The Danger of Bursting Bubbles

Why informational bubbles are a necessary part of our world

I just watched the Ballad of Buster Scruggs on my online internet provider. Excitedly, I mention at lunch the last story of the movie. My friends all look puzzled: The Ballad of whom? Buster what? The makers of the Ballad are not particularly niche: The Coen Brothers have produced Fargo, the Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, and won dozens of awards, including four Oscars and a Palme d’Or in Cannes. They are, by all means, famous. When No Country for Old Men was released, in 2007, I remember going to the movies, with the same friends, and discussing it at length afterwards. I change the topic, and mention the recent strikes in France. Strikes, really? Weren’t the protests over? We finish sharing the meal, though again each of us had ordered a different dish, and there is not much to compare regarding the taste of the lasagna.  

Informational bubbles - where, as former President Obama said, we live and think “surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook” - are coming under heavy criticism. So am I not sounding retrograde to regret the time where I could mention a movie by the Coen Brothers, or recent news, and reliably assume some of the people around would know what I was talking about?

The bubble metaphor, like other catchphrases, might be misleading: sharing the same information with others does not necessarily make us float, isolated, in thin air. It enables us to feel grounded in a shared reality.

The bubble metaphor, like other catchphrases, might be misleading: sharing the same information with others does not necessarily make us float, isolated, in thin air. It enables us to feel grounded in a shared reality.

In an essay called ‘Rational Animals’, philosopher Donald Davidson highlighted that our knowledge of the objective world could not be an individual affair: it rests, he wrote, on a process of triangulation between our thoughts and the thoughts of others. Davidson was careful here not to say that reality was constructed by social interactions: his point was that social calibration of our responses was the way we would come to know that there was an objective world out there. Pointing and realising that we respond to something that must be common plays a crucial role in making us realise that there is a reality out there. A child comes to know what ‘green’ is because her own representation of green is informed by adults pointing at objects and uttering the word ‘green’. In the same way, we come to know that some object really exists because our own representations of that object converge with those of others. Here too, we need to realise that what we are attending to is one and the same object. As Davidson put it, others are not just a way of checking that something is real: they are part of the very idea that something can exist independently of us. Others are not what makes reality what it is (as the constructivists and proponents of alternative facts would argue) but they are also not just useful additions (as the individualist would say). Shared access is integral to our concept of an objective world.

The importance of shared attention has not just preoccupied philosophers worried about objectivity. Psychologists highlight its role in the development of language, and shared meanings. Like the child learning what green is, jointly attending to an object stamps our own subjective experience with the realisation that there is something ‘out there’ that a certain word refers to. Coordinating our experiences with others does not stop in childhood. When we both observe, hear or taste something, we make each other aware that our experiences somewhat aim at the same thing: I can see what you are looking at, or I can infer what you are paying attention to.

Attention is at the root of other intellectual skills: when we both attend to a green cube on the table, I can realise that we both see different faces of the cube, from different viewpoints. Even without words, we incorporate the perspectives of other people into our experience of the world. With conversations, we start to be able to understand that our viewpoints may also differ in more abstract ways, because of past experiences or diverging values. Yet without realising that we attend to the same thing, differences in perspectives or ideas would not make sense.   

Before castigating informational bubbles and echo chambers, we should realise that they also curate attentional overlap. In the digital world, where emails, pictures and social media posts have become our ways of sharing experiences, realising that we attend to the same things is becoming more of a challenge. True, sharing the same perspectives with people who are a bit too much ‘like us’ does not allow us to broaden our minds as much as we can - and eventually should -  as contemporary philosophers like Quassim Cassam, Michael Lynch or Asa Wikforss are pointing out.  Such lack of diversity can be regrettable - but we are faced with a bigger threat if we stop even looking at the same things. Information theory reminds us that redundancy of information is not such a terrible vice: getting the same information multiple times, in slightly different ways, sometimes helps when there is a lot of noise around or when the message is rich and novel.

Ultimately, I think, finding less overlap between what we attend to may be as damaging to our epistemic lives as finding too much overlap between our viewpoints. The dispersion of attention isolates us in our own private bubbles, away from a sense of shared reality. The convergence of attention, on the other hand, enables us to grow out of our own subjectivity: you might agree or disagree with my responses to a given dish, or picture, but you will only strengthen your conviction or change your mind if you realise that I am responding, in a different way, to the same reality as the one which causes your experiences.

Upon reflection, dispersion of attention is a more serious issue than the shortening of our attention-span. I have never been utterly convinced that it is so terrible if we no longer pause and attend to things for a while, as many parents and scientists lament: there is no clear standard that says how long we should attend to things, and we may all be quite different regarding how much time we need to take in real world contents and experiences. Being faster means also that we do pay attention to a lot more things than we used to: there is a speed-quantity trade-off here, and I am not certain we can clearly decide when shortened attention is bad. Not sharing attention is different. There is no trade-off here: a brief glance at the same object, if shared, may have effects that a longer stare at things alone cannot reach. Many worry that the ‘attention economy’ is keeping us distracted. Perhaps worse still would be to distract each of us by different things.

Davidson and experts in joint attention remind us that shared attention is a basic way in which we come to realise that there is an objective reality out there. They tell us less what to make of a world dominated by online images and messages, one in which we are less and less attending directly to the world, and more and more to mere representations of the world. Not having seen the same movie or listened to the same news as others differs from that of not sharing experiences of the same material object.

Only when jointly attending to the same news reports, or to the same movies and stories, can we realise that our emotions and thoughts respond to values that are also independent of our own private experiences.

After all, even if we are following the same news, we should not necessarily come to believe there is something real there. News can be misleading. If we are all watching the same movies at the same time, we should not believe that the fictional characters are real.

Joint attention, I believe, still plays a distinctive role when we look at representations and images. Although we recognize they do not stand for the ‘real thing’, they also make us realise that certain abstract values are objective. I cannot point at a physical object out there that is love, freedom, injustice, altruism or cruelty. Nor can I follow your gaze to grasp these things are real and exist independently of my own emotions and reactions. Only when jointly attending to the same news reports, or to the same movies and stories, can we realise that our emotions and thoughts respond to values that are also independent of our own private experiences. We recognise that our attention is not captured strictly by the words and images - their colours, shapes, and sounds - but attracted and retained by something else, which means something to both of us.

The concept of reality, whether material reality or abstract values, are, in Davidson's own words,  "concepts one cannot have without sharing, and knowing that one shares, a world and a way of thinking about the world with someone else".


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