Building upon Karl Fisch’s post from July about the myth of the echo chamber, this post reflects my thinking towards engaging and building consensus amongst colleagues as a result of studies towards my Ed.D. thesis.

There has been much discussion – in fact ever since I can remember – about the problem of ‘echo chambers’ in any given community. As in:

That’s all very well, but aren’t we perpetuating an echo chamber here?

You’re preaching to the choir; we need to get out there and spread the gospel.

And so on.

Whilst I understand the sentiment, it’s always felt a little odd to me that the two activities of community-building and inquiry on the one hand, and bringing others into that community on the other, should be seen as separate.¬†I’ve been looking recently at the work of a number of Pragmatist philosophers which has helped clarify my thinking in this area.

So that people actually read this post rather than dismiss it as an abstract philosophical argument, I’m going to boil down what I want to say into the following three points:

1. Engagement and acceptance

If you engage with another community you lend some legitimacy to their programme. As Stanley Fish puts it:

It is acceptable not because everyone accepts it but because those who do not are now obliged to argue against it. (Fish, 1980:257)

Sometimes refusing to engage and accept someone else’s point of view is the best idea. In the context currently under consideration, that means ploughing on with the ‘echo chamber’ until others want to join it.

2. Dead metaphors

The vocabulary of a community is that of dead metaphors. So, for example, the metaphor of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ may have stimulated thinking in 2001 for a few years, but this metaphor is dead and lacks utility to those in the community to which it originally engaged.

As Richard Rorty puts it, citing Davidson, it is like a coral reef:

“Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and foil for new metaphors.” (Rorty, 1989:118)

Metaphors are used when the words and phrases within our vocabularies are not rich enough to capture something of value. ‘Memes’ often have an element of metaphor, therefore, as they correspond to something compelling yet previously-unexpressed.

3. Language games

It’s true of almost every community that one or two, or even a whole subset of, individuals get caught up in semantics. As Ian Hacking puts it, deciding whether something is a ‘truth-value candidate’ depends upon whether a sentence has a fixed place in a ‘language game’:

This is because it is a sentence which one cannot confirm or disconfirm, argue for or against. One can only savor it or spit it out. But this is not to say that it may not, in time, become a truth-value candidate. If it is savored rather than spat out, the sentence may be repeated, caught up, bandied about. Then it will gradually require a habitual use, a familiar place in the language game. (Rorty, 1989:119-120)

This brings us back to the idea of a ‘dead metaphor’ – something which I think will eventually happen to the concept of ‘digital literacy’. Echo chambers are thus important for pinning down a metaphor so it may do some work.

Conclusion

Echo chambers are good if, and only if, they exist for consensus building. This is, to paraphrase Charles Sanders Peirce, not a short-term project but one that tends towards the ‘end of enquiry’. That is to say the project involves grabbing a metaphor and killing it through use in order to feed ongoing discussion and community-building.

Or something like that. :-p

References

  • Fish, S. (1980) ‘What makes an interpretation acceptable?’ (in Goodman, R.B. (ed.) (1995) Pragmatism: a contemporary reader, p.265)
  • Rorty, R. (1989) ‘The Contingency of Language’ (in Goodman, R.B. (ed.) (1995) Pragmatism: a contemporary reader)