0454 – the echochamber is the siren

Almost two weeks ago, I voted for the first time, in Singapore’s general elections 2015. It was a pleasant and quick process.

But what was really interesting was the results. To have my assumptions and expectations about the results face off against reality (which doesn’t give a shit).

I had naively assumed that the rest of the country would more or less see things the way I saw them, or fit into my mental model of what was going on, and I assumed that the opposition parties would make more slow-and-steady progress. I thought the opposition would hold on to all its seats, maybe gain one or two SMCs, and maybe gain one GRC, two if they were really lucky. My worst case (for the opposition) scenario was– no change in seats. I hadn’t expected that Punggol East would lose a seat, and I definitely didn’t imagine that the total votes would go up to 69.9% towards the PAP. I thought maybe at most 65%. I was hoping for something between 57 and 59%, and I would’ve bet it being 60-63%. 69.9% was completely outside of my range of expectations.

I was wonderfully proven to have a completely broken model of reality.

It made it clearer than ever that I live and breathe within an echo-chamber that isn’t representative of reality. Which further cements my realization that my echo-chamber probably isn’t very useful to me. The best it does is give me superficial good-feels, which are at best pleasant to smile at, and at worst, mislead me into making false maps of the world.

Actually, “at best / at worst” doesn’t quite capture the situation properly. At best / at worst suggests a range of possible outcomes, from which you pick one. (At best $100, at worst $10.)

In this case, both the best and worst “outcomes” occur simultaneously. Indulging in an echo-chamber does give me superficial good-feels (not super-reliably either, but in a rather unpredictable, variable way– which I realize is an attribute associated with addictive things like casino slots).

And the false map is consistent and reliable– that is, regardless of whether I’m getting good feels or not, I’m consistently screwing up my map of reality by being in an echo-chamber. Variable, unpredictable wins, consistent, ugly losses. Which is very similar to other problems I have. Smoking is intermittent pleasure but consistently bad for health. So is sleep deprivation. So is a high-sugar diet.

If I want my life to get better than the cluster of local maxima points that I’ve been hanging around, I’m going to have to systematically eliminate the bad deals (smoking, sleep deprivation, high-sugar diet, obsessing about things when I don’t have skin in the game).

So… what now? It means that I really shouldn’t bother reading 99% of the crap that I read. This isn’t a new realization, but it’s one that’s getting reinforced over and over. It makes very little sense for me to care about the things that I cannot directly influence and I’m not directly accountable for. It’s tempting to think that this makes me some sort of irresponsible global citizen (and I’ve heard several different people say the same thing– that they feel some sort of burden or debt to society that they need to repay). But the thing is… the best thing we can do for society is to make a difference where we CAN make it.

It’s improbable that I’d have been able to make much of a dent in the outcome in Singapore’s general elections– and did I really, truly want to, anyway? Did I really believe deep deep down that it was the most important thing I needed to do with my life? No. It was just a sort of mood that I got swept up in. And I think these moods are basically the softer versions of mob mentality. We look at a riot on TV and think, wow, I’d never be a part of that. But that’s a luxury we have when we’re not actually surrounded by people who are enraged. It’s like thinking that we’re civilized and morally upright and all those things. If there’s no skin in the game, it’s a convenient, feel-good belief.

So… what I really need to do is to disengage from the mob as far as I can. I don’t want to get reactionary and angry– I think that was a mistake I made earlier on (though… it seems from a few different sources that it’s a necessary phase that people go through in their development. When you find out that you’ve been wrong, it’s very natural to get angry and to want some sort of payback.

The problem is that this anger doesn’t necessarily get expressed in the most effective way to make any sort of tangible difference. It’s primal scream therapy– makes you feel better in the moment, but doesn’t address the root causes of the distress, and so the distress will be recurring.

Many of us will live our lives in cycles of getting angry and frustrated, screaming out, and then getting angry and frustrated all over again. You can see this playing out on Facebook, maybe reddit and Tumblr. But these places aren’t representative of everybody. There’s a selection bias going on. These are the places people go to in order to express their frustration, and so you get all this information that has been selected-for, rather than an accurate picture of reality.

Tactful, conscious disengagement is necessary. I don’t think it’s possible to be a complete robot and be completely distanced from things, but it’s surely helpful to at least be mindful.

And of course, to focus on the things that I CAN actually change and influence. Right now, I’m writing this, finishing up an old vomit that I had left in my inbox on Evernote. This will be done, and my inbox will be cleared, and I can go on to focusing on my work. If I do my work effectively, I can make a difference to my company, which is part of the broader ecosystem that I care about. The most patriotic thing I can do is to become an awesome, effective individual who kicks butt at work.

I know this to be true. I need to act in accordance with this knowledge.

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