Daniel Lemire's blog

, 6 min read

Bubbling up is lowering empathy at a civilization scale

Computer networks are a fantastic invention. When they came in my life, I remember spending hours, sometimes days, arguing with people I violently disagreed with. At first glance, it looks like a complete waste of time, but experience has taught me that it is tremendously precious. Not because it changes minds, but because it keeps minds opened.

My friend Seb Paquet invented the concept of ridiculously easy group formation. Seb observed in the early 2000s that it was now possible to create “groups” using web tools with very little effort. I have always been suspicious of groups. I prefer open networks to tightly organized groups. Still, I initially viewed Seb’s observation positively. People organizing more easily ought to foster a more collaborative society.

Maybe it did, at least initially, have very positive outcomes, but I am now very concerned with one particularly vicious side-effect: people organize along “party lines” for conflict. Instead of arguing with people we disagree, instead of seeking common ground, we “unfriend them”. In effect, we are creating cognitive bubbles of like-minded individuals around us. I believe that this might lower empathy at a civilization scale.

I don’t want to bring everything back to Donald Trump, but he is an obligatory reference. It is not that Trump is so interesting to me, but what he reveals is important. A week before the election, a student of mine asked me if Trump could get elected. I categorically said no. Trump could not get elected. How could it be given that all the smart people I know predict he won’t?

Then Trump was elected.

You can call it an accident if you want, but I don’t think it is a fair qualification. What this exposed to me is that I had bubbled up too much. I was no longer able to see the world in a sufficiently clear manner to make reasonable predictions. I should have been able to anticipate Trump’s election. I wasn’t. I failed.

I can be excused because I am Canadian. But the US is our powerful neighbor so I ought to know what is going on over there.

So what did I do? I decided to subscribe to blogs and podcasts of people who do support Trump. Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind Dilbert, is first on my list. I have been following Scott Adams and he has exposed me to a whole other way to view the world. At least as far as Trump is concerned, Scott Adams has a much better predictive record than anyone else I know.

It is not that Scott is right and other people are wrong. It would be nice if we could divide things up into right and wrong, black and white. It is never that simple, even when you think it should.

But I don’t think that’s what most people who did not see the election of Trump coming did. I suspect that many of them just doubled down on the bubbling. They started to actively seek out anyone who might not toe the party line and to exclude them from their view. So we got a more divided world.

We have lots of experience with such political bubbles. Fascism, Soviet-era Russia and Mao’s China are glaring examples of what this can lead to in the most extreme cases: brutal violence. We don’t want that. It is hell on Earth.

And it may be reassuring to think that it is your side that will crush the other side, but that’s very dangerous thinking. The very people who are “on your side” may soon either turn against you or hurt you indirectly. That’s what history taught us. Very few people did well under Mao.

We are all tempted by virtue signaling. Given any topic, we look around in our group and tend toward what is perceived as the “moral thing”. It is a powerful force. Sadly, it is also what makes fascism possible in the first place. It is at the core of our inner Nazi.

I believe that, inadvertently maybe, we have built tools (software and laws) that favor virtue signaling and bubbling up against growing empathy for diverse point of views. We create groups, disconnected networks and get stuck in a repeating feedback loop. Our positions become fossils, unable to evolve or change once set.

A friend of mine once remarked how surprisingly difficult it can be to host a blog where people come to vehemently disagree. And that’s something that we are losing out. Walled garden with algorithmically selected posts are replacing blogs. The bloggers who remain often close their comment feeds, or close it for “the other side”. We are pushing the debates at the edges, down in the YouTube comments where all we get is toxicity.

I am not arguing for a renewal of blogging, but I am arguing that “bubbling up” should become pejorative. We should not celebrate people who cater to people sharing a given dogma. We should look at these people with suspicion. And, yes, maybe we need to make it easier, through technology, for people to find diverse points of views. So, on a given issue, instead of presenting to users only whatever is most likely to please them, we should present them a spectrum of views.

And we definitively need to stop needlessly characterizing individuals. It’s not just the name calling per se that should stop, but the clustering of individuals into the acceptable and the unacceptable. Identity politics should go.

It is hard to take this path, it is much easier to continue with virtual signaling and bubbles, but I think that most of us don’t feel that we really belong in these closed groups in the first place. Most of us have nuanced point of views. Most of us don’t like to divide the world in two. Most of us are open and undecided. Most of us are interested in talking with people who have different points of views. We cherish it.

It takes social engineering to make the worse of us come out. The Nazi regime had to forcefully close down Jewish stores because Germans, even under Nazi rule, liked to do business with Jews. If we take force out of the equation, people do get along, even when they disagree.

Final quotes:

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.” (John Stuart Mill)

Confronting, hearing, and countering offensive speech we disagree with is a skill. And one that should be considered a core requirement at any school worth its salt.

In that regard, recent incidents suggest that colleges are fundamentally failing their students in imparting these skills. In just the past few weeks, from one campus to another and another and another, liberal students have silenced conservative speakers with violence, outrage, and threats. This collection of heckler’s vetoes is the farthest thing from a victory for the progressive causes these students champion.

These incidents have not shut down a single bad idea. To the contrary, they’ve given their opponents’ ideas credence by adding the power of martyrdom. When you choose censorship as your substantive argument, you lose the debate.

(Lee Rowland, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU)