% fortune -ae paul murphy

Fear and loathing in the echo chamber

Ever since Leon Festinger first formulated his theory of cognitive dissonance people have, usually reluctantly, accepted the reality that we seek out information confirming our beliefs while actively avoiding contrary information.

The obvious lesson for people who are aware of this is that it's important to force yourself to look at contrary information because otherwise you'll be trapped into a spiral of ever increasing commitment to ever narrower views.

More subtly it's important to remember that the internet makes it seductively easy to read only opinion that's consistent with yours - and correspondingly that adding some loony tune sites run by biased and uninformed idiots to your daily information intake amounts to a requirement for mental health.

That's the basis, for example, on which I read a long piece by Jonathan Chait in last week's New Republic, in which he justifies the liberal blogosphere's commitment to invective, illiteracy, and the ad hominem attack by arguing that the liberal-left blogosphere's netroots movement merely echos an earlier Republican takeover of talk radio and Fox news.

I thought his argument both self-serving and childish, but the parallels with the on-line Unix vs Windows debate are striking.

Here's his summation:

Conservatives have crowed for years that they have "won the war of ideas." More often than not, such boasts include a citation of Richard Weaver's famous dictum, "Ideas have consequences." A war of ideas, though, is not an intellectual process; it is a political process. As my colleague Leon Wieseltier has written, "[I]f you are chiefly interested in the consequences, then you are not chiefly interested in the ideas." The netroots, like most of the [earlier] conservative movement, is interested in the consequences, not the ideas. The battle is being joined at last.

Notice the loaded language - conservatives "crow", "boast", and cannot distinguish ideological discussions from wars - but the important point here is that he's both praising and illustrating the valuation of popularity over intellectual honesty - and that's exactly what we see every day from people who argue that everybody should use Microsoft Windows technologies, not because they're any good, but because almost everybody already does.

Here's Chait's rendition of this idea:

The prevailing sentiment here [among netroots members], however, is not a distrust of pointy heads. Rather, it's a belief that political discourse ought to be judged solely by its real-world effects. The netroots consider the notion of pursuing truth for its own sake nonsensical. Their interest in ideas, and facts, is purely instrumental.

Because they convey facts and opinions about the news to their readers, bloggers associated with the netroots are often mistaken for journalists. That is, as reporter Garance Franke-Ruta (who covers the blogs) has put it, a "category error." This was thrown into stark relief earlier this year, when John Edwards hired Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, two bloggers who were prominent in the netroots. The pair quickly came under enough fire for past controversial blog posts ...[134 words deleted]... To Walsh and other journalists, the relevant metric is true versus untrue. To an activist, the relevant metric is politically helpful versus politically unhelpful.

Chait's agendas are political, but the situation is no different when you look at many of the more popular Wintel bloggers -the relevant metric for the bloggers isn't whether something is true or not, but whether it's consistent with opinions their audience wants reinforced.

There's a polite label for this: campaign journalism: meaning selective truths selectively presented in documentary or reportorial formats; and an ugly label for its primary consequence: ghettoization - in which the extremes on both sides talk to themselves, and themselves alone.

Consider, for example, these two quotations from the front pages of the the daily kos and the National Review on the same day (last Thursday) I read Chait's piece:

Cheers and Jeers: Thursday
by Bill in Portland Maine
Thu May 03, 2007 at 04:31:14 AM PDT


The Republic party's first presidential debate between filthy-rich (or is that filthy, rich) white men is tonight in the reddest of red states---California. Some serious advice for our noble opposition, free of charge:

Rudy Giuliani: Tonight you have an opportunity to put the ferret scandal behind you and increase your lead over the rest of the pack by demonstrating your take-charge persona. Let's face it: fear is your hammer and 9/11 is your nail, so you might as well go all the way with it. Here's your game plan: whenever moderator Chris Matthews asks hollers a question, pull out your dust mask, put it over your face, and run around the stage as you shout your answer. For dramatic effect, cough a lot and yell "look out!" If the audience stampedes for the exits, you win. Also: If you plan to wear pearls, be discreet. And compare yourself to Reagan.


NRO Live Blog Feed


Sympathy for the Stubborn: This is not the perfect comparison, but since most Americans seem to think The Da Vinci Code is fact, not fiction, I'll roll with it. If you think Mitt Romney should watch and respond to September Dawn


Memo to Bloggers: 24 For Kids Story is FAKE!: I'm still not sure whether Andrew Sullivan bought it. I saw his post yesterday, and I was pretty sure no one was that stupid, so I let it pass. Then I saw Dean Barnett's post, and Dean's pretty sure he . . . Go

The Perennial Publius, part 71: The energy of the executive, says Alexander Hamilton, does not depend only on the unity of the office. Other features of the presidency serve the purpose as well, he tells us in Federalist No. 70, including "duration" in office, "an . . .


Isn't this what we want?: Isn't this progress? . . .


You Go Girl: This is the very definition of herd mentality, Ivy League style:"When it starts to become the issue of being the last Ivy League school to have a woman president "who wants to do that?" Simmons said at a forum . . .

"Bill in Portland" had, I'm told, about half a million readers - the various NRO bloggers probably about a tenth of that between them.

Both of these sites exist within, and are, echo chambers for the committed - with both the illiterative invective from the nutroots group and the NRO's educated urbanity creating the same exclusionary effects: first by reinforcing partisanship, and secondly by locking out the other side's readers.

Festinger, of course, would recognise the problem and say that the ease and diversity of internet communication speeds the destructive cycle of intellectual ghettoization by making it ridiculously easy to spend one's time reading only compatible opinion. More importantly, he'd almost certainly agree that there's a destructive cycle here with the emotional temperature inside the ghettos rising even as the walls strengthen.

To me that looks like a recipe for the political equivalent of a pipe bomb -but it's also exactly what we see in the Windows versus Unix debates with both sides using their strengths to lock in supporters, and lock out the other side.

I find it hard, for example, to read many of the blogs and comments dedicated to Windows because so much of it strikes me as every bit as dishonest, technologically illiterate, and short sightedly partisan as the dailykos.

And what's worse: I'll bet the Windows people have pretty much the same reaction to this blog - in other words, like Chait, I'm contributing to the same phenomenon I'm complaining about.

But there is a difference: I'd like to know how to break out of the trap: how to transcend the echo chamber and get into a real conversation with the other guy - and that's something neither the dailykos nor the NRO have the slightest interest in doing.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.