Save the world and read a book!
Weird things have been happening this week. Our oil-fired radiator broke down in the office. Sadly it proved impossible to mend, so we had to find an alternative, and checked online for good deals. Later that day, adverts for oil-fired radiators began to appear on my Facebook and Google feeds. Then, as Sod’s Law would have it, it seemed like our car had blown its head gasket, so we had to look for a replacement vehicle. Lo and behold, a few hours later, local second-hand car dealers’ adverts were popping up every time I used Google. So, I know about cookies and algorithms, but how do you explain the fact that Rob and I just talked about getting a decorative grille for a cupboard door, and would you believe it – a whole array of them popped up in a Facebook advert. How did that happen? Spooky.
There’s a lot of discussion currently about the ‘Echo Chamber’ phenomenon, where, via the powerful algorithms that power our devices, these systems just reflect back to us what it is they think we’re interested in. Want a car? Here’s a car. Vote Leave? The economy’s booming. Hate Trump? So do all your ‘friends’. The fact is, via social media, we surround ourselves with people who agree with our worldview, so we are incredulous when elections prove that actually, we’re in the minority. We campaign about reducing plastic bag use, or supporting the NHS and not cheating women out of their pension rights – and we think we’re really getting somewhere… But sadly, the algorithms in our devices rarely let us out of our ghetto of Likes, Friends and even news preferences that validate our perspective. We don’t really know what’s going on in the world, even if we feel well informed. We only know what the cookies ‘think’ we want to know. We are living in an echo chamber.
Scary stuff, huh? Maybe not. Perhaps the old ways are the best after all? Why not switch off your devices (after finishing this blog, of course!) and step into reality once more. Today, social media tells me that we’re all doomed, the planet’s frying, hatred is winning and abuse is rife. Yet, if I step outside, the sun is shining and the sky is cloudless, the tide is high and the seagulls are wheeling on a cool north wind, my neighbour has just fed the wild birds and there are still raspberries in the garden – and guess what! The old man has just fixed the car. Not quite so bad…
And more than this, why not choose reading a book as your primary entertainment instead of scrolling bloody Facebook? Let’s face it, even with the best back cover blurb, you still don’t really know what you’re going to get in a book. You can still be amazed, moved, taken out of your comfort zone – indeed, your echo chamber – with a good book. It is through books that you can really connect with the imagination of another human being; it is through books that you can live many different lives, and find out what’s really going on. Books are less mediated than any other form of entertainment: they are not interrupted every 15 minutes by adverts imploring you to buy more crap that you don’t need; and they’re not ‘spun’ by some A-List director who has to weave the product placements of sponsors into the storyline. Books – the best ones – unlock the echo chamber, and let us step into other worlds.
Lorna Howarth is Editorial Director of The Write Factor.