Joho the Blog » echo chambers

June 29, 2012

[aspen] Eric Schmidt on the Net and Democracy

Eric Schmidt is being interviewed by Jeff Goldberg about the Net and Democracy. I’ll do some intermittent, incomplete liveblogging…

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

NOTE: Posted without having even been re-read. Note note (a few hours later): I’ve done some basic cleanup.

After some amusing banter, Jeff asks Eric about how responsible he felt Google was for Arab Spring. Jeff in passing uses the phrase “Internet revolution.”

ES: Arab Spring was enabled by a failure to censure the Internet. Google enabled people to organize themselves. Especially in Libya, five different militias were able to organize their armed revolt by using the Net. It’s unfair to the people who died to call it an “Internet revolution.” But there were fewer people who died, in part because of the incessant media coverage. And we’ve seen that it’s very easy to start what some call an Internet revolution, but very hard to finish it.

JG: These were leaderless revolutions, crowdsourced revolution. But in Egypt the crowd’s leaders were easily pushed aside after Mubarek fell.

ES: True leaders are very hard to find. In Libya, there are 80 militias, armed to the teeth. In most of the countries there were repressed Muslim groups that have emerged as leaders because they organized while repressed. Whoever takes over inherits financial and social problems, and will be thrown out if they fail.

JG: Talk about Google’s tumultuous relationship with China…

ES: There are lots of reasons to think that China works because its citizens like its hierarchical structure. But I think you can’t build a knowledge society without freedom. China wants to be a knowledge society. It’s unclear if China’s current model gets them past a middle income GDP. Google thought that if we gave them free access to info, the Chinese people would revolt. We were wrong, and we moved Google to Hong Kong, on the open side of the Great Firewall. (We had to because that’s the Chinese law.) Now when you enter a forbidden query, we tell the user that it’s likely to be blocked. We are forbidden from announcing what the forbidden terms are because we don’t want employees put in jail.

JG: Could Arab Spring happen in China? Could students organize Tianamen Square now?

ES: They could use the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. But if someone organizes a protest, two people show up, plus 30 media, and 50 police.

JG: Google’s always argued that democratization of info erodes authoritarian control. Do you still believe that?

ES: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how hard it is to learn about the differences among people in and within countries. I continue to believe that this device [mobile phone] will change the world. The way to solve most of the world’s problems is by educating people. Because these devices will become ubiquitous, it’ll be possible to see how far we humans can get. With access to the Net, you can sue for justice. In the worst case you can actually shame people.

JG: And these devices can be used to track people.

ES: Get people to understand they have choices, and they will eventually organize. Mobiles tend to record info just by their nature. The phone company knows where you are right now. You’re not worried about that because a law says the phone company can’t come harass you where you’re sitting. In a culture where there isn’t agreement about basic rights…

JG: Is there evidence that our democracy is better off for having the Internet?

ES: When we built the Net, that wasn’t the problem we were solving. But more speech is better. There’s a lack of deliberative time in our political process. Our leaders will learn that they’ll make better decisions if they take a week to think about things. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail. We complain about our democracy, but we’re doing quite well. The US is the beacon of innovation, not just in tech, but in energy. “In God we trust … all others have to bring data.” Politicians should just start with some facts.

JG: It’s easier to be crazy and wrong on the Net.

ES: 0.5% of Americans are literally crazy. Two years ago, their moms got them broadband connections. And they have a lot of free time. Google is going to learn how to rank them. Google should enable us to hear all these voices, including the crazy people, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job.

JG: I googled “Syria massacre” this morning, and the first story was from Russia Today that spun it…

ES: It’s good that you have a choice. We have to educate ourselves and our children. Not everything written is true, and very powerful forces want to convince you of lies. The Net allows that, and we rank against it, but you have to do your own investigation.

JG: Google is hitting PR problems. Talk about privacy…

ES: There’s no delete button on the Net. When you’re a baby, no one knows anything about you. As you move through life, inevitably more people know more about you. We’re going to have to learn about that. The wifi info gathering by StreetView was an error, a mistake, and we’ve apologized for it.

JG: The future of journalism?

ES: A number of institutions are figuring out workable models. The Atlantic [our host]. Politico. HuffingtonPost. Clever entrepreneurs are figuring out how to make money. The traditional incumbents have been reduced in scale, but there are plenty of new voices. BTW, we just announced a tablet with interactive, dynamic magazines. To really worry about: We grew up with the bargain that newspapers had enough cash flow to fund long term investigative research. That’s a loss to democracy. The problem hasn’t been fully solved. Google has debated how to solve it, but we don’t want to cross the content line because then we’d be accused of bias in our rankings.

JG: Will search engines search for accuracy rather than popularity?

ES: Google’s algorithms are not about popularity. They’re about link structures, and we start from well-known sources. So we’re already there. We just have to get better.

JG: In 5 yrs what will the tech landscape look like?

ES: Moore’s Law says that in 5 yrs there will be more power for less money. We forget how much better our hw is now than even 5 years. And it’s faster than Moore’s Law for disks and fiber optic connections. Google is doing a testbed optical installation. At that bandwidth all media are just bits. We anticipate a lot of specialty devices.

JG: How do you expect an ordinary, competent politician to manage the info flow? Are we inventing tech that is past our ability to process info?

ES: The evidence is that the tech is bringing more human contact. The tech lets us express our humanity. We need a way of sorting politicians better. I’d suggest looking for leaders who work from facts.

JG: Why are you supporting Obama?

ES: I like having a smart president.

JG: Is Romney not smart?

ES: I know him. He’s a good man. I like Obama’s policies better.

Q&A

Q: Our connectivity is 3rd world. Why haven’t we been able to upgrade?

A: The wireless networks are running out of bandwidth. The prediction is they’ll be saturated in 2016. Maybe 2017. That’s understandable: Before, we were just typing online and now we’re watching movies. The White House in a few weeks is releasing a report that says that we can share bandwidth to get almost infinite bandwidth. Rather than allocating a whole chunk that leaves most of it unused, using interference databases we think we can fix this problem. [I think but please correct me: A database of frequency usages so that unused frequencies in particular geographic areas can be used for new signals.]

A: The digital can enhance our physical connections. E.g., a grandmother skyping with a grandchild.

JG: You said you can use the Net to shame govts. But there are plenty of videos of Syria doing horrible things, but it’s done no good.

ES: There are always particularly evil people. Syria is the exception. Most countries, even autocratic ones, are susceptible to public embarrassment.

Q: Saying “phones by their nature collect data” evades responsibility.

ES: I meant that in order to their work, they collect info. What we allow to be done with that info is a legal, cultural issue.

Q: Are we inherently critical thinkers? If not, putting info out there may not lead to good decisions.

ES: There’s evidence that we’re born to react quickly. Our brains can be taught reasoning. But it requires strong family and education.

Q: Should there be a bill of rights to simplify the legalese that express your privacy rules?

ES: It’s a fight between your reasonable point of view, and the lawyers and govt that regulate us. Let me reassure you: If you follow the goal of Google to have you as a customer, the quickest way to lose you is to misuse your information. We are one click away from competitors who are well run and smart. [unless there was money in it, or unless they could get away with it, or…]

Q: Could we get rid of representative democracy?

ES: It’ll become even more important to have democratic processes because it’s all getting more complicated. For direct democracy we’d have to spend all day learning about the issues and couldn’t do our jobs.

JG: David Brooks, could you comment? Eric is an enormous optimist…

ES: …The evidence is on my side!

JG: David, are you as sanguine that our politicians will learn to slow their thinking down, and that Americans have the skills to discern the crap from the true.

David Brooks: It’s not Google’s job to discern what’s true. There are aggregators to do this, including the NYT and TheBrowser. I think there’s been a flight to quality. I’m less sanguine about attention span. I’m less sanguine about confirmation bias, which the Web makes easier.

ES: I generally agree with that. There’s evidence that we tend to believe the first thing we hear, and we judge plus and minus against that. The answer is always for me culture, education.

Q: Will there be a breakthrough in education?

ES: Education changes much more slowly than the world does. Sometimes it seems to me that education is run for the benefit of the teachers. They should do measurable outcomes, A-B testing. There’s evidence that physics can be taught better by setting a problem and then do a collaborative effort, then another problem…

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June 13, 2012

[2b2k] PDF 2012 – In Defense of Echo Chambers

Here is the text of a short talk I gave at PDF yesterday. I did not use slides, and I actually read from pieces of paper because I wanted to make sure that I stayed on time (it took about 8 minutes, I think) and did not stray too far from what I wanted to say. So, yes, I read a freaking paper at PDF. And yes, I am ashamed. On the other hand, I’m humbled and amazed to have been in the line-up of speakers that morning.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is reputed to have said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not to his own facts.” We like this saying in large part because it brings us the comfort of believing that facts provide a way of bringing us together. But perhaps the single incontestable conclusion to be drawn after any even quick involvement with the Internet is that we don’t agree about anything. Everything is contested on the Net, even things that really should not be. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the facts are not going to bring us together. The old Enlightenment ideal of two people with deeply different ideas sitting together over a cup of coffee and working themselves down to their fundamental differences, until the issue is resolved, the Internet has shown that that ideal just isn’t going to happen. We don’t agree, and now we can’t deny it.

I am not saying that we should give up on facts, or on fact-based argument. To the contrary. It remains our obligation to try to base our policies on facts, because facts are the parts of reality against which we bark our shins. Reality counts.

But I do want to argue against one version of despair that comes from looking at the seeming powerlessness of facts on the Internet: The echo chamber argument.

Cass Sunstein’s idea of echo chambers, and Eli Pariser’s excellent Filter Bubble variation, are well known to you. It’s the idea that when people are given lots of choices of voices to listen to, they — we — tend to listen to people with whom we already agree, and that this results in a confirming of what we believe, and can move us to move extreme versions of it, resulting in even greater polarization. If the Net is having this effect, the Net is not the great hope for a more open society, but a tragedy. Echo chambers are a real problem. We need to be vigilant, and educate ourselves and our children how to avoid their pernicious effects.

Please keep that in mind as I head toward what is actually my point today: Echo chambers are dangerous, but they are also a condition of thought and understanding.

So, I want to look at an example of an echo chamber. But not the usual ones. Instead, Reddit.com. Reddit has all the earmarks of an echo chamber. The Reddit community, although it is far from uniform, nevertheless generally shares some values. It is pro science, atheist, pro legalization of marijuana, pro cute cat, generally progressive. It has shared heroes like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It has a set of in-jokes — memes that often you have to understand a hidden context to get; you have to know that a photo of a particular woman flags the text as an example of a “first world problem.” Then it’s hilarious. Reddit has its own vocabulary: FTFY is fixed that for you, and AMA is ask me anything. And it has its own norms and ethos. Reddit is an echo chamber.

Yet, it’s also one of the best examples of how a community can successfully engage outside of its own bubble. IAMA at Reddit stands for I am a …someone putting her or himself forward as interesting, willing to answer questions. I am a Mariachi. I am Louis CK. I am Daryl Issa. I am a janitor at WalMart. I am a Rick Santorum supporter. I am a Muslim religious student — remember Reddit is strongly atheistic and even anti-religion.AMA. Ask me anything. At its best, which is frequent, what follows is a group interview in which answers are treated with respect so long as they are frank and honest. The community feels empowered to ask the questions that people really want answered, without a foolish regard for political correctness. (Of course not all political correctness is foolish.) IAMA’s are a new form of journalism, and can result in the best interviews I’ve read – the recent IAMA with Paul Krugman for example. More important at the moment, they are a way in which an echo chamber throws a window open.

The key point is that it’s because Reddit is an echo chamber that it can engage in something close to the Enlightenment ideal of open, honest, frank discussion among people with deep deep differences. This is totally not accidental, and points to the baby that we should be careful not to throw out with the echo chamber bathwater. The Reddit community can engage in IAMAs so frankly and well because it has a strong sense of who it is as a community. Communities are echo chambers – a set of people that share basic values and beliefs that are assumed and reinforced. This is not an accident or something we can avoid. It is baked into the very nature of the conversations that create community: To have a conversation of any sort, you have to have 99% agreement. (I made that number up.) You have to be speaking the same language, have the same basic norms of conversation — who gets to speak for how long, how interruptive you can be, and so forth — and you have to be interested in the same topic. Then you can find some small differences to talk about — you both like Johnny Depp but differ about if he’s sold out, or you both want the poor to have access to health care but differ over how — and then you iterate on that 1% of difference. This need for a vast similarity is not a failing of conversation, but is its condition. And that’s because human understanding itself works this way. We understand the new by assimilating it to our existing context- our densely interrelated web of concepts, ideas and feeelings. That’s why when some piece of news comes along, it makes sense to go to a site where people with whom you basically agree — your echo chamber — is discussing it. What did the Wisconsin recall results mean for Pres. Obama’s reelection? I’m going to go first to, say, DailyKos, because they’re going to help me understand it within my personal political context. I might then visit a Republican site to help me see how they’re taking it, but that’s at least in part a type of anthropological research. Communities are echo chambers. Conversation is an echo chamber. Understanding is an echo chamber. The political solidarity that leads to action requires an echo chamber.

And as Reddit shows, our way out of an echo chamber is through an echo chamber.

The problem is that Reddit is an all too rare example of an echo chamber that willingly throws open its windows. It takes rare delight in doing so. What distinguishes Reddit? It is an echo chamber with a commitment to the value of curiosity, and strong norms of empathy, acceptance and love. It can engage with other points of view without giving up its own values or its snarky silliness. And from this, as the SOPA protest showed, can come political action.

We cannot escape all our echo chambers. Our challenge is to bring to each of the echo chambers we inhabit the values that will turn them into arenas of engaged understanding rather than into dark chambers of willful stupidity.

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May 26, 2012

[2b2k][mesh] Setting the record straight: Overall, the networking of knowledge is awesome

Christine Dobby posted at the Financial Post about my session at the Mesh conference on Thursday in Toronto. She accurately captured two ideas, but missed the bigger point I was trying to make, which — given how well she captured the portion of my comments she blogs about — was undoubtedly my fault. Worse, the post gives incredibly short shrift to two powerful and important sessions that morning by Rebecca MacKinnon and Michael Geist about the threats to Internet freedom…way more important (in my view, natch) than what the FP post leads with.

To judge for yourself, you might want to check the live blogging I did of the sessions by Rebecca and Michael. These were great sessions by leaders in their fields, people who are full-time working on keeping the Internet free and open. They are fighting for us and our Internet. (Likewise true of Andy Carvin, of course, who gave an awesome afternoon session.) What they said seems to me clearly to be so much more important than my recapitulation of a decade-old argument that I think is valid but is not even half the story.

On to moi moi moi.

Christine does a nice job summarizing my summary of the echo chamber argument, and I’m pleased that she followed that up with my use of Reddit as an example of how an echo chamber — a group that shares a set of beliefs, values, and norms — can enable a sympathetic yet critical encounter with those who hold radically different views. But, here are the first two paragraphs of Christine’s post about the morning at Mesh:

With the vast sprawl of the web — and in spite of its power to fact check information — stupidity abounds, says David Weinberger.

“One of the bad things we get from networked knowledge is it’s easier than ever to be stupid because you can find other people who can reinforce your beliefs,” the U.S. academic, Internet commentator and author of the recent Too Big to Know told a Toronto audience Thursday.

True, and I did indeed say that. But I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m going around to conferences bashing the Net as a stupidity enabler. In fact, I spent the first half hour at Mesh being interviewed by the inestimable Mathew Ingram about the rise of networked knowledge, about which I am overall quite enthusiastic. The networking of knowledge is enabling knowledge to scale far beyond the limits within which it’s operated since it was born 2,500 years ago. It’s enabling knowledge to shed some of the blinkered limitations that it had embraced as a virtue. Overall, it’s an awesomely good thing, although I did try to point out some of the risks and dangers.

So, it’s weird for me to read in the FP that the take-away is that the Net is creating echo chambers that are making us stupider. Indeed, as my remarks on Reddit were intended to indicate, the echo chamber argument can lead us to underestimate the positive importance of groups sharing views and values: conversation and understanding itself require a huge amount of agreement to be productive. As I wrote not too long ago, culture is an echo chamber.

So, put Christine’s post together with the post you’re currently reading and you’ll get a more accurate representation of what I intended to say and certainly what I believe. Sort of like how networked knowledge works, come to think of it :)

More important, go read what Rebecca, Michael, and Andy had to say. (And I also really liked Michael O’Connor Clarke’s session, but couldn’t live blog it.)

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