Lockdown is making it even harder to escape from our online echo chambers

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Mike Parker

First it was toilet rolls.  Then eggs and paracetamol.  And now, the gravest shortage of all: podcast microphone kits.  Except for those at the stratospherically expensive top-of-the-range, you cannot get one for love nor Andrex.

This is disturbing news.  The outbreak of shonky podcasts by fellas sat at their kitchen table is set to soar, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.  We will have to wait until they bore themselves out of the habit, long after they’ve bored everyone else.  It could take a while.  I suspect that the tedium curve won’t get flattened for months, probably not before Christmas, when they’ll get some shiny new bit of kit to play with instead, and the podcast mike will be banished to the back of the cupboard, between the iPod, the camcorder and the dead Nokias.  It’s going to be a long, dark haul.

It was John Sergeant who coined the deadly assessment of Gordon Brown that he was “all transmit and no receive”.  The audience – it was on Have I Got News For You – laughed heartily in recognition, for it chimed perfectly with what niggled us most about the then Chancellor.  But that was fifteen years ago, and since then, we’ve all gone the same way.

I realise the risk – yet again – of sounding like a curmudgeonly old git, and also the blazing hypocrisy of using my ninth ‘lockdown diary’ soliloquy to say so, but I’m increasingly of the certainty that the virus likely to kill us all is not Covid-19, but solipsism.  We are so busy tweeting, posting, blogging, podcasting and filming our every brain fart, we’ve forgotten how to stand back, to be still, to absorb.

Most of all, we’re forgetting how to listen and by extension, how to converse.  We don’t (perhaps we can’t?) do dialogue any more; just one uninterrupted, often indignant, monologue after another.  On phone apps, the trend is for far fewer two-way conversations.  Instead, people swap voicemails, back and forward, to and fro, like a crescendo of grunts in a long rally at Wimbledon.

 

Abuse

There have been growing warnings over recent years that we are all retreating deeper into our own echo chambers, surrounding ourselves – online especially – only with the views we already agree with.  This is solipsism’s big brother, extreme tribalism where facts are entirely subordinate to feelings.  Has this awful crisis made you change your mind about anything or anyone, or has it only confirmed everything you already thought?  If it’s the latter, then you might just be the problem.  “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it”, wrote Jonathan Swift, and that was three hundred years before Twitter.

Lockdown has made the concept of the echo chamber eerily manifest.  Rattling around our houses, increasingly scared of the world outside and each other, we might call them echo chambers, or gilded cages, or even padded cells, but the effect is the same: all transmit, no receive.  In just six short weeks, we’ve all slightly become that figure of derision, the pasty geek sat in his pants in a musty bedsit and tapping furious bile into his laptop.

I feel it every time I check Twitter, a habit that I’ve managed to get down to only every fourteen seconds.  Once I open the bloody thing, I just cannot let go of its twisted grip.  It’s been obvious for ages that for all the fine things on there, the driving force of the site is as a gargantuan sewer, raging and rushing us all in a torrent of slurry towards the bubbling fiery pit.  And it’s equally clear that that is no unfortunate side effect, but its entire business model.

At first, I pictured Twitter as a huge and rowdy party, The Great Gatsby for the twenty-first century.  Most of the people there were just great, and had such a lot of interesting things to share.  The lights dazzled, the music pulsed.  Laughter tinkled into the night.

Unfortunately, there were one or two drunken idiots shouting abuse from behind the bins.  If we’d ignored them, they’d have fallen asleep by now, but the hosts decided to give them the karaoke microphone instead, for a laugh they said, and now we can’t get it off them, and we can’t shut them up.  Worse: so many of the good people have joined in too, and have gathered in gangs under the cloak of darkness to holler along with the drunkards, or to scream abuse at them.  Trouble is, at that volume, it’s impossible to tell the difference.

Read more in Mike Parker’s series for Nation.Cymru below:

Part 1: We’ve been told before that things will never be the same again – can we mean it this time?

Part 2: Last weekend’s pandemic-panic awayday was inevitable – but so was the visceral response

Part 3: Will we use this crisis to rediscover the value of community – or for more suspicion and othering?

Part 4: The BBC needs to start listening to doctors – not government spin

Part 5: In a pandemic, fake news can become a lightning conductor for our fears and frustrations

Part 6: Could the pandemic bring us all back together while keeping us apart?

Part 7: This pandemic is the moment tech giants have been dreaming of – even I’m shoveling my data online

Part 8: Will the pandemic change the superior ‘screw you’ attitude of entitled second home owners?

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Plain citizen
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Plain citizen

Very good article. The retreat into the echo chamber where people are unwilling (unable?) to accept evidence or logical argument which might upset their world view is disconcerting. Instead of “When the facts change, sir, so do my opinions” from Keynes, we have “I’m concerned on an emotional level, its feelings that count not evidence or facts” (I paraphrase a leader of Extinction Rebellion). How do we counter this? I think one way is to have good interviewers like Andrew Neil who researches a subject before his interviews. Something the rest of the BBC interviewers completely fail at. Not being… Read more »

Alwyn Evans
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Alwyn Evans

Diolch Mike – a timely reminder. Yes, I see myself there too.

Alwyn Evans
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Alwyn Evans

Diolch Mike; a timely reminder. Yes, I see myself there too. Maybe I’ll go out in the garden more.

Neil Anderson
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Neil Anderson

It’s the Age of Communication, Mike. Everyone is talking and no one is listening!

Simon Gruffydd
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Mike writes that facts have become subordinate to feelings online. Unfortunately this has been the direction of travel for much of the 21st century, so far. Nowhere is this more apparent in the cronavirus panic-demic – where the most powerful emotion of them all – fear – is amplified. Mike asks if the lockdown has changed anyone’s minds about others. It certainly has revealed some latent characteristics and biases of some people. A lot of people are harnessing the “threat” to further their agendas. Globalists argue for a one world government. Nationalists argue for sealed borders. Here in Wales, it… Read more »

Jonesy
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Jonesy

As somebody who cannot afford a home, ban ttem. I don’t think anybody should be flooding communities with holiday homes, be they English or Welsh people. In my town it’s mainly the natives buying up property specifically for Airbnb purpose. That should be stopped now

John Young
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John Young

It’s been said many times Simon, this is not simply a Welsh/English problem. There are huge areas of England suffering in the same way as well. Having said that I can’t argue the case for all those areas but can argue for Wales. It’s the enormous number of incomers to all those small communities that is destroying them. In another current Nation Cymru article someone mentioned that the place they live is now 60% English. That is simply not right. If someone decides to buy a second/holiday home in Abersoch or Aberdyfi (add many other place names) I find it… Read more »

Troll Watch
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Troll Watch

A good article. It’s interesting that the rise of the far right, Brexit, English nationalism has gone hand in hand with the rise of the echo chamber. The extremists are much more comfortable ranting in an echo chamber but unfortunately it does get through and is creating the zeitgeist. Those more mild mannered comment makers understandably give up against a barrage of hate messages but it’s ‘left the field’ for the bullies to take control. In Wales when you read through the message boards of Walesonline or BBC Wales it’s horrific the amount of trolling and statements of hate that… Read more »

Simon Gruffydd
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Are you suggesting censoring those whose points of view you disagree with? That sword cuts both ways.

Troll Watch
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Troll Watch

No, I’d argue having stronger rules on how we write comments on line is not censoring. If someone is being very unpleasant then most people would agree they shouldn’t be allowed to comment. A lot of message boards just support a shouting type approach to getting your point of view across and who shouts the loudest wins. Extremists are experts at this and drown out opposing arguments through being very unpleasant. The current free for all system of almost anything goes isn’t good for democracy. All sides need to put their points across respectfully and be listened to with respect,… Read more »

j humphrys
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j humphrys

Well, it’s got a little Trumpian, yes. Angela Merkel has called for opinion “influencers” to publish their Real names, or not be heard. This is to quell the many far-righters who multi-post under assumed avatars, etc. She is perhaps right, as people who cannot be identified can put out much more fiery stuff than those who can.

Morris Dean
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Morris Dean

Join Toot.Wales. There’s no algorithm directing you to follow people who already subscribe to a certain world view. And it’s a non-commercial, open-source platform connecting you to millions globally but with a local focus.

It’s time to disempower the corporate giants who tell us what to read, who to follow and what to think.

Find out more at https://toot.wales/about/more