Try to warn about coming dangers in the Internet age, or try to praise
the democratic promise of the Net, and you quickly find yourself speaking
instant clichés, undone by somebody else's clichés, or sunk
by yesterday's headlines.
Wisdom tells a writer to wait it out, until activity cools into pattern.
On grounds like these, I have often put down my pen since 1994, when
the Web first crept into view. Something big was out there—who
could doubt it? Knowing what to applaud or criticize was the problem.
Cass Sunstein takes up his pen at a moment of truth for the Net as
a public space. His essay distills that moment, telling us where we
are in democratic time. And he does it with calm intention: to defend
the principle of public space on the Net, and tell law and social policy
to get going, or the moment may be lost.
Of all things praiseworthy in his essay, the tone needs mention. I
would call it anti-hype, neither agog nor aghast, in contact with developments
but not encased in the news. Sunstein's method (the phrase is Todd Gitlin's)
is to "de-excite" and thereby retrieve civic hope from doomed hype.
The opposite of hype is never truth or "facts," for hype has truth
swirling around in it, and facts it generates with ease. Hype is countered
by a cooler language game. Consider, for example, Sunstein's skill with
midlevel principles. These lie in between grand claims about the Internet
("a great boon for democracy") and the forest of detail where we easily
get lost (will Salon.com go bankrupt? Is UNIX taking over?). His midlevel
ideas negotiate between the two, enabling thoughtful and informed debate,
and seeking a democratic outcome.
Two levels that Sunstein isolates are the importance of "unanticipated
encounters" in a democratic culture and "common experiences" as a public
good. What counts are things like people's "exposure to material they
did not specifically choose" and the "range of chance encounters" they
have when connected. If lawmakers, regulators, public interest groups,
cyberwatchers, or even enlightened executives care, they'll think with
these principles and occasionally act on them.
Sunstein's essay does a further thing of value. It allows us to spend
quality time in the political economy of public attention. That is what
he diagnoses so well in his examples of personalized filtering. It's
not only that people can now choose the Daily Me and abandon the Daily
We. It's also: Who in our society truly cares about preserving the We
(a public sphere in a wired world), and who is willing to go on dismantling
or devaluing or defunding it?
Peruvians learned an interesting fact about their government during
the wild scandals involving the corrupt intelligence chief Vladimiro
Montesinos, who had almost everyone with influence on his payroll. For
the big national broadcasters that he intimidated, bribed, and then
videotaped, Montesinos had some advice: keep politics off the air as
much as possible, or else. Not just the opposition and its demands (that
went without saying), but politics itself was suppressed, in
favor of game shows, soap operas, and sports.
Here we see at an earlier and cruder sociological stage the political
significance of commercial choice. Like any tyrant, Montesinos wanted
to control everything, though he couldn't. His method was to ensure
that no broad public ever developed for national politics—no taste,
as it were, for politics among ordinary Peruvians. The state might then
use the verdict of popular choice ("people prefer to be entertained")
against forces in Peru that would try to televise the drama of self-government,
including any contest of ideas.
Montesinos didn't want a public sphere breaking out while he was concentrating
his power—not surprising. What's surprising is his keen grasp
of the situation. If the state prevented the public sphere from competing
in the broader attention marketplace, it could allow a relatively "open"
contest of ideas among educated elites, those who do read the newspapers.
Ah, but knowing voices say, the problem for us is different. Here,
the public sphere is not suppressed: it competes and loses! If it's
a choice between Jim Lehrer and Larry King, Americans are going to choose
the entertainer, King—but not because the government forced anyone's
hand. That's democracy, or at least market democracy, or just realism.
Two things about this realist outlook. First, a factual matter: Jim
Lehrer and PBS kill Larry King and CNN in the ratings. Three to one,
four to one is common. Second, when the public sphere competes in the
attention marketplace, the places where it can "win" go well beyond
the marketplace. We cannot just look at ratings battles or whether the
New Republic or Redbook magazine sells more copies.
The public sphere, a place where strangers find their footing as citizens,
wins when elites care about it. It wins when professionals elect to
serve it. It wins when judges and lawmakers respect it. It wins when
foundations insist on sustaining it. It wins when journalists write
dispatches from it. And it wins when people who don't care about the
public sphere at all have to do things for it—or lose face, feel
pressure, court censure, alienate the wrong crowd.
Sunstein is right: consumer sovereignty competes against political
sovereignty in an ideological contest. The audience as god to be served
competes against the public, which is a different god term. Personal
choice and private life compete for time against political choice and
public life. Communities of interest compete for space with the larger
polity and its interests. Ratings winners compete for legitimacy with
winners of respect.
Should we have both? Sunstein says we should. But we have to protect
both, by allowing the public sphere to compete, not only "in" the marketplace,
but also with the marketplace when it comes to setting priorities.
Sunstein locates us in Internet Time, and calls it a democratic moment.
Ours to lose, in other words. •
Jay Rosen is chair of the journalism department at New York
University and author of What
Are Journalists For?
Return to the forum on democracy
and the internet, with Cass Sunstein and responses.