Sunday, February 20, 2011

Again With the Echo Chamber

This image -- George Seurat's L'Echo, is in the public domain.

Yeah, here's yet another one of those “information is coming at me too fast” stories that Clay Shirky warns us about. Funny thing is that it's from NPR, where the smart people hang out, so you'd figure they'd know better.

It tosses in a few different wrinkles. The author talks with a Princeton astrophysicist who reassures us that news won't “outrun the event” because Planck time forbids it. That tells me this physicist doesn't watch any of the 24-hour news channels, since these days the news always outruns the event, since all they do is talk about what's happening before the news happens until it happens and then they talk about how the news is crappy or really, really good, depending on their political leanings, so this quaint discussion of Planck time is really pretty meaningless in this context. He could have said “Things won't happen until they happen,” but it sounds a lot sexier to the journalist when all done up in a cute little button of erudition.

And then it trots out two familiar old friends: First, the misapprehension that the accelerated news cycle is turning us into tuned-out dummies who don't have the time to filter the information coming to us:
Still, with news — and reaction to news — moving more quickly than ever, says Louis Gray, a Silicon Valley blogger who chronicles the ever-increasing speed of computers and companies, "it is safe to assume the public does not know about many top stories or issues, and cannot be assumed to have enough data to ascertain truth versus spin, and right versus wrong."
That information is coming at us faster and faster is immaterial. The speed of the news arriving doesn't matter in our ability – or anability to parse it for right or wrong, truth versus fiction, or spin for spin. What matters is our cultural literacy, our level of education, and our willingness to invest the required time to learn what we need to understand the information we want to understand.

That, of course, leads us to the second familiar friend, the good ol' echo chamber.
As a result, Gray says, "people are intentionally filtering the information they consume through sources they agree with, or are turning instead to entertainment and idle-time activities, becoming less informed."
Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, working at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business successfully debunked the Internet-inspired echo chamber theory, in a study I blogged about nearly a year ago.

As I wrote back then:
The study does include one caveat: "[N]one of the evidence here speaks to the way people translate the content they encounter into beliefs. People with different ideologies see similar content, but . . . [various mechanisms] may lead people with divergent political views to interpret the same information differently." This is a significant caveat, since how information consumed is interpreted and incorporated -- or left out -- of our political ideologies is significantly more important than if we're exposed to different points of view on the same information.
I can attest in my own experience that the Internet – and the rus of information it provides – is actually helping, not hurting. I can offer two examples:

In the book I'm writing, I've got a character who likes old barbershop quartet songs. I know next to nothing about barbershop quartets, but because of the Internet, I've been able to do a lot of learning in just a short amount of time. Additionally, it's helped me find some songs that are in the public domain – a big bonus as I want to include some in my book.

Here's another example: My wife is an avid Cub Scouter, who is trying to find information on skits, cheers, songs and other elements to incorporate into her plans. Thanks to the Internet – and a lot of like-minded individuals, she's finding ample material, and then contributing her own original material as well, adding to the overall ball of Cub Scout-related knowledge.

I don't agree that the speed at which information comes at us increases our susceptibility to echo chambers or tuning out completely. I think quite the opposite, actually, as the Internet has helped me expand my horizons and to learn things I might not have learned before because the information was simply too hard to get. And because of the propentisty of the information out there, I'm finding my skills at parsing and interpreting information is getting better, not worse, as the amount of information I find at my fingertips increases.

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