GRUMPY OLD MAN: Those howling echoes

Echo chambers are supposed to make us feel secure in our beliefs. In reality, they just make us deaf.

Illustrative photo (photo credit: HUGH MACLEOD/FLICKR)
Illustrative photo
(photo credit: HUGH MACLEOD/FLICKR)
And so it comes to this, my 154th column and my last. I’m sure that some of you, perhaps many, don’t mind and are actually glad. But that’s alright. I could have appeared in another publication more suited to my centrist and left-of-center views, although that would have been a cop-out, leaving me to pound out those views in an echo chamber.
Think a bit about that term. Pretty self-explanatory. The echoes in that closed space are the feedback that mimics the message, with nary a contrarian sound to be heard.
Now think about the word “feedback.” It has come to mean responses to anything enunciated or inscribed that has a firm stance or opinion tacked on. In that echo chamber, it’s pretty uniform. But I grew up playing electric guitar in basement bands, so I look at the word in a slightly different way.
BACK IN the late 1960s and early 1970s, loudness ruled much of the music scene. Loud was good. Noise was good, too. Sure, the basis was music, but as an electric guitarist, the idea was to stand close to your amplifier with your Stratocaster or Les Paul, hit a deep chord or pick several mid-level notes that were slightly out of phase or not entirely harmonic, hold them and then wait for the “loop.”
A loop of this sort begins when what you play goes into your pickups, which are magnetic microphones that transform vibrations from metal guitar strings into electronic impulses. The impulses are transferred through a cable to your amplifier, whose job is to make sense of them and send them to the speakers, where they come out the same, just a lot louder.
Pushing your pickups close to the speakers causes two things to happen: (1) The pickups hear the sound coming from the speakers, and (2) the sound coming from the speakers causes your guitar strings to vibrate even more, with this, too, being heard by the pickups. All of this is sent back to the amplifier and speakers, then back to the pickups and strings, back to the amplifier and speakers, and so on. Hence, the loop, popularly called in the amplification genre feedback.
After a while, the feedback takes on a life of its own, and if there’s just enough volume and input that’s out of phase, the whole thing begins to howl and wail. Think Jimi Hendrix.
Today, digital devices do the work for you and actually allow you to pre-program the howl and wail coming out of your transistorized amp. In the old days, though, with laggy tube amps and bare basics like fuzz boxes and wah-wah pedals, if you weren’t Hendrix, you never really knew where the feedback would lead. The result was a lot of old-time rockers who now are stone deaf.
To me, this is exactly what happens in the echo chambers of our news outlets.
We tend to think of these echo chambers as places to hear feedback that is entirely in sync with our beliefs. Instead, what we get is just a lot of howling and wailing that in the end leaves us deaf. That’s good enough for many of us – at least we’ll never hear anything that goes against our beliefs. Unfortunately, though, it means we’ll never hear anything that could make us sit up and entertain the notion that yes, perhaps there’s another way of thinking.
In these columns, my aim was not to howl, but to express clear and frank views that often would go against your beliefs. I wanted to make you think. I wanted you to react. I wanted to piss you off to the point where you’d be the one to howl and wail and write a letter to the editor saying so, perhaps even evoking a contrarian reaction to your letter from another reader. After all, that’s an additional hat I’ve worn here at The Jerusalem Post, and sometimes during my eight years as letters editor, especially after a particularly yawny issue of the magazine, I’d need to drum up some business.
I’M SORRY to report that some letter writers are nasty or plain vicious. There have been cuss words and even death threats and horrible things said about my wife and children. And yes, I’ve wanted to wring a few necks.
But this is nothing new. As I wrote in my first Grumpy Old Man column, “Enough to make you cry” (January 6, 2012), some letter writers “wish evil and even worse on others with whom they disagree. This in itself adds to the grump, although to be honest, in many of these cases I’m more put off by the bad grammar and poor spelling. It’s as if nasty people never studied composition. Don’t they know it’s supposed to be ‘hanged from the nearest lamppost’ and not ‘hung’?”
I’m glad, though, that most letter writers are civil and even instructive. I’ve certainly listened and even developed a fondness for letter writers who have made me see and appreciate the other side. I know that one or two have felt the same about me.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that many of us are entirely willing to step outside our personal echo chamber. We cling to our beliefs much the way a child clings to a blanket. This is because having our beliefs remain intact gives us a sense of security in the face of so many doubts. Few of us wish to go gentle into that good night, but no one wants to go into the good night full of doubts.
Me? I try to make sense of the cacophony much the way intelligence bodies cut through the noise and zero in on what’s important and new. I’ll remain ornery, though, because I know that a lot of what I hear will tell me that people still prefer to hear only what they want to hear, whether it’s about the West Bank, the power of the court system, legislation that can infringe on the democratic process, or any other issue that can effect our and our country’s longterm welfare.
I guess I’ll rage against the dying of the light the same grumpy man I was when I started. The only difference is that I’ll be six and a half years older. But I’d like to think I’ll be wiser, too. That’s because I’ve always been willing to step outside the echo chamber – and always will be.
I wish more people felt this way.