News and blog

Exploring Common Knowledge by Emma G. (Year 11)

Exploring Common Knowledge by Emma G. (Year 11)

Inspired by events that she attended during the Cambridge Festival, including talks on "Common Knowledge" and "Mathematics Anxiety", Emma G. researched and produced essays on both of these topics.

Common knowledge is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “something that is known to many people but often not made known officially”.

It seems similar to common sense, but this is an important distinction to be made from the start: common sense is something we learn from a very young age through experience, for example, it is common sense not to drink spoiled milk, while common knowledge is taught, for example, that the Earth revolves around the sun. We will be discussing common knowledge.

Common knowledge is standardly seen as being Constructivist. To understand this approach, picture a tall tower of scaffolding, with every pole and plank being a piece of common knowledge. This model is problematic, as this scaffolding leaves no room for change, and suggests that knowledge is built up in order, rather than overlapping and everchanging. Ludwig Wittgenstein reenvisaged common knowledge through a Relationalist approach. In this theory, imagine a riverbed, with rocks, dirt and small particles being the pieces of common knowledge. These build up an infrastructure for water to move over. Due to the movement of the water (new knowledge), the riverbed changes and adapts to the movement of water. This is key in understanding that common knowledge isn’t fixed, and that what we view as ‘normal’ can change, and we need to adapt rapidly, since we live in a developing society.

Instead of this lively, dynamic, powerful river, now picture a calm, still lake. This lake is protected by trees and has little wildlife. The same family visit the lake annually and stay on the same yacht. There aren’t any factors forcing the rocks, dirt or small particles in the depths of the lake to move or change at all. This is what we call an echo chamber. Echo chambers are defined as “situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal”.

This is problematic, as there is no room for new ideas to be included, or some other relevant voices are even actively excluded and discredited. A similar term not to confuse is a filter bubble. This is a “state of intellectual isolation that can result from personalised searches when a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user, such as location, past-click behaviour and search history”.

How echo chambers differ from filter bubbles is that other viewpoints may be allowed in, but when they are, they are purposefully distorted or undermined. Echo chambers are therefore more opinionated than mere filter bubbles; they actively promote some ideas and denigrate others.

It is common for a particular group to create a filter bubble, and for this to develop into an echo chamber as the members become more closed-minded and opinionated. Theoretically, echo chambers may be escapable, but we have little reason to expect members of echo chambers to realise that they are in need to escape from anywhere; they are perfectly comfortable in their yacht on the lake.

Echo chambers and filter bubbles are harmful to society, where fake news is continually being spread. Fake news can be disseminated by companies seeking ‘clicks’, political actors seeking influence or fame, or simply users who have misunderstood a piece of information. In a time when many teenagers rely on social media to inform themselves on the latest stories, fake news is a real danger. This can lead to extreme polarisation, defined as a “condition where political officials and ordinary citizens are so deeply divided that there is no basis for compromise or even productive communication among them”.

Here, members of echo chambers and filter bubbles exposed to fake news will only have access to these, as the algorithms of these sites produce content that will satisfy the user. If polarisation becomes even more extreme; society will become a monotonous mass market with all individuality squeezed out.

All these factors produce a loop:

> filter bubbles > echo chambers > fake news > polarisation

The only way to escape from an echo chamber is, firstly, by realising that you’re part of one.

This seems obvious, but it is the most difficult step. From then, it is easier to find reliable sources for news and engage in further, diverse and inclusive reading. It can take courage to leave the luxurious yacht, and go kayaking in rapid waters, but it is only these experiences that allow you to shake up your mind’s riverbed.

Return to Scholars' Showcase 2021