Prof. Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago opines against the Internet in his article The Daily Me, due to its ability to present ‘customised’ news that is pre-filtered to suit the readers preconceived ideas.
Of course the power to personalize makes life much more convenient and in some ways much better. But from the standpoint of democracy, the rise of “The Daily Me” is a mixed blessing. For democracy to work, people must be exposed to topics and ideas they would not have chosen in advance.
In short, good citizenship requires far more than countless editions of the Daily Me. Democracy is undermined when people choose to live in echo chambers of their own design. The task for the future is to find ways to ensure that the Internet reduces, and does not increase, the risk of social fragmentation.
This does indeed raise some interesting points and I too have sounded off about how unwise it is to reside in a news-ghetto in which one is fed a diet of insular pabulum. Yet the ghetto that I had in mind is actually the mainstream media which, even more in the USA than in Britain, is in reality a near intellectual mono-culture of recycled received wisdoms presented within a profoundly statist meta-context. Nothing in print or on TV even approaches the variety of superb insights, loopy conspiracy theories, pedantic disections and pointers to obscure stories that can be found on-line.
Thus I would argue that there is a subtext to Sunstein’s remarks. Perhaps the source of his disquiet is that people will no longer choose to allow themselves to be propagandised quite so easily as was the case when BigMedia(tm) ruled the ink and airwaves unchallenged. I suspect that customised news from the established media’s on-line outlets is not all that perturbs the good Professor. Although news collection remains the realm of well resourced established media companies, the oligopoly of interpreting what the crude news data actually means has been broken forever. Just refer to Glenn Reynold’s article on instapundit a few days ago announcing his millionth visitor (1). I suggest to you that in our own small but growing way, the newsblog movement is contributing to this disquiet in academia who are, even more than the media companies themselves, the distilled essence of the ‘qualified’ purveyors of opinions. Yet the Internet can, and indeed has, provided a true market place for punditry that is aggressively non-deferential, fact-checking and dissecting the ‘experts’ in near real time… and some people out there do not much like it.
The new wave of ‘instapundits’, for Glenn is indeed the one who started humming the note picked up by the ever growing swarm, are saying things the main stream media would regard as commercial suicide regardless of what they actually believe to be true. For example how many mainstream journalists would admit to being profoundly ambivalent about democracy or admit to rejecting the very concept of exclusive national citizenship that Prof. Sunstein thinks so important? Yet that is what I think and I can say so without incurring the ire of a media proprietor. You do not have to agree with either of these views and that is the beauty of it all: I don’t really give a damn either way because I have no pecuniary interest in your views as a reader. I am not selling your eyeball time to advertisers or worrying about ratings, so if you decide the articles on the Samizdata are just so much pixilated flatulence and thus decline to come back, we will still be propounding our views of the world come what may. Regardless of whether or not Cass Sunstein approves, new and controversial voices are indeed being heard: after all, you are reading this!
Thanks to Basia Jedrzejowicz for pointing out the orginal article.
(1) = Editors update, September 2003: Instapundit had its 25 millionth visitor & Samizdata.net is well past one million visitors ourselves