Escape from Microreality

Wednesday 25th August 2021

by Patrick Sullivan, Chairman and Chief Executive of Parliament Street

During the pandemic and the intertwining lockdowns my windows to the wider, world outside of my gilded cage was an assortment of screens. Through my phone, my tablet, my computer and my televisions I was able to see beyond the confines of my immediate surroundings. However, what I was perceiving was not real reality but, instead, reality through the prisms of my pre-existing preferences or prejudices. This is because most online platforms rely heavily upon algorithms supplying the user with a steady stream of content which reinforces their existing world view. This would never more obvious than when I would fall asleep watching YouTube with the autoplay on. 

On numerous occasions I would wake up to the dulcet tones of Rep. Louis Gohmert of Texas delivering a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Now, I have never in my life sought out to watch Congressman Gohmert but when repeated presented with a selection of his greatest hits by the YouTube algorithm I kept watching. This always resulted in me being fired up about Democratic Party maleficence for the rest of the morning when I would have been far better waking up and smelling the Roses.

My perception also became altered through having de minimis human contact. The hypochondriac in me rather foolishly wouldn’t allow myself to take full advantage during those periods when the restrictions were dialed down. Being part of a social ecosystem with frequent interpersonal interactions allows people to keep the developments of the daily news in some perspective. For instance, who the Cabinet Minister for Paperclips is will likely have no effect upon the interpersonal dynamics between most people and their friends and family.

Politics is a like stand-up comedy in the respect that one needs an audience to access how various things play. Just as a comedian might think a joke hilarious in their head but find it bombs when delivered in front of an audience, those involved in politics or policy will often think a particular thought brilliant until when trying to relay it to other people they are met with blank stares. Almost all my brilliant thoughts have been met that way. I have been saved by my afterthoughts or throw away lines gaining traction. Essentially, it has been through constantly talking through my thoughts with others and being receptive to what they are saying that has stopped me when going down roads to nowhere and spurred me on when I have been on to a winner. With almost every person I would speak to, I learned something new and gained from getting their perspective on whatever we were discussing.

Replacing the varied and nuanced opinions I would get from the assortment of different people I would come across on a day-to-day basis in the Beforetimes was, in my solitude, the bias confirmation of the algorithm. My experience prior to the pandemic was with reality but whilst I was sheltering in place in my apartment the screens and the algorithms became weapons of mass distortion leading me further and further down a rabbit hole away from the real world and to a microreality tailored towards reinforcing my pre-existing preferences or prejudices. 

Now I may think I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. My experience is not unique to me and there are many who facing similar struggles during this crisis found themselves retreating into the fresh emotional comfort blanket offered through the creation of their very own tailor, or more accurately, algorithm made microreality. Whilst, according to YouTube, my microreality has something of Louie Gohmert flavour that will not be true of the majority of the millions of microrealities that have been birthed due to the pandemic and the restrictions that came along with it. Each algorithm made microreality is going to be different for each person, as algorithms push content tailored towards each individual’s unique combination of preferences and prejudices. This means many of those on the political right will have found themselves living in conservative or populist microrealities for the better part of two years. Conversely, many of those on the political left will have found themselves living in liberal or progressive microrealities for the better part of two years.

The law of unintended consequences has it that the result of this patchwork quilt of microrealities being woven during the current crisis will be that the new normal is likely not going to include a common consciousness of agreed facts and shared perspectives. Without a common consciousness the difficulties of a population trying to have a dialogue whilst speaking at cross purposes which we saw so often during the long Brexit debate are certain to become ever more pronounced. 

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