The fallacy of echo chambers: is everyone really mad at everyone?

Bob Greene makes a timely post at CNN comparing today’s social climate to that of 1955. He discusses a July 4, 1955 cover story from Life Magazine that paints the era as a time of utopian happiness. Greene asks whether we were really that happy then, and conversely, whether we are as angry now as the news media would have us believe.

The 1955 article paints a rosy world, straight out of Pleasantville.  Witness the headline:

In a sense, it really was a different era. As the 1955 Life article claims, “Embroiled in no war, impeded by no major strikes, blessed by almost full employment, the U.S. was delighted with itself and almost nobody was mad with nobody.” But Greene notes the dark underbelly of the era: “Racial inequity was widespread, constrictive conformity was all around, intolerance of anything different was itself tolerated … your list could go on and on.”

More importantly, Greene compares the fantasies of yesteryear with the “anger” of today:

If monolithic national happiness was, in fact, being sold as a commodity back then, a case can also be made that the commodity being sold to us today is national animosity. Just about every day, we are told how furious we are at each other. If . . . Life magazine was endeavoring to promote the notion of consensus, what we are being relentlessly barraged with now is a message of anti-consensus. And that may be just as false an impression, in its own way, as the everyone’s-joyful pitch was in 1955.

Cass Sunstein makes a similar, important point, one that others have made, and one that bears emphasis.  In an age of information overload, people are drawn like bees to viewpoints that reinforce pre-existing social and political beliefs. I’ve written about the problems of information overload in the trademark context. Here, in the context of social tensions, the echo chamber is even more dangerous. It’s easy to read the Drudge Report or Huffington Post and pat yourself on the back — left shoulder or right, as the case may be — for being so clever as to believe things that other smart (or sometimes smart) people are saying. It’s quite another to force yourself to question your beliefs by reading things that challenge them. Moreover, the loss of shared communal experiences (something that Sunstein correctly bemoans) means that you’re losing out on beliefs and values that you may not even know about.

And now for something completely different….  Not only were the pundits of the 1950s wrong about themselves. They also got the future wrong. Witness this 1959 cover of Superman, where the Big Blue Boy Scout battles evil-doers from the year 2000, who use ray guns from flying cars.

Me, my 2001 Tiburon doesn’t fly, let alone possess a ray gun. But thank goodness it can get NPR on Satellite radio (as well as Fox and CNN).

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