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Mere mouse-clicks away from a staggering abundance of information--nine billion web pages indexed by Google and still counting--consumers in the digital age enjoy an unprecedented range of options and an unrivalled power to pick and choose according to individual tastes and preferences. Online stores deliver up personalized recommendations based on our past shopping habits to help us find the books or films or music most likely to interest us. Blogs and online chat rooms connect us with like-minded people discussing the topics we enjoy from the perspectives we prefer. Even our news can be personalized to match our tastes, with a growing number of sites allowing us to customize our headlines and choose what types of stories we get to see. Technology guru Nicholas Negroponte's concept of a perfectly customized news site tailored to a person's interests and preferences--the "Daily Me," as he dubbed it in 1995--has gone from futuristic vision to reality.
But as Cass Sunstein argues in Republic.com 2.0, a revised version of his 2001 book Republic.com, "we should evaluate new communications technologies, including the Internet, by asking how they affect us as citizens and not by asking how they affect us as consumers" (119). And although the dramatic increase in our freedom to choose is an indisputable boon from the standpoint of consumers, from our standpoint as citizens, the case is not so clear. Despite the glut of information at our fingertips--over 180 million websites, 130 million blogs, 70 million YouTube videos--many people are primarily hearing just louder echoes of their own voices, Sunstein warns, and the growing power of consumers to filter what they see and read, to restrict themselves to topics and views of their own choosing, may be detrimental to the democratic process.
Lucid and thought-provoking, Republic.com 2.0 raises important concerns about the state of democracy in the digital age and the dangers of new technologies that make it easy for people to retreat inside the bubble of the Daily Me. From the rapid spread of false or distorted information through "cyber-cascades" to the growing balkanization of opinion and even extremism that can result when people insulate themselves from competing perspectives in echo chambers and information cocoons, we have ample evidence, Sunstein argues, of the hazards of an increasingly "personalized" communications market. The central goal of the book, however, is not to attack the Internet or any particular form of technology, but to explore the cultural prerequisites for a successful democracy and to defend a particular conception of the meaning of freedom in a democratic society.
Contrary to an increasingly widespread tendency to equate freedom with unrestricted choice--a tendency, in his view, that underpins our enthusiasm for the concept of the Daily Me and its promise of an unlimited power to filter--Sunstein argues that the idea of choice does not exhaust the idea of freedom and, in fact, that unrestricted choice can sometimes undermine democratic ideals. Given that choices can sometimes reflect or even produce a lack of freedom--as is the case, for example, when people choose alternatives that limit their own horizons--what matters from the standpoint of freedom is not simply that people are able to satisfy whatever preferences they happen to have without restrictions on choice, but also that they are in a position to form desires and preferences under appropriate conditions, including, according to Sunstein, "exposure to a sufficient amount of information and also to an appropriately wide and diverse range of options" (45). As paradigms for democracy's defeat, we have not just the "omnipresent, choice-denying Big Brother" of George Orwell's 1984 but also the "pacified, choice-happy, formally free citizenry" of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Sunstein reminds us in his preface. And against those who celebrate the Daily Me as a model for freedom, we have John Dewey's admonition: "No man and no mind was ever emancipated merely by being left alone."
In order to ensure that we have a well-functioning democracy, Sunstein argues, we need to do more than simply avoid censorship and restrictions on choice, important as that is. We also need to cultivate a certain kind of culture, one in which citizens are exposed to a wide variety of ideas and opinions that they would not have sought out in advance, while also sharing a range of common experiences and reference points, the "social glue" necessary for mutual understanding. But to the extent that niche markets, echo chambers, and information cocoons prevail, he warns, we instead risk degenerating into an increasingly fragmented and polarized society where prospects for genuine public debate and reasoned exchange of ideas--the mainstays of deliberative democracy--are imperiled.
Discussions of any developing technology, the Internet included, tend to fall into two extremes: gushing optimism, on the one hand, or doom-mongering pessimism, on the other hand. Sensibly, Republic.com 2.0 avoids both extremes. While Sunstein draws attention to some of the dangers of our online habits, he also acknowledges the tremendous promise of the Internet and neither claims that the dangers he discusses are inevitable--"Everything depends on what people seek to do with the new opportunities they have" (93), he argues--nor concludes that on balance we are worse off because of them. Indeed, he has little patience for nostalgic mythologizing about a supposedly idyllic pre-Internet past. "For us, nostalgia is not only unproductive but also senseless," he writes. "Things are getting better, not worse" (7).
At the same time, however, Sunstein convincingly shows that in an age of "YouTube elections" and "Twitter debates," blithe complaisance about the effects of technology on democracy would be misplaced. A recent Pew study shows that increasing percentages of online news consumers are seeking out information from partisan sites sharing their own viewpoint, and any foray into the political blogosphere is enough to confirm that echo chambers abound. But whether our insular online habits are a cause or just a symptom of our increasingly polarized electorate, Sunstein is certainly right that the mere fact that the Internet offers unfettered access to unlimited information does not by itself make the Web a force for democracy, as some cyber-optimists seem to think. There also has to be an accompanying respect for genuine deliberation and a widespread commitment to seeking out competing ideas and perspectives. After all, more speech doesn't do much good to those who can't hear it inside their own private information cocoons.
Sunstein's claim is not that most people who use the Internet are uninterested in or hostile to expanding their horizons. It is likely that many people, perhaps even most, are in fact eager to explore a range of topics and viewpoints and to exchange ideas with a diverse range of people. But his point is that we can't afford to take that for granted. "To work well, a deliberative democracy had better have many such people," he writes. "It cannot possibly function without them" (192). That's a point often overlooked in the heady libertarianism dominating much thinking about the Internet, which sees a system of free speech as just a marketplace of ideas and information as just another consumer commodity--so that from the standpoint of freedom, it doesn't matter whether I choose to read only partisan news sources or no news at all, any more than it matters whether I choose to buy pink or blue sneakers or none at all. Against this creeping tendency to conflate the notion of freedom with the notion of consumer choice, Sunstein gives a thoughtful defense of a democratic conception of free speech that, building on ideas from James Madison and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, interprets free speech in terms of the ideals of deliberative democracy and sees informed public discussion as a civic duty.
Somewhat underwhelming, however, is Sunstein's discussion of possible policies and proposals that might help us enlist our new technologies in the service of this vision of a well-functioning democracy. Though he argues, persuasively, that the popular view that the Web should be free from government regulation is incoherent--without legally conferred and government enforced property rights, a "quintessential form of government regulation" (155), the owners of websites would not really be owners at all, he points out--Sunstein favors purely private solutions, such as voluntary self-regulation, to the problems he discusses in the book. It's not clear how effective some of these proposals would be. As Sunstein says, however, the goal of the book is not to provide a policy manual. "What is most important," he argues, is to promote "general awareness of the importance of deliberation to a well-functioning democracy, and of deliberation among people who do not agree" (194). Carefully argued, well balanced, and accessible to a general audience, Republic.com 2.0 is surely a good start.
© 2009 Elisabeth Herschbach
Elisabeth Herschbach has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches in Rhode Island.