A huge challenge for our world today is the way we get stuck in our own echo-chambers and fact bubbles. The world is a large and incredibly complex place. We never truly know that much about any one thing. We might be an expert in our field of study, we might be an expert in the area we work in, and we might have a hobby that has made us an unofficial expert in a random thing, but we can never truly know everything there is about a subject or topic. As a result, we rely on a body of knowledge that is incomplete to make assumptions to form a belief about the world.
Colin Wright writes about these fact bubbles in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, “We also find ourselves stuck inside fact bubbles which reinforce our existing ideologies, and which fail to provide us with full context, with complete, accurate information, and which leave us, as a result, holding worldviews that are not based on accurate representations of what’s happening.” This is not a new problem in human history, but it feels like it is a more acute problem today than it has been in the past. We have more access to information today than any humans before us, but the overwhelming tidal wave of information that we can focus on puts us in a position where we have to make choices about the information we take in. We can build a world for ourselves in which our worldview is always reinforced, and never seriously challenged. We can create a world in which all of our problems are blamed on some “other” who we must vilify in order to improve things. We advocate for specific ways that we think the world should organize itself because it is what we see, what we know, and what is familiar for us.
These bubbles however, are incredibly limited and our singular perspective does not accurately represent the complete range of experiences and possibilities for the human condition. As a response to these bubbles, many people advocate for stepping outside our groups and tribes to understand the worldviews and ideas of others. I do not think this is realistic advice.
The world is busy and we only have a limited amount of time and attention to direct toward any given thing. Trying to take in information that we can understand and identify is in many ways a by product of long work hours, long commutes, too much information to know where to focus, and a world that seems to place unlimited demands on our thoughts and actions. Rather than trying to jam in more time reading things that challenge us or listening to news that might spike our blood pressure, I instead advocate for more self-awareness. Recognize how frequently we act and are inspired by a story that makes us look like the hero. Acknowledge the times when you select something to read because it looks like it will already fit in with what you want to believe. Be aware that your perspective on the world is incomplete and that the information you absorb is limited and filtered to present the world a certain way. We likely won’t be eliminating bubbles from our lives any time soon, but we can at least acknowledge their existence and recognize that we don’t have the certainty we would like about the information that helps us know what is really happening in the world.
Scott Russel Sanders continues in his letter of advice for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, writing about self awareness, spirituality, and philosophical ideas. Towards the end of his letter he writes, “To understand as well as we can who we truly are and in what sort of world we have been set down may be our most important task.” What I like about this quote is that it takes away the importance of obtaining material things and addresses the questions or doubts that we all constantly sift through. For Sanders, what he is showing in this quote is the value of objectively understanding ourselves, the world, and our place in it.
The first part of Sanders quote speaks to me about the purpose of self reflection. Being able to think about what we are good at, what we enjoy and why, and what we truly want in life will help us find a path that is comfortable and appropriate for us. This is a truly important task for each of us, because an increased self awareness will allow us to begin to live our lives intentionally rather than living in a reactionary way. We do not have to chase the goals that our friends, the media, religion, and family tell us we need to chase. Self awareness and knowing who we are and what we truly desire will allow us to find a meaningful path to follow to a destination that we will be happy with.
The second half of Sanders quote seems to be a little more difficult in my opinion. I have come across many people who write and speak about self awareness, and while the road to self awareness is bumpy and full of obstacles (especially when you first set out) the road to a true understanding of the world we are in is more challenging and subjective. Self reflection (examining your goals, desires, motivations, and skills) takes practice and it can be hard to learn that life should not be judged by the sports car you drive, but there seems to be something more challenging about finding true sources for understanding the world. We will each approach the world with different perspectives and experiences, and we will each appropriate separate values to ideas and topics. I do not think we can honestly understand the world if we have not first mastered honestly knowing ourselves, and then it is a constant practice to source out the good and bad information. I am not saying, and I don’t think that Saunders would either, that we should just look for positive information about the world, but that we should search for objective information about things that will actually matter and have meaningful impacts in the world. With the avalanche of information on the internet, it is easy to get lost among fake news stories that do not represent the true world we live in. At the same time we can all have so many unique niche interests that we investigate and learn about, and each of these interests build new experiences and perspectives through which we can understand the world.
I think that Sanders in reaction to my writing would say that the first step to fulfilling our important task on this planet is to understand ourselves, including our perspective and how our experiences have shaped our perspectives. Next, Sanders would argue that we absorb as many other perspectives as possible, to help us begin to view the world in a new and meaningful way. This would involve vigorous research on our part to sift through the nonsense and gossip.