We live in a culture that favours the similar. As the internet permeates all the corners of the many rooms of the palaces of our lives, a perverse thing appears to be happening: our worlds are becoming smaller and more homogenous. Facebook sends catered advertising and posts to our feeds, reinforcing what we already like. We post discussions on social media and use them to triage our friends: people who present us with uncomfortable opinions are quickly defriended, as we shake our heads and wonder what we were ever thinking when we connected with that person.
In short, the internet is turning our online communications into an echo chamber, where the views that we understand and are comfortable with morally, ideologically, culturally and socially. The odd thing is that we can be cultural tourists on the net, visiting sites that express alternative views and reading or viewing content that challenges us. However, the culture of surveillance that has been revealed through Snowden’s communications and others, have made us doubt even this anonymous grazing: Are am I being watched as I read the alternative press? Who watched me watch a radical documentary on YouTube?
All of this is very unfortunate. The initial promise of the internet was that it would open the world to us. However, we are letting social pressure and the threat of being outed as not quite fitting into “our profile” or “character” to drive our behaviours. In the past, we struggled to be free thinkers because that was the highest status behaviour in a robustly individualistic West: we didn’t talk politics, religion or sexuality because those things were personal. Now, we have shifted from a culture of individualism-within-community to a culture of identity and belonging. The problem with identity is that it means you are always defining yourself against a stereotypical ideal, not by your wits, reason and personal ingenuity.
We are so far along this path of “belonging to an identity” that we find it strange when someone doesn’t fit any particular identity or choses not to. It feels heretical to hear a person say that they don’t define themselves according to the stereotypes that we are used to.
I think the challenge that this poses to us is simple: put ideology and identity behind us to return to a culture of reason and self-examination. Reason doesn’t preclude belonging to a religion, cultural group, gender or political party. Rather, reason forces us to justify our choices for belonging to these groups or supporting them – rather than blindly identifying with and swearing allegiance to them.
Life is concrete – it made up of the daily decisions we make: Will I be kind to each person I meet today? Will I be helpful to others and unselfish with my time? Will I empathize and attempt to help others grow so that we might both grow together? Will I analyze each appeal for my allegiance individually to see if I really buy the premise?
The internet has, sadly, turned into an echo chamber that reflects our expressed ideas back to us and then bombards us with reinforcement of them through catered advertising and a personalized feed.
Try breaking out of the echo chamber by applying reason to each of your digital choices. You may just find it liberating.