Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cass Sunstein on the Internet and Democracy

Cass R. Sunstein has a provocative essay in the Dec. 14, 2007 issue of the Chronicle Review, insert of the Chronicle of Higher Education. I can't link to it for you, but if you have a password, you can read it at http://chronicle.com/, or see it in print. You can find, however, similar essays -- he's been working on these ideas for a while -- at some other sites on the internet: Boston Review, 2001, titled, "The Daily We: Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?" Sunstein updates his thinking in his book, Republic.com 2.0 2.0 from Princeton University Press (2007) (this book replies to critics of his earlier Republic.com).

All 3 essays and books take off from the ease the Internet allows users to filter information and news to conform to their own opinions, to avoid hearing or reading material that might cause them to rethink these opinions. There are sorting tools like the Amazon.com algorithm that informs you that "readers who looked at this title, also looked at X, and ultimately bought Y." Using things like this, choosy Internet browsers can easily sort the news, links and social networks so they see only what pleases them and meet folks who believe just as they do.

Sunstein sees this sorting of people into enclaves of the like-minded as poison to the ideals of democracy. As a librarian, I was inculcated with the liberal (in the old fashioned sense) ideal that there is a market place of ideas, where good ideas and bad ones battle it out, and the good ones prevail. This little trope underlies the librarian dogma that censorship is WRONG. The problem was, I had a radical library school professor, Michael Harris, who also gave us readings that challenged this world view (wow, does that sound like a microcosm of Sunstein's worries about the Internet? How post-modern and ironic!). What Sunstein sees as a new problem created by the rise of the Internet was already in place in the print world. Most people only read things that accorded with their world view. And if they were required to read things that challenged their world view, they often misinterpreted it to support their own views.

Geez, I feel like a misanthrope!

2 comments:

Harry said...

Do you mean The Polarization of Extremes?

Betsy McKenzie said...

Yes, that is the title. Sorry I did not include it. The Dec. 14 issue of the Chronicle.