing chess with the proverbial pigeon.

My final point in defence of the echo chamber is that, for much of 2016, political discourse on my side of the fence has felt a lot like mourning. Hearing strident opposing views in that atmosphere would have felt like someone at a loved one’s funeral yelling out ‘I’m glad he’s dead I never liked him anyway!’. You might know some people feel that way, but you don’t want to let them into the wake.

Best wishes of the midwinter to you all, and may the returning sun light our way to happier times.


Lies, Damned Lies, and Infographics

A few days ago I wrote I was worried that my country would throw our future into chaos based on a fantasy of Greater Britain. And now my worst fears are coming to pass. The vote has gone to Brexit and the fantasy is dissolving before our eyes. The pound’s value has dropped like a stone, and Scotland is demanding to leave the Union. Welcome to Greater Britain.

My emotions over the past few days have been cycling through shock, anger, depression, disgust, and abject terror. Looking at the reaction and the voting statistics, what especially appals me is the number of Leave voters who clearly didn’t really know what they were voting for and/or didn’t really think Leave would win, and hence cast a protest vote against the political establishment, without thinking through the consequences. Ironically, in many cases it seems the people who will probably be hurt most by Brexit are those most likely to have voted for it.

I’ve seen quite a few people complain bitterly about the Leave voters, in many cases calling them ignorant bigots or worse. This is an understandable reaction – but not a helpful one. There’s a grossly misleading infographic doing the rounds which appears to show that Leave voters hate everything from feminism to environmentalism to the Internet. Studying it more closely, I saw that it actually shows the inverse – ie, that those who hate these things were more likely to vote Leave. But it annoyingly doesn’t give the true numbers behind those headline stats.

Intrigued, I found the raw data online and trawled through the massive pdf document to find the truth. And it was quite revealing. For example, one of the most eye-catching figures in the original infographic is the apparent revelation that 71% of Leave voters hate the Internet. Actually that’s a false (if easy) conclusion to draw – it actually shows that 71% of Internet-haters voted Leave. But how many Internet haters were there to start with? Answer: about 600 people, of over 12,000 surveyed, so a mere ~5% of the total. And that 71% of them who voted Leave – that’s only 430 people, or 3.5% of the total.

In fact, as I dug further into the data, I found that the picture this survey of attitudes shows is far more encouraging than you might think. And so I’ve made my own infographic, showing how British people view various aspects of the modern world.

Look, I made my very own infographic!

Click to embiggen

The key points I take away from this are:

  • Immigration is the only issue where more people considered it a force for ill than considered it a force for good. This isn’t unduly surprising considering the scaremongering about immigration in much of the press. But even here, 60% of British people consider immigration either good or a mixed blessing.
  • The ‘Mixed blessing’ category accounts for at least 20% for each issue, and in some cases over 30%. I find this entirely reasonable given that all these things are complex issues with varied and wide-ranging consequences, and yet this category was completely ignored by the misleading ‘info’graphic.
  • Capitalism and Globalisation are the issues with the highest ‘mixed’ ratings, and the most even split in views overall. This sounds about right to me given their joint potential for both creation and destruction on a massive scale, and the political need to manage that impact carefully – a need which is not currently being met.
  • The Internet is clearly awesome.
  • Feminism and the Green movement are both considered to be Good Things by a clear majority of people, while Social Liberalism and Multi-Culturalism are considered Good Things by very large minorities. And in each case, there’s a substantial minority who think it’s a Mixed Blessing, and only 30% or less who consider it a Bad Thing.

On this basis, enraged saddened and disgusted though I am with the referendum result, I’m not giving up hope on my fellow travellers just yet.


Footnote: for what it’s worth, my own personal views are that all of these are on balance Good Things, with the exception of Globalisation and Capitalism, which are Mixed Blessings. I seem to be fairly in line with the rest of the population in these views, which I find heartening.

The Fantasy of Greater Britain

Or, a fantasy writer’s view of the referendum.

This Thursday is the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, and frankly, I’m worried about it.
I’m worried that my country’s future is going to be thrown into at best uncertainty and at worst utter chaos by a Leave vote.

The Remain campaign seems to have most of the facts on its side – the certainties of trade agreements and science funding and freedom of travel and workers’ regulations and all that stuff. It has the support of major political parties and most public figures for whom I have any respect.

But the Leave campaign has something intangible – something whose power I can’t deny. A fantasy. Now I spend pretty much my whole life either weaving fantasies of my own or losing myself in those created by others, so I know how powerful fantasies are, how they tug at the emotions and pull on the power of dreams. To a certain extent, fantasies are necessary – we all want a dream to chase, an ideal to aspire to.

Fantasies become dangerous when they turn into a substitute for rationality. And that’s what this referendum campaign feels like – when it doesn’t feel like a lot of low-grade squabbling with a big dollop of racism. A fantasy of Greater Britain, an idea of us as a shining isle, splendid in our isolation, with a God-given right to rule the waves. A concept that Brits should be able to live and work and boss people around wherever in the world they like, but that we should be able to stop foreigners coming here. A dream of the sun never setting. The idea that, split apart from the rest of the continent, we’d somehow recapture our rightful place at the head table of world politics.

Oh, it’s an attractive fantasy, there’s no doubt about that. All the best fantasies are. What avid fantasy reader doesn’t dream of going to Hogwarts, of visiting Middle Earth or Narnia? Unfortunately, it doesn’t bear more than a tangential relationship with reality. We don’t have an empire any more. We’re not the Big Bad Boss of the world. We’re a modern, multi-cultural nation, deeply intertwined with the other nations of Europe (and elsewhere) in myriad ways – culturally, legally, politically, financially. Attempts to extricate ourselves from these bonds would be drawn out and painful, and what would be left at the end of it? A country magically transformed into a greater version of its former self? It doesn’t seem likely to me. It seems far more likely that such a process would only leave us diminished in search of a dream.

Fantasies are great. I can hardly claim otherwise. But not when they intrude into reality and consume common sense.