Begging to differ, a critical comment brings an unexpectedly welcome opportunity to step outside my social media cell.

‘Truth springs from argument amongst friends.’ The wise words of the Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume were not written for our age of instant rage. And I cannot claim that William is a friend though he has quite often commented on articles published by Sceptical Scot the online forum I co-edit with David Gow. His latest comment began like this:

“I know that you must think that I am picking on you…”

I had written a post for Sceptical Scot about the poetry that, I feel, gives a refreshing, human perspective; a way of connecting rather than dividing – an alternative to the polarising brinkmanship of Brexit. Led by poets, the week after we finally left the EU, I took a kind of journey from Edinburgh to Brussels via Kent – Your Country Needs EU – starting with the tongue-in-cheek exhibition, Brexit Tears in Edinburgh’s Storytelling Centre and ending with John Donne’s No Man is an Island.

At first the Sceptical Scot reader was alienated. He criticised me for not trying ‘to understand why the majority, who were not weeping on 1 Feb, voted for Brexit’ – including, by the way, those Yes-voting Independence supporters who had voted No to the EU. But he listened to my response and I confess I was surprised at his.

Thanks for your sensitive reply…

…I look forward to reading more from you.


Getting out of the comfort zone

In between those lines, we still disagreed about the EU and Brexit. But there was an important change in the tone of our exchange and I really appreciated the spirit of William’s second, generous, response.

It felt like we had made a genuine human connection. Perhaps the kind of hand shake that follows an energetic face-to-face argument in a pub. Agreeing to disagree, with mutual respect. I greatly welcomed that opportunity and it reminded me that many of us rarely rub shoulders with people of different opinions. Chance encounters in pubs are less common than they were. Social media – the often anti-social vacuum of Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp – makes it much safer and easier for us to stay in our segregated comfort zones, constantly agitated and enraged.

A human is worth more if they’re addicted outraged, narcissistic, polarized, and misinformed.

Tristan Harris: Your undivided attention

This is a point powerfully made by Tristan Harris (the former Google design ethicist) in his recent Undivided Attention podcast. In the section on Facebook political ads, he describes an extraordinary business model which serves to increase and profit from polarisation.

Tristan explains that Facebook makes it cheaper to advertise to our own constituencies, so it costs less to pitch a left-leaning message to a left-leaning audience than it does to reach a right leaning audience, and the same in reverse for right-leaning messages. ‘In other words,’ he says, ‘Polarisation is built into the business model because it costs more to reach across the aisle than it does to have that $1 reach your own constituency.’

He’s talking about the US but it seems highly likely that UK political parties are also part of the polarisation business. But I’m not trying to pass the buck. This business depends on all of us – the consumers and the consumed. In each angry exchange conducted within our soundproof echo chambers, we perpetuate this deliberately divisive means of making money.

So…my thanks to William for reaching across the aisle, not just to complain, but to listen to the response.

It’s what Sceptical Scot hopes to be about. And no-one is making money!

Featured image: Echo Chamber – the installation by Tommy Perman for Open Close is now a permanent fixture in Edinburgh’s Trunks Close

Further reading:

Upturn How Facebook’s ad delivery can lead to skewed outcomes [which users see which ads]

Centre for Humane Technology: Your Undivided Attention Podcast
Episode 13:

No Man is an Island, Anti Brexit poster, Wolfgang Tillmans