Some thoughts on bubbles

As a follow-up to that last post in which Andrew O’Hagan invokes the terrifying spectre of The Echo Chamber, I thought I’d post some thoughts on bubbles (which I wrote after a discussion with a friend on a post from a while back on the “Westminster bubble” and the way that “real people” are used to prop up bigoted views).

– bubbles imply closed groupings. You can’t be in several bubbles at once. That’s just not how bubbles work – have you tried being in several bubbles at once? They pop immediately, soapy water gets everywhere, and the floor gets slippy.

– when you say ‘bubble’ you’re referring to a set of (vague, shifting) socio-cultural attitudes held by a closed grouping of people. Not one attitude or belief, but several. Well, you might argue, they’re likely to be linked – contained within the bubble’s soapy, self-reflective membrane. But how? by what? Education, geography, income, etc. Oh I see… by a large number of other (themselves shifting) variables…

– if a bubble referred to a single attitude (say, ‘public flogging is good’) held by a single group of people – born, bred and living in the same place, shut off from the rest of the world – that might make sense. But, of course, it doesn’t make sense. I don’t know any group whose circumstances are identical and who share the exact same view on a particular topic (unless interpreted so generally as to be meaningless). And even if I could conceive of that hypothetically, it seems crazy to assume – on so bubble-thin a basis – that the inhabitants of this closed bubble would necessarily agree on anything else.

– the language of bubbles may not cause loosely defined social groupings to become more insular but it definitely reinforces the idea they already are, or that social attitudes are uniform across groupings defined by, say, geography, which only leads to crass generalisations. So now people – when they’re trying to be aware of their own bubble-enclosedness – will say things like: “Oh, but have you actually been to Derby? Public flogging is very popular there. You need to get out of your bubble.”

– say you think an article in the Daily Mail (“migrants are worse than otters”, etc) is execrable and offensive, and you have a right-wing friend who thinks you live in a left-wing bubble. Part of his justification for posting that article on twitter and defending its right to be written/exist might be that it comes from outside the sphere of your bubble. This is the bubble’s (appropriately) circular logic: it always justifies itself. If you disagree with someone, it’s because they live in a different bubble to you. If you agree with them, it’s because you’re living in the same bubble. But our experiences are also linked by a hundred other threads and, anyway, a lot of us have access to the same words or language or internet, etc.

– the language/logic of the bubble/echo chamber is empty and destructive in part because it contains a shred of something true-feeling. It taps into an intuitive sense we have about social relations – that we want to hear our own views reflected back at us, that our opinions become more fixed over time – but as with all sloppy uses of language/cliché it closes down rather than opens up discussion. Its use is invidious, usually in the service of power, and its rhetorical function is to shut down argument and to parody the marginalised.

– we need to stop talking about bubbles and echo chambers. We need to call out people who use its language unthinkingly. We need to be more open to the world and to others. We need analogies which do better justice to the ways in which we look to confirm our biases and assumptions while being intricately and implicitly linked to one another, across all manner of seemingly closed groupings. I’m imagining pieces of coloured string or some kind of vegetable stew or maybe a Tibetan sand mandala.

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