Innovation and the rise of echo chambers

Disruption is a force affecting all parts of our society, displacing and changing common truths.

The world has been stunned by unprecedented events of the past two years – events that would be considered absurd if they were not our reality. Brexit and Trump are just two notable examples of a broader trend. How have we been caught off-guard; blindsided to what’s just around the corner?

A clear factor contributing to this blindsiding can be attributed to the rise of echo chambers. An echo chamber can be thought of as a bubble consisting of information and opinions that reflect our biases and confirm our pre-existing beliefs – imagine a digital island, where the only inhabitants are those that you agree with. In the age of information and the democratisation of knowledge we have seemingly abandoned the global village and replaced it with disaggregated spaces designed to support sensationalist, protectionist thinking.

Google, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook all offer curated representations of our beliefs, values, desires and opinions. There is no longer a need to worry ourselves with anything that might threaten our instinctual comforts and biases. If we don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Content algorithms have delivered personalisation at the expense of balance; efficiency at the expense of ideas; opium at the expense of innovation.

Echo chambers are dangerous because they harden our views, reducing our ability to see other points of view, further polarising our hyper-polarised society. Still, it’s not just digital echo chambers we should we wary of. Echo chambers can and do exist in other forms, from the groups of people we socialise with, to the organisations we work for.

Innovation at risk

Innovation thrives with diversity of thought. Organisations that don’t talk to their clients and customers design their future within a closed system. Many workplace cultures promote echo chambers, where ideas are led by the loudest or most senior voices in the room, while information is manipulated to confirm organisational bias. When leaders disregard views that challenge their strategy, products or brand, they pick ego over opportunity – unwilling or unable to venture outside their bubble. If people aren’t willing or able to venture outside and challenge their thinking they will simply reinforce the status quo, the antithesis of innovation.

You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore. William Faulkner

This can also occur with innovation as a topic or study. The articles and information we read are likely to have specific agendas and opinions. Our views become weathervanes based on the sources we trust, never venturing to discover an opposing view. Exponential technologies are a great example. As the hype cycle begins around a particular technology that’s meant to fundamentally change the way we work, people and organisations will repeat the same talking points without question. This hype bubble can distort reality. We need to maintain a healthy scepticism.

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Oscar Wilde

We each like to think that we’re impervious to these echo chambers, that we’re balanced, critical and thoughtful. But we’re inherently inclined to believe that views opposing our own carry less merit, we continuously overestimated our own knowledge, and we’re all addicted to hype.

We need to pre-empt our ability to promote bias and remove ourselves from informational cocoons. Empathy may hold the key to effectively breaking down echo chambers. By leaving our opinions at the door and approaching the world with inquisitiveness, we purposefully expose ourselves to other opinions and experiences. Other people provide the easiest route to a new perspective – promoting abstract thinking and enabling us to create new innovative solutions.

When was the last time you read something that jarred with you, or spoke to someone that disagreed with you? What was your reaction? Search for information that sits outside your echo chamber. Be the contrarian, learn something from an opposing argument. If we use the power of empathy from home to the workplace we can thoroughly fracture, and maybe even break, the echo chambers that are stifling our creative thought.

Keep an open mind, but no so open that your brains fall out. James Edward Oberg

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