The Echo Chambers We Live In

The concept of the “echo chamber,” people receiving only affirmations of their belief systems from news media and online forums, has received much attention. But the danger of living in a self-reinforcing bubble is not just something that exists in our private lives, but also occurs in business. Organizations continually communicate messages to their employees through formal training and internal messages. Depending on how this is done the end result could be a closing of minds to points-of-view that run contrary to the organization’s doctrines. People with similar backgrounds — for example alumni of a specific program from a specific school — can also form an echo chamber if they act to reinforce each other’s value systems and beliefs through informal interaction.

People from different companies but in the same industry can also form echo chambers, especially if they feel under siege from “outsiders.” People within a profession can likewise form an echo chambers. But isn’t this connecting to peers a harmless way of engaging with others who share similar experiences? Often it is harmless and sometimes beneficial in terms of networking and exchanging best practices, but it can also be part of a “we’re different” mindset that makes a group or organization resistant to change or that tries to justify actions, even if harmful to others, because outsiders “don’t get it”.

It’s not clear if any of us can truly safe-guard ourselves against falling into this trap but I do think it is worth reflection. A story from a recent issue of The New Yorker is an example of a kind of echo chamber, the echo chamber of Silicon Valley’s engineering/start-up community. Om Malik wrote:

Silicon Valley’s biggest failing is not poor marketing of its products, or follow-through on promises, but, rather, the distinct lack of empathy for those whose lives are disturbed by its technological wizardry. Two years ago, on my blog, I wrote, “It is important for us to talk about the societal impact of what Google is doing or what Facebook can do with all the data. If it can influence emotions (for increased engagements), can it compromise the political process?”

Perhaps it is time for those of us who populate the technology sphere to ask ourselves some really hard questions. Let’s start with this: Why did so many people vote for Donald Trump? Glenn Greenwald, the firebrand investigative journalist writing for The Intercept, and the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore have listed many reasons Clinton lost. Like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump has focussed attention on the sense that globalization has eroded the real prospects and hopes of the working class in this country. Globalization is a proxy for technology-powered capitalism, which tends to reward fewer and fewer members of society.

We talk about the filter bubbles on social networks—those algorithms that keep us connected to the people we feel comfortable with and the world we want to see—and their negative impacts, but real-world filter bubbles, like the one in Silicon Valley, are perhaps more problematic. People become numbers, algorithms become the rules, and reality becomes what the data says. Facebook as a company makes these bubble blunders again and again. Its response to the ruckus over fake news is a perfect illustration of the missing empathy gene in Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg, one of the smartest and brightest founders and chief executives of the post-Internet era, initially took a stance that Facebook can’t really play arbiter of what is real and what is fake news. It took a whole week for the company to acknowledge that it can build better tools that help fight the scourge of fake news and yet stay neutral.

If you work for a start-up making an app, within the IT world, in a pharma company, in financial services, in the service sector or any other “birds-of-a-feather” group, when does an industry event, a company conference or a professional trade show become an echo chamber that reinforces beliefs that need challenging?

Here’s a link to the piece, titled Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum.

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