On Information Bubbles

I went to college, in the 1980’s, at the University of Oregon. The campus stood out, even among generally-left-wing institutions of higher learning, as a very, very liberal place. And unsurprisingly, I held a lot of very liberal ideas. Now, this wasn’t entirely due to the University. My background could work well as a parody “origin story” for a tie-dyed action hero: conceived during the Summer of Love by very young (and soon to split) parents living in the Haight-Ashbury. Grew up in the woods in rural Oregon, brought up on a lot of permissive and progressive ideas. You get the idea.

However, my mother had always raised me to have an open mind. And so, in the midst of my sophomore year at Oregon, I began reading The National Review and The Economist, in an attempt to gain some alternate perspective on the philosophy and political science classes I was taking.

This didn’t seem like a particularly important step at the time. I just felt – like many a “question authority” youngster – that I might not be getting the full picture from my lefty professors. And thinking back, my reading didn’t really change my mind on much. Sure, I wasn’t down with the socialism silliness that too many of my classmates went in for, but I was on board for a whole lot of progressive ideas. Because while the reading sometimes moderated my views – or even changed my mind – on many more occasions it exposed the shallowness of whatever counter-arguments existed to the material I was learning in class.

In the 30 years since, I’ve tried to retain this habit of mind. I continue to seek out a diversity of points of view, whether in terms of news and analysis or conversational partners. It feels natural, like the only way to really understand the world, and to feel solid in one’s views.

Maybe I’m approaching this too rationally, but how can you feel confident that your views are sound, if all you hear is the echo chamber?

To this point, Keith Lee recently wrote about “choice architecture:” how the choices we make about the information we consume deeply impacts the interpretations of events were are exposed to. Keith’s post calls to mind Scott Alexander’s “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup,” which notes (among A LOT of other things) our culture’s descent into tribalism, and how we increasingly surround ourselves with tribes (and the tribal voices of social media) that speak only to our own, narrow, perspectives. We only consume information from news outlets tuned to our bias, to say nothing of perspective – opinion pieces – which also come exclusively from our tribe’s outlets.

This seems odd to me, as I’ve grown up with family members who hold a diversity of views, and I’ve internalized the habit of seeking out contrary opinion. And yet, there’s something to Alexander’s amazement that he cannot, in his circle of friends and acquaintances, find anyone who identifies with traditional conservative/religious notions:

According to Gallup polls, about 46% of Americans are creationists. Not just in the sense of believing God helped guide evolution. I mean they think evolution is a vile atheist lie and God created humans exactly as they exist right now. That’s half the country.

And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.

About forty percent of Americans want to ban gay marriage. I think if I really stretch it, maybe ten of my top hundred fifty friends might fall into this group. This is less astronomically unlikely; the odds are a mere one to one hundred quintillion against.

People like to talk about social bubbles, but that doesn’t even begin to cover one hundred quintillion. The only metaphor that seems really appropriate is the bizarre dark matter world.

I live in a Republican congressional district in a state with a Republican governor. The conservatives are definitely out there. They drive on the same roads as I do, live in the same neighborhoods. But they might as well be made of dark matter. I never meet them.

I feel like I inhabit less of a bubble than Alexander does, but only slightly less. Working in technology, in a western coastal city, it’s exceedingly rare to run across people who would hold themselves out as creationists, or inveigh against gay marriage (hell, many people in my circle probably consider me an outlier because I like guns, dislike regulation, and have friends who are Republicans). So even with a purposeful approach to information choice architecture, it’s really hard to avoid getting drawn into a form of limited-perspective monoculture just by virtue of work environment and lived geography.

Short of seeking out radically new activities or joining a church, I’m unlikely to add much viewpoint diversity to my circle. And there’s this as well: much as I like engaging with people who have heterodox views, the signal-to-noise ratio in seeking out such perspectives can be depressingly high. There’s far too much position-staking; not nearly enough willingness to engage with and consider evidence. That can make the investment in avoiding the bubble – particularly with respect to actual humans, as opposed to books and articles – seem hardly worth the return.

Which is a shame, because engaging with different views and defending our own is how we grow and improve. There’s also little question that the rigidity of our “bubbles” exacerbates political polarization. I’d like to think that if we all worked a little harder, and regularly challenged ourselves by drawing from a broader range of information sources, we’d be closer as a culture. Unfortunately, the proliferation of sources and customization online are, if anything, making our bubbles even more insular and permanent.

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