Echoes in the Invisible College

Piers YoungThoughts2 Comments

Echo chambers, if I understand them, are the direct descendants of the Invisible College concept, an oldie but goldie that served to form the British Royal Society. What makes them different comes from their visibility and open access rather than their exclusivity. What makes them valuable today is that visibility, because that way leads fresh thinking, and that way leads balanced thinking.

What is an Invisible College?
An Invisible College is a group of peers, typically from different disciplines and with different viewpoints, who band together round a shared interest. So far, so echo chamberish?

The term was probably first used by Robert Boyle c. 1644. When his father died, Boyle inherited a bundle of land in Ireland and an estate in Dorset, and he was consequently sufficiently well-off to give up his to study and scientific research. He

“soon took a prominent place in the band of inquirers, known as the “Invisible College,” who devoted themselves to the cultivation of the “new philosophy.” They met frequently in London, often at Gresham College; some of the members also had meetings at Oxford, and in that city Boyle went to reside in 1654 … In 1663 the “Invisible College” became the ‘Royal Society of London for improving natural knowledge.'”

– Source: Wikipedia

In the 1960’s, Derek de Solla Price reintroduced the term in his work on scholarly communication. He hits on two issues which are critical to Echo Chambers – information overload (yup – that bugbear) and new fields.

“It used to be that scientists learned about what their colleagues did by reading journals. Actually they used to read books, then things moved so fast they read only papers, then even faster so they read only letters to the editor in their rapid publication journals. Now they are moving so fast that they do not read but telephone each other, and meet at society meetings and conferences, preferably in beautiful hotels in elegant towns around the world. They get by in what are now called “invisible colleges” of little groups of peers. They are small societies of everybody who is anybody in each little particular speciality. These groups are very efficient for their purpose and, somewhere along the line, people eventually write [their findings and thoughts] up.”

– Source: Derek de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science, New York: Columbia University Press, 1963

Then, a few years later, along came the sociologist Diana Crane. She analyzed the ways in which social structures influence the development of ideas. According to Crane, participation in an Invisible College bolsters morale, inspires a sense of purpose, provides criticism, maintains solidarity, and focuses interest on particular issues. Perhaps most importantly, members of an invisible college see themselves as part of a complex network, not members of a special interest group [Source: Diana Crane, Invisible Colleges, 1972]

It seems there are some clear parallels here between Invisible Colleges and Echo Chambers. The main difference, of course, is that little thing called the internet. It’s turned Invisible Colleges into visible, and sometimes loud, Echo Chambers.

Seeing the Invisible College
Citation analysis and Social Network Analysis have given us the tools to see these Invisible Colleges. Night goggles, if you like. And these night goggles allow us to see Invisible Colleges not just in the academic domain, but in any domain that uses the Internet to to publish opinions, be they via email, blogs etc. All that stuff means you can quickly build up a picture of who’s in your cosmos, and equally importantly, whose cosmoses you’re in and whose you aren’t.

– Source: ASIS

Why is this valuable? Classical Rhetoric, really. Unless you can consider different points of view, and counter them or suggest compromises, your opinion’s not going to get much bandwidth. Or, as Joi Ito puts it

“My traditional Japanese community, my crypto/security community, my feminist friends, my liberal political community and my latte-drinking, orkut-loving, IRC-addicted community all have opinions about what I write. I think about what their opinions will be when I write and I find that this helps me look at any issue from a variety of perspectives. They are each echo chambers in their own way, but I try to escape this echo chamber not by denying their existence or their influence over me, but by recognizing them and using a combination of communities to help me and my readers triangulate.”

Nuke the bastards
Echo Chambers, though, seem to be fast becoming a dirty word. (Perhaps they should be called E*** Chambers). Dave Winer, currently enjoying organising BloggerCon 2, says that

one of the themes is going to be Nuking The Echo Chamber. I’m going to ask each of the moderators to find a way to work that into the discussions they lead. These conferences are stringing out into a series. This one follows the O’Reilly Emerging Technology conf, where the they identified this problem. How do we methodically and systematically overcome the tendency for echo chambers to form and self-perpetuate.”

Now, given the Invisible College pedigree, “nuking”, as is so often the case, just doesn’t seem like the most sensible course of action.

But if Echo Chambers are just Invisible Colleges plus Connectivity why all the vitriol? Because, I suspect, of what the connectivity brings with it. Because you can now “see” invisible colleges, because these colleges are now open access, and because the shared interest – the focus around which new Invisible Colleges are built – is now no longer just academic, but political too. Most of all, the visibility of Echo Chambers has brought with it a a knee-jerk “Oh my God, I’m more liberal than that” reaction. Danah hits the nail on the head: it’s the old Naturalistic Fallacy, the is vs ought debate. For sure, I’m no great fan of tolerating the intolerant. But the whole thrust of the Invisible College idea (and so echo chambers) is you work wih the categories you’ve got, and try to improve them. You don’t just raze them to the ground.

A Plea for Nuclear Disarmament
Echo Chambers have a valuable pedigree in the Invisible College. Just as with the Invisible College, by allowing like-minded individuals to argue over, agree over, and develop new ideas, Echo Chambers facilitate new thinking and specialism. But Echo Chambers do more: they are visible, open access versions of Invisible Colleges, and as such allow generalism. Their visibility allows those same like-minded individuals to look out and see where their thinking lives on the landscape. Their open access allows others to look in and appraise and critique.

Nuking Echo Chambers is, to use an – ahem – gentler phrase, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. How about giving people the benefit of the doubt, allowing for them to be curious? Why not just concentrate on building tools for better visibility and access?

Or have I missed the point?

[Postscript: I completely take Danah’s point about logging on for self-validation rather than self-education. I’m not sure I agree, or that it’s a useful standpoint to take, but if it’s true, then aren’t echo chambers (in the perjorative sense of the word) why people log on in the first place?]

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