Getting Out of the Filter Bubble Outside Your Filter Bubble

by Evan_Gaensbauer6 min read20th May 201929 comments


Personal Blog

Related: The "Outside the Box" Box

As politics becomes more polarized, and more people are trying to figure out why, more people think the answer is that too many of us are in filter bubbles, and are consequently trying to get out of them. This seems like the kind of thing the rationality community would have tried to do earlier than most people, though whether the rationality community succeeded much better than other kinds of people is an open question. One criticism of a simple rationalist approach to avoiding filter bubbles is that exclusively joining a community that aspires to avoid filter bubbles is it that the community will not be conscious of its own bias blindspot. So, the community may form its own typical suite of biases that goes unrecognized. The rationalists I know who have been the most conscientious in not falling prey to a filter bubble take this criticism to heart, and consequently look beyond the rationality community for perspectives on politics. Julia Galef recently asked a question on a similar topic on Facebook.

Now that more people beyond the rationality community are talking about how one can get out of a filter bubble, it's easier to compare different approaches to doing so. Organizations like Jonathan Haidt's Heterodox Academy (HxA) talk about getting progressives and conservatives to talk to each other more, in particular for those pockets of progressivism in academia or other elite institutions that can't relate to conservatives whatsoever to learn how to actually listen to them. HxA has a goal of conducing people to seek what's true, and I assume they're relatively better at doing so than the default approaches random people take. However, HxA also has the priority of having people seek common ground in what we believe is true because they believe doing so will lead to a healing of the political divide. That's a normative goal aside from seeking what's true, and the goal of seeking common ground among progressives and conservatives is instrumental to the achievement of the goal of healing the political divide.

However, the way HxA seeks to get people out of their filter bubbles doesn't optimize for seeking what's true, or the absolute minimization of one's filter bubble. That's because once the goal of healing the political divide in America is motivated, there isn't the motivation to optimize for what's true beyond that. So, from a perspective focused solely on pursuing what's true regardless of anything else, HxA's approach is methodologically flawed because it doesn't encourage people to consider politics outside the Overton window of the United States. Namely, the Overton window of the United States is that of political ideologies relatively compatible with liberal democracy. Conservative, progressive, liberal, or libertarian, the vast majority of Americans of all stripes appear to still support some kind of liberal democracy over what alternative political systems popular in world history they could embrace. So, there are political perspectives that are so far from anything in the American Overton window, from where their proponents are standing, the full spread of American politics looks all the same.

There is a phenomenon called the narcissism of small differences, which is "the thesis that communities with adjoining territories and close relationships are especially likely to engage in feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to details of differentiation." One can see this in American politics in how for the last several decades there has been what is seen as a typical bipartisan Beltway political establishment that dominates the trajectory of both the Republican and Democratic parties, ensuring that neither party strays too far away from what the consensus of elite demands. Of course, in the last few years, with the rise of nationalism within the Republican Party, and socialism at the fringes of the Democratic Party, it would appear the hold this elite establishment has on both parties is breaking. Yet there are political perspectives that are still so different from anything happening in the United States that they would look at Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and see them as essentially the same because they're both 'liberals'. That is, they're political perspectives that are so polarized they see the fact that the vast majority of Americans support some kind of liberal democracy as meaning there are essentially no fundamental differences between any two political positions in the Overton window of the United States. From their perspective, 100% of American politics is narcissistically obsessed with their own small and ultimately insignificant differences.

These would, of course, be political perspectives like anarcho-communism or monarchism. By exposing oneself to these political perspectives, you can get outside the 'filter bubble' that is the entirety of American political discourse. All of this isn't to say anything about the quality of these perspectives except that these a radically different ways to get out of the broader societal bubble many people aren't cognizant they're own personal bubble resides in.

I've found the only reliable way to be sure I am getting out of my filter bubble is to expose myself to these kinds of radically uncommon political perspectives that reject liberal democracy itself. (This is assuming, like me, you live in the United States or a similarly liberal-democratic country.) It might seem futile to try to expose yourself to illiberal perspectives, since the last time thoroughly illiberal ideologies were as remotely popular as liberal ideologies throughout the Western world was in the 19th century. Getting out of one's filter bubble by internalizing a perspective that doesn't take into account what the world is like today could feel a bit silly. What I do is familiarize myself with the historical basis of an illiberal ideology, and then read the primary sources of reactions from particular ideological communities to current events. The internet has allowed people of every political position that has ever existed to congregate online, so it's not hard to find them. Subreddits are a good place to start to see what someone who rigidly holds to a politics that isn't based in the modern practice of government, and judges current events through such a lens.

To look to these kinds of illiberal ideologies to gain greater political perspective in the pursuit of truth might strike some people as hairy. After all, isn't an assumption of contemporary American politics to look at the rest of the world, and see that in history political systems like the communism of the Soviet Union, or the old monarchies of Europe, have been tried and failed relative to liberal democracy?

As out of touch with reality as much of American politics might seem today to so many people, one could be suspicious that communists and monarchists are even more out of touch with reality in their politics still. Personally, I have approached these potential concerns not by trying to solve them as a problem, but by just being aware that an unpopular worldview that is radically different than that held by most people will probably notice something important most people miss out on, but that isn't a reason to think it's less biased than any other perspective. Much of the language I've used here is figurative, and I don't think it makes sense to think of a political ideology as literally some kind of agent with a particular set of typical beliefs. Especially for rationalists, I think it still makes much more sense to talk about seeking what's true on the level of the individual, or at least social units still much smaller than 'the set of all people who adhere to a particular ideology'.

Finally, when I started exposing myself to illiberal ideologies, I also feared I might be taken in by tyranny through my naivete or gullibility. I found this fear wasn't borne out. If there is anything about liberal democracies as they exist that you are remotely sympathetic to, or would like to preserve in society, than I expect like me it's unlikely you'll be taken in by an anti-democratic and illiberal politics without even noticing, or against your better judgement. I found the very act of periodically exposing myself to radically illiberal ideologies has been sufficient to recognize the implicit assumptions that most people living in liberal democracies hold that I also held without consciously recognizing it. So, if you're afraid of exposing yourself to illiberal ideologies because you'll be unduly taken in by them, it's not something I would worry about unless you're someone who can't help but take extremely seriously radically novel viewpoints. I'd expect most people will face the opposite problem, in that they'll radically underestimate just how thoroughly and vehemently every facet of current politics in liberal democracies is rejected. I've found it takes much deliberate and conscious effort to get myself of taking some illiberal ideologies seriously at all.

In the last few years, I've come to still hold a lot of those assumptions underpinning our current political system, since I still believe something like how liberal capitalist democracy is the worst socioeconomic and/or political system ever tried, except for all the others. However, what those assumptions were, and why I believed them about liberal democracy, and how I came to believe them based on the kind of society I lived in, was something I didn't really appreciate until I had done a decent job of exposing myself to political perspectives on the Left, the Right, and everywhere in between that reject liberal democracy out of hand.

Returning to the Heterodox Academy, none of this is to say there is anything wrong with their approach. To fully embrace an illiberal political ideology for a country like the United States would be to believe something like a very violent revolution would be justified to institute a government nothing whatsoever like what the United States has today. That would be a goal as independent of seeking what's true as is the normative goal of healing the political divide. Illiberal politics will exacerbate that goal by widening rather than narrowing the political divide. For the record, I personally am skeptical HxA's approach is optimal for achieving their goals, but I admire their goals, and my goals are certainly closer to theirs than those of illiberal ideologues. It's almost never the goal of illiberal ideologues to get out of their filter bubble. I've found they see less value in it, since they often fundamentally trust less the judgement of humans who haven't come to already share their current political beliefs. So, illiberal ideologues who don't also have something like an aspiration to rationality don't make for good cooperators in social epistemology. I think for a lot of rationalists this will curtail their desire to interact with them beyond the initial value of novel information they can provide through their unique perspectives.

Rationalists appear to prioritize seeking what's true to a degree relatively greater than people whose goals are determined by a political ideology, liberal or illiberal, more than anything else. My solution for getting out of my own filter bubble, not only to understand people around me, but to seek what's true beyond that, has been to be cognizant of the full span of contemporary political discourse, including those political perspectives that fall outside the Overton window to the left, to the right, or whatever direction.

Personal Blog