It’s not new. We create groups of friends who share our opinions, talk with colleagues who agree with our views and read newspapers that give us the information we want – or think we want. We work for organisations who share our values (some of us). If we can, we live in places that mirror our aspirations.
Look at your web bookmarks. In using the internet we create a web for ourselves which is less an infinite universe of possibilities than a self-constructed mirror of the thoughts we have, the lives we lead, the things we like and the beliefs we hold to. When was the last time you read an article you disagreed with? When did you last seek one out?
When I heard someone mention, almost glibly, on Radio 4 last week that the internet – which was ‘supposed’ to be The Information Superhighway, enabling us all to be better read, more rounded individuals with knowledge of so many different things – had created an infinite echo chamber, it focused a feeling I’d struggled to express before.
I’m a victim of this as much as anyone. I hunt out commentaries which suggest the things that, in my soul, feel right and provide the answers to the questions which torment me. Answers which let me go on, which create something I can base my own beliefs or feelings on and which I can return to if I need my feelings reaffirming.
In my darkest moments I will find myself purposefully reading depressing, cynical and hopeless newspaper articles about rapes, murders, corruption, complaints, whinings, mud-slingings, griefings. I fabricate a world around me which echoes my mood, not just my beliefs, and which maintains the mood I’m in. Negative comfort.
But when I use the word ‘belief’, I can’t honestly stick to it. Because if you use the beliefs of others – the echoes in the chamber – to construct your own beliefs on, what are you really left with? And when a contrasting belief comes into contact with you, do you reach for own truth or do you discover that this has been replaced with someone else’s?
Briefly, Plato’s Cave imagines prisoners who spend their existence in a cave facing a blank wall. Behind them is a fire. The light of the fire projects shadows onto the wall of things which pass between the prisoners and the fire. The shadows are as close as the prisoners ever get to reality, and so to them the shadows are reality.
In Plato’s argument, the philosopher is a person who is freed from the cave. He sees the shadows, the things, the fire, the prisoners who have accepted their false view of reality. He bases his reality on the things themselves, rather than their projections as two-dimensional shadows on the wall. And his job is to reveal this truth to the prisoners.
Online, we’re all philosophers. We love to talk, we love to be listened to, and we love to share our opinions, our theories – this is the heart of social media. Even more so, we love to be agreed with, to agree with others and to find ourselves as part of a group, a tribe, a shared ‘feeling’ or belief.
We’ve seen the fire, we know the things. But we’ve returned to the wall full of self-assured belief that we have seen reality and ‘how it really is’, intent on educating everyone still staring at shadows about their plight. But to take this tortured illustration one step further, think about it like this:
Having spent your life knowing only shadows, having built your understanding of reality around shadows, it is revealed that the shadows which formed your reality are only the shapes of real things projected in the light of a fire. How could you appreciate this new reality of actual things without invoking your ‘reality’ of shadows?
That is, your understanding of the reality of things would be tainted, shadowed even, by your having always lived with a projected ‘reality’ of shadows. In the same way that someone from an everdesert waterless world who is entirely without the word ‘snow’ might, at first, only be able to understand ‘snow’ by discussing how it is unlike the desert.
As a freed philosopher, then, we see the fire and the things and might at first only see how they are not the shadows we previously believed in. In doing so we might have ‘seen’ reality, but we only understand it and grasp it through the knowledge that it is the root of our previous ‘reality’, that the real fire and the real things created the ‘real’ shadows.
So an American sees the Stars and Stripes and perceives America. But although they perceive America, the real complex America, they don’t see it without first seeing the Stars and Stripes, through which their interpretation of America is coloured. The freed philosopher sees the real things but cannot forget their shadows.
In this understanding/notunderstanding of the fire and the things, our freed philosopher returns to the wall and the shadows and the prisoners in order to reveal that this ‘reality’ is only a projection, is only an interpretation, and that if only they would turn around and see their beliefs would melt away in the face of actual reality.
But now the problem is compounded – you have a freed slave who only connects with the truth through how it contrasts to that which is accepted by the prisoners, none of which have any understanding of there being another reality other than that which they see in the shadows projected on the wall.
And as much as the philosopher cannot understand the revealed reality except through how it replaces and contrasts against his previous ‘reality’, the frame of reference he would need to use would have to be that which the prisoners could understand, and so he would be forced to discuss reality by discussing ‘reality’, the unreal.
I realise I am reinventing the wheel here, and that Plato’s cave expanded to explore how a man who was dragged from shadows into reality might feel, and how those left in the cave might react were he to return and attempt to reveal an unseen, uncomprehensible reality to them. But this point is where Plato’s Cave becomes the Echo Chamber.
Like I said, online we are all philosophers. And there is an urge online (illustrated in the race to be ‘First!’ or in flaming, trolling or the like) to be uncompromised. And so a hundred thousand freed slaves have glimpsed the fire and the real things, understood them not purely as reality but as not ‘reality’, then rushed back to the wall.
Philosophers outnumber the prisoners. And because many of the philosophers have come back to the wall without fully grasping the reality of the fire and the things, they all have different ways of interpreting how reality is not ‘reality’. Combined with an urge to be uncompromised, you have a clamour of philosophers, a chaos of ideas and a host of incompatible expressions of reality.
Surrounded by noise, the prisoners still have only one reality they can know. What the philosophers say confuses them, much as the philosophers are confused themselves. And so there are prisoners who can no longer just see the shadows without hearing the philosophers explain what the shadows are not.
So these prisoners gravitate toward the philosophers who make them least uncomfortable, the speakers who are easiest for them to understand, the interpretations of the fire and the real things which they find possible to grasp. And because all the other voices cause them discomfort, they enter the echo chamber, hearing only the things which fit with the new way they have learned to deal with their real ‘reality’.
At the same time the philosophers struggle to span the two worlds, the reality and the ‘reality’, grappling with explaining reality through what is unreal to prisoners who only know the fire and the real things through the expressions of the philosophers, and defending their own interpretations of reality from competing philosophers.
And defending an interpretation of the fire and the real things, based only upon what they are not, is a struggle which causes discomfort. Because to accept the interpretation of another philosopher is a compromise, and an acceptance that your interpretation may be incomplete, and that further thought is needed. And where does it end?
So compromising brings an an awareness that you haven’t escaped the shadows at all, and that you’re actually not unlike the prisoners, except that you know too much now to ever go back to that ignorant beginning. The only choice is to turn back to the fire and the real things and to try to understand them for what they are.
And so philosophers who refuse to accept that their interpretation is incomplete refuse to be compromised by returning to the fire and the real things – because to do so would be to openly admit that other interpretations were possible. And, like the prisoners, the completists who share interpretations enter the echo chamber together, only hearing those voices who do not challenge them to challenge themselves.
But there are philosophers, open thinkers, who go back to the fire and the real things and stay until they understand reality without ‘reality’, who can discuss the real things without discussing them as ‘those things which the shadows represented’. The desert-dwellers learn what snow is, and do not need to discuss the desert in order to do so.
The open thinkers cannot return to the wall, to the shadows. Because in place of a blank wall there is now Plato’s Echo Chamber, where together are gathered prisoners and philosophers in self-selective bands who have all closed their eyes to the shadows and the fire, and who now only hear themselves and the interpretations which match theirs.
In the minds of these closed-eye prisoners and philosophers, the interpretation they accept and which is echoed all around them is now the fire which projects the shadows they remember. Every echo only makes the fire stronger, the shadows more defined. Without opening their eyes, a discussion of the first shadows on the wall is impossible.
An open thinker, therefore, cannot engage a prisoner or a philosopher in the Echo Chamber in debate about the shadows or of the interpretation of those shadows and the real things they are projections of. The closed-philosophers will not credit those they perceive as compromised. The prisoners can no longer even see the first shadows.
All that is left is for the open thinkers to stand by the fire, out of the projected light, and to call to the prisoners or philosophers. To call over the noise of the Echo Chamber and to challenge them to open their eyes, recognise the first shadows, to turn from the wall and to approach the fire and to see and to interpret for themselves.
That the internet provides an infinite level of positive noise (what you believe) and makes it incredibly easy to silence negative noise (what makes you uncomfortable or challenges what you believe) makes it a perfect echo chamber, especially when media outlets and organised groups have such huge impact and reach so many so easily.
But the strength of the internet is how easy it is to open our eyes. You just have to want to – the rest is right there, where it always was, instantly accessible. No need for library trips or visits to lectures or even to buy a newspaper or magazine. Just the requirement that you look, and think.
Does it really matter if the content of your web mirrors only your own beliefs? Are we diminished by not being open to other interpretations? Of course we are. No one got more intelligent by not asking questions, and no one learned more without accepting that there were things they did not know, or understand.
It’s easy to keep our eyes closed, and God knows I’ve wilfully blindfolded myself for periods and enjoyed the reassuring comfort of not thinking, not questioning, not doubting inside the echo chamber. But being outside of it is healthier, better for you. Better for us all.