Filtering the filters

Scott over at SSC has made an interesting post on how people are beginning to create lists (and potentially more sophisticated heuristics) of people with views who they find offensive and using tools to block those views from their feeds on social media. That might be innocent enough in isolation, and I can totally understand the desire to block trolls and disingenuous interlocutors, but taken as part of a broader internet trend, it is a little disturbing. Taken to its logical conclusion, the direction of this trend seems to be towards walled gardens and echo chambers, where we are exposed only to the opinions with which we are in comforting agreement with. So our views (or the views the filter allow) are always reinforced, magnified, and never truly challenged.

While I admit that on occasion a sheltered garden can grow something beautiful, the potential for filters to fragment our society into a series of warring echo chambers is quite horrifying. Filters have always existed, but this systematisation of them is certainly unprecedented. I’m not sure it’s automatically going to favour the powerful (a Scott suggests), because historically they’ve already had filters that regular people don’t have access to. This might just give everyone access to the same kind of sheltered stupid. It depends if the filters are open or not, how they work, and who controls their content. But no matter who controls them, I think they have the potentially to be incredibly harmful to us all, because the truth is complex, and if a filter hides that complexity, then it’s hiding the truth from you, even if its doing so with a voice of comforting agreement.

I think there’s a significant group of people (including quite a few over at SSC) that don’t buy into the infallibility of any particular political camp. We don’t want to be limited to the narrow mantras of this echo-chamber or that one. We want access to the most eloquent versions of all reasonable arguments, so we can assess and synthesise them all. We want to see all relevant evidence, not just the evidence that suits this agenda or that one. For us it’s an effort to generate a true understanding of the world and to use logic and reason to decide what political “recipes” actually result in beneficial outcomes. In a world that increasingly favours convincing over learning, and rhetoric over logic. we’re going to have to fight to keep that project alive.

We don’t want to filter opinions, we want to filter quality. We don’t want to wade through an endless swap of fallacious reasoning, rhetorical tricks and irrational rubbish. We want reasons, arguments, and evidence. We want intellectual pluralism, because the truth need not fear lies if the fight is fair.

If filters are creating echo-chambers, then let’s filter the echo chambers. People that deviate from the tribe’s rhetoric aren’t suspect, it’s the people that don’t. If someone wants to critique a view, a good sign of authenticity is the ability to eloquently and comprehensively describe what they oppose. So for intellectual pluralism, an acceptable filter eliminates not the plurality of views, but the distorted straw men, the gross misrepresentations, and above all dogma that lives only in the absense of alternative views. A stream of information that contains the language of only one school of thought is less reliable than one that contains several, because if someone is smart enough to propose an idea, they should be smart enough to describe competing arguments in an eloquent manner. This is the kind of heuristic that we should use to create the anti-filter.

The truth is larger than all of us, and if we are to see it in all its majesty, then we must cooperate to create the biggest, clearest lens we can.

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