Idleness and the ‘Like’ button: An Alternative Escape from Nguyen’s Echo Chamber

Slouka’s pseudo-romantic polemic on idleness expresses his frustrations with modern work culture. Without a doubt, there is something stirring about leaving one’s 9-to-5 for a life of reflection and study. Walking out on the job can be a liberating and deeply life altering experience. But what moves one to cast off their burdens and deeply question the beliefs that they have been holding so tightly? In this essay I advocate for a similarity between Slouka’s idea of walking out on the job, that is, being idle, and exiting an echo chamber. In Nguyen’s paper “Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles” he argues that to break out of an echo chamber, a certain kind of social reboot is necessary (Nguyen, 2020). Furthermore, by engaging in the rhetoric of an echo chamber, we are making ourselves highly vulnerable to “epistemic surprise”, when we do in fact break out. This is because when we finally do undertake the reboot, the outcome can be incredibly shocking. In order to counter this, I propose being idle as an easier way out of the echo chamber itself.

Nguyen’s definition of an echo chamber is vital here; according to him, an echo chamber is “a social epistemic structure in which other relevant voices have been actively discredited” (Nguyen, 2020). By its definition, we can see how injustices might arise through an echo chamber. Those who are credible will be discredited, while those who are the loudest (and, importantly, not necessarily right) will be rewarded. 

As noted in Nguyen’s paper, a far more fundamental shift than idleness occurs when undergoing the shocking and devastating realization of a social reboot. A social reboot requires an active choice to deviate from the well worn path of an echo chamber. Because of the rhetoric used in an echo chamber to inculcate and indoctrinate its members, the area between the echo chamber and the reboot (which here I refer to the state of successfully exiting the echo chamber) can be fraught with risks. That, however, doesn’t mean it has to be. 

My argument in this paper makes use of Lucy McDonald’s essay “Please Like This Paper,” which decries the proliferation of the ever present ‘like’ button in social media (McDonald, 2021). Just like echo chambers, and indeed, an important part of them, the ‘like’ button registers our need for affirmation, drawing us deeper into an algorithmic world laden with misinformation (McDonald, 2021). Because we feel the need for social acceptance, and online this comes in the form of ‘likes’, we gravitate towards consuming and creating content which captures this esoteric form of affirmation. Yet, this only occurs within the ubiquitous, but limiting spheres of social media; the ones primarily owned by Meta, but also including Twitter and Pinterest, etc. Furthermore, this technology is self fulfilling; the more you ‘like’ a certain type of content, the more you will be shown content that is similar, in an attempt to elicit more ‘likes’ from you, the user (McDonald, 2021).

Walking out on this seducing yet vicious myriad of self promotion and affirmation within echo chambers online, can be difficult if not impossible. But why would one want to walk out on an echo chamber, and could idleness be the answer? By moving from Nguyen’s social reboot to idleness, I argue that idleness is a much more passive, and far less destructive or risky method of escaping an echo chamber. The rest of my essay will focus primarily on this topic. 

Idleness can be a means to self-realization. In fact for the most social among us, we often need to take a break, recuperate, and decompress before once again taking up the social and occupational obligations we are necessarily bound to. Yet the danger of idleness to outsiders, or those who have influence over us, which Slouka is quick to draw on, is the very fact that we are more equipped to use our time wisely (Slouka, 2004, p. 100). But this presupposes that there is someone, an individual, or group of them, that wants us not to use our time wisely. When trapped in an echo chamber, this is precisely the case. By the very definition of an echo chamber, we know that some voices are silenced or discredited (Nguyen, 2020). Slouka says that idleness is a sort of political space. That idleness allows us “time to figure out who we are, and what we believe” and it also allows us “time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it” (Slouka, 2004, p. 99).

Indeed, Slouka himself takes the world of work to be reminiscent of an echo chamber, for example here, on page 101: “Yes, Ted sold shoulder held stingers to folks with no surname, but he worked so hard!” (Slouka, 2004). The degenerate morality of an echo chamber (in this case Ted’s work) is corrupting, and work here has only perpetuated Ted’s moral decline. Being cognizant of yourself, and the world outside an echo chamber does not have to come at the price of a full fledged reboot.  In fact, in Slouka’s world, those who use idleness to their advantage are better off than those who work themselves to death. 

But what is the nature of idleness which allows one to withdraw from the echo chamber, and what are its impacts on the rest of one’s life? Would one become withdrawn, recluse, and solitary? The space between an echo chamber and the reboot does not have to be hopeless and desolate, and idleness does not have to be taken in a negative sense. Being idle is often pensive, reflective, and serene. This leads us to imagine a more peaceful manner of escaping an echo chamber than Nguyen’s mysterious yet seemingly dangerous social reboot. 

But, the ‘like’ button introduces a terrifying pressure to interact and engage with the outside world. Moreover, it brings that outside world right into your living room or bedroom, wherever you pick up your device to check social media. It is always on, because there is always new content to see, a new connection to make, and a new online experience to be had. This new media discourages idleness and reflection in a way that enables echo chambers to be built and to proliferate. It is easy to get trapped in these cycles of amassing social capital and wrapped up in the competition for ‘likes’.

But this does not mean that this whole argument has to be contained in the echoing and narrowly self affirming world of social media. What I really want to argue here is that an echo chamber, like the ‘like’ button, is a superficial, virtual, and one dimensional world in which some voices are louder than others, and those voices which are the loudest do not necessarily represent the best among us. In fact, those of us who swear off an echo chamber, work, or social media, in an attempt to be idle, might be better off in the long run, by not being forced to remain in the throes of novel social technologies. 

To step back, to reflect, by being idle garners an unusual social power which is unreflective of the broader social world around us. Here, note that I am drawing a parallel between Nguyen, Slouka, and McDonald, by attributing a similarity between social media, an echo chamber, and work. All three, from McDonald’s ‘like’, to Slouka’s 9-to-5 can become seen as an unwelcome intruder into our otherwise (and supposedly) private lives. This is really what a digital, social, or occupational environment is when it comes down to it; a commercialization of the part of our lives which is idle. So by choosing to be idle, by giving up the madness and social hysteria which proliferates on the internet and on platforms, we are choosing our own path. This path is an inherent expression of our will and a reaffirmation of our identity. If we are stuck in an echo chamber, idleness, in this sense, is the best and most promising alternative to a social reboot. 

Per Nguyen, echo chambers use fake news to manipulate trust (Nguyen, 2020). When you lose trust in a source of information you often lose confidence in other things you once held to be true. You question your assumptions, and maybe you even question yourself. This is because there is an increase in uncertainty surrounding some idea you once held with conviction. Not only does this shatter your confidence, it also puts many other parts of your life into question. This is the essence of “epistemic surprise”; an increase in uncertainty which can effect decision making, and other parts of daily life and common events.

But for anyone to undertake a social reboot, it is more difficult than just giving up their ties to the echo chamber. Nguyen says “our teenager would have to suspend belief in all their particular background knowledge and restart the knowledge gathering process” (Nguyen, 2020). What this means can, for the moment, remain up for debate. Let’s consider one good aspect of restarting your knowledge gathering experience: you are a clean slate and you are able to at least start to rediscover your worldview. This, however, seems difficult and in a sense, dangerous. Nguyen himself describes the reboot as “radical,” but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s start from what we know. The real goal here is to reinvent the sources of epistemic knowledge. 

The reboot is where words like “radical” and “turbulence” come in. Echo chambers operate by “manipulating trust and credence” (Nguyen, 2020, p. 142). As in Lucy McDonald’s paper, just because you ‘like’ someone’s post, does not mean that you like them (McDonald, 2021). This is the root of misinformation in social media, and the danger of attempting to exit an echo chamber; the generalization of different tools such as ‘likes’, ‘retweets’ and ‘shares’, which masks users’ true intentions and can easily turn malicious. As Nguyen describes the perils of attempting to escape an echo chamber using a social reboot, I argue that the ongoing virulence of online platforms such as Meta calls for a different method of escaping an echo chamber.

As per Slouka, idleness, or the “time to consider [your] options” seems a better method of achieving the same sort of social epistemic reboot than the method described in Nguyen (Slouka, 2004, p. 99-100). Idleness is “unconstrained, anarchic” (Slouka, 2004, p. 105). Slouka draws a further analogy to religion, when he describes those “few miscreants who out of some inner weakness or perversity either refuse to convert or who go along and then, in their thirty-sixth year in the choir, say, abruptly abandon the faith” (Slouka, 2004, p. 107). It seems that abandoning the faith after accepting its teachings for so long is a parallel to escaping an echo chamber. Slouka further notes that those who abruptly walk out on the faith are different from those who refuse from the outset to convert: those miscreants who walk out are often “considered mad” for their abrupt change in will or behavior (Slouka, 2004, p. 107). 

My point in this last paragraph is to show that there is a similarity between Nguyen’s social epistemic reboot, and Slouka’s idea of idleness. The differences are relatively few. But my argument in this paper is to advocate for a simpler, easier, and calmer method of exiting an echo chamber than the turbulent and dangerous reboot. The key concept that I want to introduce here is “epistemic surprise.” “Epistemic surprise” occurs when exiting an echo chamber. It is the realization that our sources of information have been corrupting, false, and manipulative; all symptoms of being in an echo chamber. Yet, epistemic surprise when encountering a social epistemic reboot can be a shocking and perverse realization that you have been epistemically cheated. There is another interpretation, though, that is more appealing, and it is this interpretation that we will focus on.

It is in the manner of Slouka that we will interpret “epistemic surprise” in this paper. Slouka’s anarchist miscreant who simply walks away from their community can be an apt model for us in deciding what to do when we find ourselves in an echo chamber. We already know why “epistemic surprise” can be so devastating and dangerous to an individual exiting or trying to exit an echo chamber. But how can it be a good thing? Can it be a welcome boon, or flash of insight, that causes you to break free from the chains of the echo chamber?

I argue that it can, and that by enacting ‘idleness’ we are freeing ourselves from the echo chamber. Through our interpretation of Slouka, the anarchist, the social deviant, or the church-goer who walks out, we are forging a new path out of the echo chamber. Because we are removing our vote of approval from the dialogue of the echo chamber, by becoming idle, we are escaping it. 

So, we have expanded on the idea of a social epistemic reboot, and warned of the perils of what I call an “epistemic surprise”. We have further argued for an interpretation of Slouka’s 2004 work “Quitting the Paint Factory” which allows one to escape an echo chamber without undergoing a social reboot. While there is still much work to be done in this area of epistemology and media studies, work already published by Nguyen and McDonald offers promise and hope for sorting through the dark matter of nefarious online actors. It is my hope that this paper has made at least some contribution in this regard.

References:

McDonald, Lucy. 2021. “Please Like This Paper.” Philosophy. Vol. 96. The Royal Institute of Philosophy. 

Nguyen, C. Thi. 2020. “Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles.” Episteme, Vol. 17, No. 2. Cambridge University Press.

Slouka, Mark. 2004. “Quitting the Paint Factory.” In: Essays in the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations. Graywolf Press. 

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