Ancient echo chambers

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Echo and Narcissus, British Library, Harley MS 4431, f, 134r (c. 1410 AD)

The good thing about social media, they say, is that it promotes dialogue and exchange. And there’s no better way to test views and ideas than through disputation and scrutiny. Except that social media, as you’re surely aware, doesn’t really do that. Instead, it sets up bastions of like-mindedness. Like-mindedness had been there long before Zuckerberg invented the ‘like’ neo-speak. Cultural echo chambers had been acknowledged millennia before social platforms started collecting friends and turning away incompatibles.

Niketes of Smyrna (mid 5th century AD), the first of the sophists from the ancient Roman period, understood the risk of echo-chambers. It was said of him that

he seldom came forward to speak in the Assembly, and when the people accused him of being afraid he said, “I fear the people when they are exalting me more than when they abuse me.” (Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 1.19, 511)

An abusive, though not unreasonable, translation would say that Niketes feared the people when they gave him likes more than when they banned and blocked his account.

Echo chambers amplify and multiply existing views, but they don’t often diversify the range of opinions. They are ‘feel-good’ spaces which reinforce convictions and banish doubt. Soundproof enclosures, they are the enemies of dialogue, for an exchange between perfectly aligned voices is nothing more than plainchant.

Echo the ancient nymph once fell in love with Narcissus, but because of her curse, she could not tell him how she felt. All she could do was echo his words, and she soon repelled him. She retreated in a forest, where she can still be heard – her own echo chamber, though closer to us than we might think.

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