The Danger of Echo Chambers

I feel a need to make a short comment about a recent tragedy that took place in Pittsburgh. At this point you’ve probably heard about it in the news. There are events in the world that lead to far more deaths on a daily basis, but I feel the need to single out this event, because it’s a symptom of a much bigger problem I want to discuss. The Internet has a dangerous aspect to it, in the sense that it allows us to selectively expose ourselves to people who already agree with us, in a very effective manner. This leads to the growth of all sorts of bizarre online cults that deliver people a sense of comfort, without encouraging them to address the actual problems they face.

There are all sorts of different forms of these cults. We have Guy McPherson’s Near Term Extinction cult, who think a blue ocean event within the next few years will trigger a series of positive feedback loop that lead to guaranteed human extinction within a few years. The kind of people attracted to such a cult tend to be people who are stuck in deep misery. You can look at these people’s post histories and you’ll readily discover them to have suffered a “rough life” so to speak. If you’re suicidal, but find that you’re not capable of killing yourself, it’s easy to become attracted to a doomsday cult, because it delivers you a promise that your suffering will soon stop.

I genuinely fear that Guy McPherson and his followers may end up committing mass suicide. Several of his former followers released a statement not so long ago, proclaiming that McPherson “is in a position of authority with direct influence over the mental, emotional, and in some cases physical and monetary lives, of those who exist in a state of vulnerability”. These are the sorts of patterns we see in cults that end in a dramatic meltdown.

There are of course plenty of other echo chambers that have emerged on the Internet now. You can look at the “incel” subculture, of guys who are single, to see another example of people with a rough life, stuck in a difficult situation. Rather than addressing their problems, they seek out other people who suffer the same problems. When you find other people stuck with the same problem as you, it’s easy to come up with a societal model in which your own problems simply can not be addressed. We have seen at least two cases now, of guys from this subculture who went out and killed a bunch of people, before committing suicide.

Derrick Jensen’s Deep Green Resistance has some shared characteristics to these movements too. There are subcultures like these that appeal to women too, like the social justice movement, but women in general are less likely to react to social marginalization with outbursts of random violence. This can be observed in numerous cultures. When they do react with violence, it’s often violence inflicted on themselves. As an example, there is the pro-ana subculture, in which women with eating disorders encounter other women with eating disorders and arrive at the conclusion that their eating disorder is not a genuine problem, but something they should encourage.

The biggest and most controversial of these kinds of subcultures, is the alt-right. The alt-right is a derivative of neoreaction, which consisted of a bunch of smart Silicon Valley type libertarians who figured out that modern society doesn’t really work well. As the movement grew, the average IQ dropped below room temperature, until eventually they were numerous enough to be able to get Donald Trump elected as the Republican nominee.

When it comes to rhetorical style, the alt-right is insanely successful. A stylistic innovation of the alt-right was post-irony, in which hyperbolic statements are made that are difficult to classify as either meant seriously or as tongue in cheek. This makes it difficult for opponents to respond, because to respond seriously means stepping into a trap. If Milo Yiannopoulos says he doesn’t believe in the existence of lesbians, you can’t coherently respond to that without being a boring party-pooper, because the whole world can see he’s a flaming homosexual who merely wants to troll. Because the subculture addresses taboos built on increasingly shaky foundations, it’s inevitable that it attracts a lot of followers.

What these cults tend to have in common is that they’re often based on legitimate grievances. Global warming is a severe problem. There’s a genuine problem of a growing number of young people who find themselves completely incapable of forming meaningful relationships with other people, particularly of the opposite gender. There’s similarly a genuine problem, when it comes to the fact that Western societies are faced with mass immigration of people from cultures that fundamentally clash with our own.

Because the grievances tend to be legitimate, it’s nearly impossible to get people out of these cults. I’ve seen many attempts by feminist types to explain to the “incels” that women don’t “owe” them sex, but these types of arguments don’t really change anyone’s mind, because human beings have a deep intrinsic need for affection. The fact that there’s no legitimate basis through which you can force anyone to give affection to someone they don’t like, doesn’t take away the fact that people who receive no affection often end up looking at their lives as not worth living. If you argue against people in these cults, you don’t tend to convince them. You tend to encourage them to dig themselves in deeper.

There are different motives that attract people to these cults. To start with, as I’ve explained before, physically we’re better off than at any previous point in history. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re psychologically better off. People tend to have a need to feel as if their lives have a meaning within a greater story. This is a problem that modern civilization has barely managed to address. They’re exposed in the news to horrors from around the world, from plastic debris in the ocean, to child-rape gangs in England, with no genuine ability to influence these events. In Derrick Jensen’s cult, people perceive themselves as heroes struggling against an industrial behemoth that’s going to destroy all life on Earth if they don’t stop it. In the alt-right, the monsters are a group of Jews who wish to eradicate their race and have a servile population of multiracial slaves who are easy to rule over.

It’s psychologically difficult for people to process the fact that they don’t influence the world around them. Simultaneously, people are faced with problems in their own life, that they don’t know how to address. An increasingly popular solution to the suffering this causes is to think of a bigger problem around you and to spend your mental energy on that instead. It doesn’t matter that you’re unemployed, it matters far more that Jews control the Federal Reserve. It doesn’t really matter that you’re lonely, you first need to point out to people how we’re all going to die soon.

I suffered from this problem a lot as a teenager. I felt as if my life was meaningless, because I had to spend my days memorizing Latin, Greek and French words, with no real end in sight. Eventually my mother started feeding me omega 3 supplemental oil, hoping my brain would thereby become capable of memorizing enough of these words to get good grades. I responded by seeking out one of many internet subcultures, with a grand narrative in which my life does have meaning. After enough time I recovered from this, because I have a habit of trying to challenge my own views. If you don’t have a habit of challenging your own views, then it’s extremely easy to get “stuck” in such a narrative. This is not a big problem if the narrative is relatively benign. Some people spend their whole life trying to save rare butterflies, even if it means never marrying and never finding a real career. In most cases however, the narrative is not benign. These people end up stuck in a narrative that merely makes their life worse for them.

Today in Pittsburg, we saw a case of a person stuck in a narrative that doesn’t just transform his own life into a living hell, but now imposes the same misery on others. It’s important to understand, that these subcultures ultimately make you miserable. It’s intrinsic to these subcultures, that they cause a rift between you and your environment. By doing so, they cause a form of isolation. Normal, healthy and happy people don’t want to be around someone who merely has bleak ideas to offer to them on a continual basis, with no genuine solution to them. The subsequent isolation that follows leads the adherent to seek out more contact with others in the subculture, thereby strengthening their views.

To summarize, in our modern society, technology has made it much easier for human beings to fall victim to a maladaptive response to defeat in life. There are people who are psychologically resilient, who experience potentially traumatic events in life, but overcome them and go on to live their lives as normal. Other people are less resilient and end up stuck in a maladaptive response. They don’t address their real problem and move on with their lives, but seek out a bigger global problem and decide that this is what they will spend their lives fighting against. What can we do to help them?

To start with, we need to point out to such people that they’re not going to change the world on their own. It’s fine to practice what you preach, but practicing what you preach won’t be enough to change the world. In the case of an alt-right neonazi, a simple thing to point out to them is that even in a society where Donald Trump is president, regardless of their own actions they’re going to have to spend their lives interacting with ethnic minorities, whether they like it or not. The only productive response that will have a positive impact on your own life is one that helps you to deal with that reality. A subculture that feeds into and amplifies your own grief over living in an ethnically diverse society, is a subculture that merely makes you even more miserable, removes opportunities from your life and isolates you further.

In addition, it’s important to expose yourself, on a continual basis, to people with ideas that contradict your own. The echo boxes on the Internet don’t just have the effect of isolating us from each other, but they demonize people and make them appear as monsters in our eyes whose arguments shouldn’t even be legitimately considered. I have a left-leaning friend I talked to a while ago, I explained to him that I occasionally like to read essays by Silicon Valley transhumanists because they contradicted my own worldview. He insisted that they’re privileged and that he doesn’t enjoy having his views challenged. This is how you end up in an echo box, and although his own echo box might be very benign, it is nonetheless a box that isolates you from a vast portion of the people around you and limits your opportunities in life.

It’s important to understand that when your brain is not functioning correctly, one common symptom is that you become vastly more perceptive of negative information, than of positive information. If you look around you and think the world is going to shit, that’s a product of your own frame of reference. I’ve said this a thousand times now, but I need to say it again. You can look at the world around you and see Americans dying of fentanyl overdoses and species going extinct in the Amazon rainforest. You can also look around you and see a world where slavery, child labor and infant mortality are disappearing like snow before the sun. What you see depends on your own frame of reference, your own frame of reference depends on your own state of mind.

You shouldn’t be blind to genuine problems, but if you merely see problems everywhere that you have no influence on and don’t see everything that’s going right around us, there’s a problem with your state of mind and your first priority should be to address your state of mind. This is important, because a deeply cynical and pessimistic worldview tends to be the first step towards huge mistakes in life. If you think modern technology will kill us all, then it starts to make sense to send bombs in the mail to get your message across. If you think Jews want to kill us all, then it starts to make sense to walk into a synagogue with a gun.

Finally, there’s another point I want to make, which is that it’s easy to blame angry white males for this problem. That’s both incorrect and counterproductive however. In fact, it is a form of blaming the victim. For every angry white male who wanders into a synagogue with a gun, there are countless more who quietly end their own lives. Suicide rates of white men in America are twenty times higher than for black women. American society needs to acknowledge the fact that working class white American men have been socially marginalized. These men are perceived as having benefited from a system of white supremacy, but in reality they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. They’re not recognized as marginalized because they’re white men, but they have not inherited the wealth and status of the upper class either. When people feel as if they are despised, they will seek out each other and isolate themselves. The easiest way to keep people from entering echo chambers, must be to avoid chasing them into one.

3 Comments

  1. “To start with, we need to point out to such people that they’re not going to change the world on their own.” Is this insight mutually exclusive with the attempt to make a positive contribution to one’s surroundings?

    One can still take actions such as Urgenda is doing in the Netherlands with the climate change court case and accept that such an action by itself won’t be enough. It’s not one or the other.

  2. Your ancestors fought a war for 80 years to gain their freedom and independence. And your advice to their descendants is to accept the fate of seeing more and more minorities year after year, up to the point where the Dutch people don’t exist anymore? Look to South Africa to see the sort of world you doom your great-grandchildren to.

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