Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Echo Chambers and the Modern World

You know what an echo chamber is? It's where you say something, and all the room does reverbate the sound of your own voice back to you. It's pretty kickass if, like myself, you like the sound of your own voice. Most people seem not to (and I didn't before I got a radio show in high school). But that's another story for another a day.

A lot of us live in a certain kind of echo chamber in our everyday lives, though. The CEO who surrounds himself with nothing but "yes men" only hears his/her ideas echoed back to him. Teachers who conduct anti-drug or pro-abstinence seminars often have the same phenomena with their students...5 minutes before the alpha dog slaps on a condom to have sex with the rebel "slutty" girl while sparking up a Marlboro (and he's 14!).

And a lot of us have similar information echo chambers. If you're a right-wing conservative and you tune in to Fox News, chances are you are only hearing your own ideas back bounce at you. A very similar thing occurs if you're a liberal who relies on DailyKOS for all of your information.

The problem with an echo chamber is that people who discuss their ideas tend to start out a bit moderate with a slight leaning in one direction or another. Since they only encounter arguments from their own side, they tend to get very confident in their beliefs, and grow more extreme. If you're a conservative and turn on Rush Limbaugh thinking that welfare is a bad idea, you'll probably turn off the radio thinking that welfare is the WORST IDEA EVAH and that anyone who supports it is an obvious dummy at best, and pandering for the black vote at worst.

A curious effect might be that the most politically active of us become the most polarized of us, at least if we are more likely to look to sources that share our beliefs. The politically active among us talk about the issues, go to their respective echo chambers, and come away bloodthirsty radicals that want change and want it NOW. What can possibly moderate this?!

Well, it ain't the real estate market, that's for sure. See here:
Americans are increasingly forming like-minded clusters. Conservatives are choosing to live near other conservatives, and liberals near liberals.

A good way to measure this is to look at the country's changing electoral geography. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won the presidency with 50.1% of the popular vote. Though the race was close, some 26.8% of Americans were in “landslide counties” that year, where Mr Carter either won or lost by 20 percentage points or more.

Americans, with higher incomes and more mobility, can increasingly choose where to live, and they can make a lot more choices than they used to be able to. Since people like living around like-mindeds, they create clusters of red and blue zones. And the effect magnifies the echo chambers...especially among those who care most about politics.

Heck, politics even seems to matter when we choose who we marry, though I can't find a link for it at the moment.

Echo chambers. So very cool.

But so very dangerous.

This post borrows heavily from the writings of Cass Sunstein, particularly Infotopia. A very good read. :)

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