Internet

The View From Frank Bruni's Bubble

Epistemic closure or epistemic chaos?

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Epistemic closure
R. Crumb

When people bring up the "filter bubble" idea—the notion that Americans in the internet era are retreating ever more deeply into parallel partisan universes—my usual reaction is Compared to what? People have been filtering out foreign perspectives for as long as the species has existed. The digital world may offer new tools for selecting what you want to see, but it also offers new ways for alien signals to penetrate our defenses; it's far from obvious that the first phenomenon is overpowering the second.

Frank Bruni's latest column at The New York Times recognizes that our filters predate the age of social media, yet he takes it for granted that they're getting more powerful now. A "tribalism that has existed for as long as humankind has," he writes, "is now rooted in the fertile soil of the Internet, which is coaxing it toward a full and insidious flower."

It's a popular story. It also flies in the face of several other popular stories. The big debate about Twitter right now, for example, involves the idea that it doesn't do enough to limit unwelcome outside signals. Even with blocklists and all the other ways tweeters have found to ignore each other, the internet's bubble-communities keep colliding.

Meanwhile, on a canvass far larger than Twitter, the turmoil this year in the Republican Party may be a sign of many things, but it certainly doesn't look like a bubble impervious to outside signals. With the right-wing media split over Trumpism, and with Trumpism itself leading many people to speculate that a political realignment could be afoot, what we're watching looks less like closure than chaos.

Bruni, bizarrely, thinks Trump is evidence for the filter-bubble thesis:

We construct precisely contoured echo chambers of affirmation that turn conviction into zeal, passion into fury, disagreements with the other side into the demonization of it. Then we marvel at the Twitter mobs that swarm in defense of Sanders or the surreal success of Donald Trump's candidacy, whose historical tagline may well be "All I know is what's on the Internet."

It's neither new nor news that the passionate partisans of a presidential candidate are often prone to groupthink and to demonizing their opponents. That is true not just of Sanders' and Trump's much-mocked fans but of the followers of the candidate Bruni leaves out, Hillary Clinton. What Sanders and Trump reflect—and Clinton does not—is a campaign season when the political parties are finding it harder than usual to filter out the perspectives they'd rather exclude. The Sanders and Trump insurgencies are pricking their bubbles.

That, I think, is what Bruni is really upset about: not bubbles per se, but a slow leak depleting that vast bubble we call "the mainstream." "We've surrendered universal points of reference," he complains. "We've lost common ground….We're less committed to, and trustful of, large institutions than we were at times in the past." Large institutions like, say, the newspaper that employs Frank Bruni.

For further reading: I wrote a critique of the filter-bubble thesis back in 2011. You can read it here.

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  1. “People have been filtering out foreign perspectives for as long as” blah blah blah this is stupid, let’s see if there’s anything funny on YouTube.

  2. “We’re less committed to, and trustful of, large institutions than we were at times in the past.”

    Weird. I feel as though I’ve heard this same complaint somewhere before, close by and rather recently…

    1. And I’m not sure why this is always portrayed as a *negative*.

      We should be poorly committed and distrustful of large institutions. They’re made out of PEOPLE! INSTITUTIONS ARE PEOPLE!

      1. The problem isn’t that institutions are made out of people, it’s that they’re made out of other people. Other people were fine as long as there were only 3 broadcast networks and two newspaper syndicates all on the same page telling them all what to think and whatever differences of opinion they had on the mainstream culture were minor and reactionary but then some jackass invented the internet. Now you’ve got thousands of variations of culture available at the click of a mouse and not all of them involve goat porn fetishes. There’s sheep porn and llama porn and yak porn and alpaca porn and you can find your own little community of furries and tune out those sick perverts that like antelope porn if you want. That’s Bruni’s big bitch – other people are free to ignore him now if they want and go do their own thing without consulting him and that’s just wrong. I’m your better, dammit! You have to listen to me! Whether you disagree with me or not, you can’t just ignore me!

  3. Bruni, bizarrely, thinks Trump is evidence for the filter-bubble thesis

    TRUMP IS THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA. WHERE PASSETH TRUMP, THERE PASSETH MANKIND. TRUMP IS ALL, AND ALL IS TRUMP.

  4. We’re less committed to, and trustful of, large institutions than we were at times in the past. We question their wisdom and substitute it with the groupthink of micro-communities, many of which we’ve formed online, and their sensibilities can be more peculiar and unforgiving.

    Facebook, along with other social media, definitely conspires in this.

    Facebook has 1.65 billion active monthly users. Twitter has 310 million. Google averages 3.5 billion searches per day. Amazon brought in $107 billion in 2015. All of these numbers represent growth over the past decade.

    How exactly are people less committed to and trustful of large institutions?

    1. By “we” he means me and the handful of people inside my little bubble. He may not actually have heard of the libertarian moment.

    2. Meh, Facebook Twitter and Google are temporary institutions subject to creative destruction. They’ll exist only as long as they’re not replaced by another – better – platform. I wish we could say the same for other parasitic institutions.

  5. I’m liking Walker’s take on these things.

  6. Ideological bubbles were reinforced by geography for centuries. As transportation and communication technologies improved, people were freed to… seek out like-minded folks elsewhere. It was the 70-or-so year period between radio and the internet, a time where communications media were dominated by large, mostly like-minded, corporations, that created the illusion of cosmopolitanism. The internet has liberated the herd to refragment into its chosen grazing circles.

    1. For good or ill.

      On the one hand, look at all of us here.

      OTOH, fucking furries man.

    2. The internet has liberated the herd to refragment into its chosen grazing circles.

      And the circles are no longer geographical. I probably don’t live within 100 miles of anyone in this neighborhood.

      1. I probably don’t live within 100 miles of anyone in this neighborhood.

        For which we are all thankful.

        1. I keed, I keed. It’s not like you’re, I dunno, Tony…

  7. People have been filtering out foreign perspectives for as long as the species has existed.

    And given that the traditional (and still quite popular around the world) filter has always been some version of ‘take rock, apply vigorously to head until subject is stops breathing’ you’d think they would be hailing this as an *improvement*.

    But its like crusaders everywhere – its not enough that snuff and vaping reduce cancer risk – they always let perfect be the enemy of the good.

  8. What’s this strange buzzing sound? Are people still talking?

  9. “We’ve surrendered universal points of reference,” he complains. “We’ve lost common ground….We’re less committed to, and trustful of, large institutions than we were at times in the past.” Large institutions like, say, the newspaper that employs Frank Bruni./blockquote

    We’ve surrendered universal points of reference because those points are based upon failed assumptions; they’re faulty. We’re less trusting of institutions because those institutions are less trustworthy. Reality rewards us when we reassess and adjust. Unfortunately for Bruni that means he’s less relevant until he adjusts as well.

    Bruni needs to check his progressive privilege.

  10. I think there’s a lot more bias confirmation now than there was before. When you had three choices for national news on TV, the same three networks to choose from on the radio, and one or two newspapers to choose from, you had to hear a view that wasn’t catered to you. I think a lot of the perception of bias was less back then, too, because the news was written to cater to people from both sides of the political spectrum, too. Once it became possible for content providers to cater to taste, they started doing more of that.

    Social media makes the confirmation bias even worse–and on a more personal level, too.

    YouTube commenters may be the meanest people on the internet, bu Facebook commenters are the dumbest people on the planet. I’m convinced the platform makes smart people seem dumber than they would otherwise, too. I unfriended everybody and stopped using the damn thing–because I started losing respect for people I thought well of before. I started worrying that reading the crap people were writing was making me seem dumber, too.

    “In a weird way, it was almost like I had to . . . sort of fool my mind into believing that it wasn’t retarded. And by the end of the whole thing, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, you know!’ I flushed so much out, how am I gonna jump start it up again?”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6WHBO_Qc-Q

    1. I think a lot of the perception of bias was less back then, too, because the news was written to cater to people from both sides of the political spectrum, too.

      Except, it really wasn’t. It only looked that way because competing arguments couldn’t organize. They were relegated to the status of background noise.

  11. Bruni’s complaint sounds a lot less one about epistemic closure than the conversation not being closed to those epistemologies. In a way I guess, it was understandable. In a way, I kind of understand. It was possible, 30-40 years ago, for people like Bruni to effectively negate the existence of views that they didn’t like. The information dissemination process was dominated by acres in Manhattan. The old joke was, if you wanted to know what would be in tonight’s newscast, read today’s New York Times.

    In that sort of a world, it’s possible for adherents of the dominant narrative to not only ignore counterarguments, but to effectively negate their existence. In the absence of mass communications to pose a counterargument or to coordinate observed weaknesses in the dominant position, the counterarguments are essentially reduced to static or background noise.

    In the world Bruni would prefer, Obamacare would be incredibly popular and those increases you see in your insurance bill either aren’t there or are just because of conditions specific to you. In the world Bruni would prefer, the economy would be in the midst of a solid recovery, and the fact that you haven’t felt much owes entirely to your own shortcomings. In the world Bruni would prefer, political correctness is just being polite and any contradictions or irrationalities you see in its dictates is just proof that you’re a racist and a sexist.

    1. What’s funny is that, despite the complex decentralization of the information dissemination process, there are still vast swathes of the population who believe Obama is incredibly popular, that the economy is roaring to recovery, and that not being PC = racism/sexism.

      I’m sort of skeptical of the idea that people are any less informed or ideologically biased than they used to be, despite the more monolithic media that used to exist.

      1. *Obamacare

      2. there are still vast swathes of the population who believe Obama is incredibly popular, that the economy is roaring to recovery, and that not being PC = racism/sexism.

        Sure there are. But, it’s no longer the case that such views are maintained as an artificial “consensus”. Even 30 years ago, the media could have kept any views that disagreed with these premises marginalized to the point that even people who disagreed thought their views were marginal.

        1. You might be right. I wasn’t alive yet back then, so it’s difficult for me to know.

          1. Well, try to imagine a world where there are three networks, all pretty much repeating the stories from the NY Times, and even the National Review, let alone a fringe magazine like Reason, is something you go to a library or bookstore to get a read of.

  12. This reminds me of Nick’s interview with Ken Burns. Burns thought it was better in the old days when we had a “shared narrative” and Walter Cronkite decided what we needed to know. Fuck that.

  13. Kudos on digging up that old Crumb illo. I used to have a clipping of it framed in my dorm room ca. 1971. At the time it seemed the perfect image for establishment types who would not even discuss the Vietnam war or sexual issues. Today’s version, instead of Crumb’s iconic “businessman,” would look more like we looked in 1971.

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