Intellectual Masturbation: On Echo Chambers

An insightful post made its way on hackernews today, reminding us of the ever-present danger of echo chambers. The idea is that if we lose vigilance we may simply subscribe to media available on the internet that reinforce our existing beliefs. I think a more graphic term is helpful here: Intellectual Masturbation.

Strangely, the internet facilitates both concrete and abstract masturbation. Everyone knows that porn websites account for a significant fraction of web traffic (although perhaps not as much as you’d think!), but you can think of all the strange conspiracy websites as intellectual porn for those that subscribe to those theories. And all the websites we frequent have a particular intellectual bent that’s perhaps not so overt — whether it is hackernews with its centricity on startups or reddit’s obsession with cats and Ron Paul.

The problem is that we get complacent and comfortable with the content sources we consume, which can lead to intellectual stagnation and worse, to dogmatic thinking, a “us” vs “them” mentality — which is exemplified to me (leaning slightly liberal myself) by fox news. And perhaps those on the right would argue for MSNBC fulfilling the same role. There’s probably some truth in both of these accusations.

Anyways, there’s no easy solution, except to try and force yourself to be open-minded and to think critically — even when it seems as if a new factoid either entirely aligns or conflicts with your worldview.

In closing, challenge yourself to think — and think for yourself.

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