I was on Amazon today looking for a book and I clicked on the eBook tab, in case you are not familiar with the site this page is a personalized homepage for Amazon to advertise books to you. As I was scrolling through I counted 15 different headings ( I gave up at that point) which were titled something like “Top Picks For You”. Obviously, Amazon is simply trying to sell me books and the easiest way for them to do that is pitching books which are similar to the ones I have purchased and read. So many categories will say “Based on Reading” or “Because You Purchased”. But this creates a major problem, the books they are likely to recommend are just like the books I have already read. I do not need to read books similar to the ones I already read, I need to read books which will stretch me, and those are often dissimilar from the ones I have read. At one level I get it, if I watch a TV show and enjoy it I want Amazon to show me similar programs so I have the best opportunity to find another I like. But, in reality our whole world is fast becoming dependent on algorithms designed to feed us what we like. I am far from the first person to notice this phenomenon, or to recognize the potential harm to society. Many have written and spoken on the dangers of creating a bubble for information and staying within our own isolated echo chambers.
The difficulty is that living in a bubble is nothing new, we as humans have lived in bubbles long before the digital age. Humans have always lived in relatively isolated communities, most individuals throughout history have had only a relatively small number of people to interact with about ideas. With few exceptions, the average American in the 1760’s was not likely to have much interaction with all thirteen of the British Colonies in North America. What happened after 1776 as these Americans started putting together a new country, they discovered these new United Stated were a composite of echo chambers with little to nothing in common. The Articles of Confederation and later the Constitution were signs that there was less unity in this forming nation than one would hope. The difference is– today we do not have to be as isolated in our echo chambers. We are free to interact with differing cultures, mindsets, and opinions whenever we like; and yet, we are creating a virtual environment which martians the bubble which was historically only in place because of geographic, economic, or linguistic dividers. In 1776, a farmer from Pennsylvania would have had zero resources to interacts with a businessman from Massachusetts. With the exception of the Bible (which probably was emphasized differently in those contexts) these two individuals would have lived in vastly different circles, with different goals and different priorities. Neither person would have realized how far removed from the other he was. Imagine either of them in a conversation with John Randolph who said, “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality.”; yet, all were Americans fighting on the same side.
Yet, today we are not so limited, I am far more mobile than my ancestors, with exponentially more opportunity to interact with differing opinions. But, as a nation we are content to live as our ancestors did in sheltered bubbles, which only sparks division. As we live into our echo chambers we unintentionally (I hope unintentionally) demonize those with differing opinions. If everyone around me thinks the way I think then I grow increasingly right and anyone who disagrees grows increasingly wrong. If one continually follows this isolating path then one will cease to find faults in their opinions. Now, I am convinced that Atheism is wrong about the universe for a myriad of reasons, but if I fail to interact with atheists, either in print or face-to-face, I will grow overconfident in my opinions (which has happened) which has a negative outcome. Though I might believe that Atheists are wrong about the nature of the universe that does not mean they cannot be right and I wrong on specific points; it does not mean they cannot raise challenges to my beliefs and approach. Yet, so many Christians I know would never seriously interact with an Atheist, Buddhist, or Muslim. Lest we think such wisdom only applies to religion, the same is true of political and social arguments as well. Part of the problem in this country is that each party recognizes its own ideology to be flawless and fails to listen to the concerns and ideas of the opposing side.
Here we are, intentionally recreating the problems of the past, not because of need but because of a desire for comfort. It is nice when everyone thinks like me, there is less chance for friction. The trouble is that friction is healthy. I used to hear Proverbs 27:17 quoted frequently, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” The trouble was that what was meant was that we should converse with “other strong Christians so that we sharpen our beliefs”. The problem is conversing with like-minded people does not sharpen us, rather, sharpening ourselves requires disagreement, it requires friction which reduces us to an edge. So we must seek that disagreement honest, thoughtful, sincere disagreement, even with individuals who might only fight and not listen (though it is always best when both sides listen). So how do I create an environment which pops my bubble?
- Instead of listening to the reading recommendations on places like Amazon- I look for authors with equal credentials and different beliefs. This can be done by looking for who an author cites within a book or looking for those chosen to critique a book by the opposing side. (A somewhat strange illustration is: I first recognized my need to read John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins– though I knew the names– because they are cited by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion as “baffling” him.)
- I also try to read widely, books which impact different areas of life. One never knows when a book on science might alter one’s view of politics.
- Find a social media group dedicated to something you are passionate about from an opposing view and simply listen and ask questions. Rather than arguing or trying to persuade, allow people to have their views and simply learn to listen to their understanding and priorities.
- From this group or another find one or two people with whom to dialogue about issues. Have spirited conversations with these people, but with the recognition that the conversation is not going to end the relationship (this can be more difficult than it sounds).
- Watch/read news from source with a different bias (not necessarily commentators but actual news). See what is important to these outlets and why they write/say what they do. This could also be other media like an informational podcast or could represent a different cultural/national approach.
- Listen to people who agree with your position for different reasons. Frequently, different groups will align on a position for different reasons. What comes to mind is the alignment between the Black Church in America and many Evangelicals on issues surrounding the Bible. But do not listen to bolster your own beliefs, listen to understand where your approach needs to be filled out.
- Most importantly, recognize and cultivate the concept that even if a person is wrong on major issues, that person still has something to teach me.