Every month or so I search for my name on Google. I do this less out
of vanity than professional curiosity: I want to know what other people
will find when they are searching for me.
On a recent search, I found my home page at the top of the list, followed
by an article that I wrote for HotWired back in 1996, followed by a
short bio that I wrote for my book publisher. Notably absent, to my
relief, were any references to the more embarrassing things I've done
in my life.
Next, I clicked the Google button that says "Similar Pages." Quite
frankly, I was stunned. Within seconds, Google displayed links to websites
of writers and academics whose works I idolize—Phil Agre, Paulina
Borsook, Douglas Rushkoff, David Shenk, Beth Rosenberg, Brooke Shelby
Briggs, and Steve Silberman, to name a few. "That search engine has
got my number," I thought. But Google also displayed links for Madeleine
Kane, a writer that I had never heard of before but instantly liked,
and a few companies that I had never heard of but vowed to learn more
I broadened my search. I clicked into eBay, typed "Simson" and discovered
an artist named Dana Simson and a nineteenth-century German Bayonet
manufacturer that shared my name. I searched on Amazon.com and found
a book by Wolfgang Simson called Houses that Change the World
about church outreach programs; there was also a book, William and
the Magic Ring: A Shadow Casting Bedtime Story by Laura Robinson
and Suzanne Simson. That book might be fun to read with my daughter
this summer, I thought. Then, while still at the Amazon website, I clicked
on a banner ad and watched the trailer for Pearl Harbor.
By that point it was late at night and once again I had missed "All
Things Considered" on National Public Radio. That's okay: I clicked
to NPR.org and listened to the evening's show usingRealAudio.
I could go on. If I understand Cass Sunstein's argument properly, these
sort of chance encounters should be happening to me less and less on
the Internet. Instead, they seem to be happening more and more. I hear
about a company on the news and it's easy to spend a few minutes learning
about the company's stock price, the size of its workforce, its major
products, and any outstanding litigation. I am not only more informed—I
am better informed.
It's all too easy to mourn for the days when the United States had
three television networks, when there were five books published each
year that everybody read, and when we all had the same long distance
provider. Hell, I look nostalgically back to 1995, when Wired magazine
was the only publication really covering the Digital Revolution. Back
then, I knew that all my friends and business associates were reading,
or at least seeing, every article that I wrote. These days, at least
a dozen magazines are trying to cover Wired's beat, and the marketplace
of ideas has fragmented: my friends don't see my articles unless I email
But this explosion of information and the resulting audience fragmentation—what
Sunstein sees as a growing threat to democracy—isn't a result
of the Internet. On the contrary, the Internet represents our best hope
for managing information overload and, in the process, preserving democracy.
What's behind the explosion and fragmentation is the mathematics of
exponential growth. With each passing year, more people are discovering,
creating, writing, analyzing, and producing. University chemists complain
that they can't keep up with the developments in their field, that they
can't even read all the journals they receive in the mail. Computer
scientists complain that there is not enough time in the curriculum
to teach students all that they should know before graduating. Explosive
growth has even come to Egyptology, thanks to the ease with which source
materials can now be distributed by CD and online.
Sunstein is justifiably concerned that the Daily Me, in all its incarnations,
could turn its readers into fragmented Tivo-watching solipsistic consumers,
trapped in micro-communities. But this fear is not new—back in
the 1980s, when the first edition of the MIT Media Lab's Daily Me appeared
on a computer monitor, the dangers of self-selection run amok were widely
discussed by both the Lab's researchers and its sponsors. We all realized
that the project would never fly in the marketplace without at least
some articles that would be shared by all readers.
It's not hard to find examples on today's Internet that prove our fears
were justified: when I walk into a physical bookstore, I see hundreds
of interesting books that I never would have knowingly searched for.
Yet when I click into Amazon, the only "recommendations" that come up
for me are books similar to those I've already bought. I'm not worried:
Amazon is only losing sales by not showing me a wider selection. Until
Amazon does a better job, I'll keep spending some of my book dollars
in Harvard Square. Likewise, when CNN.com or NPR.org stop showing me
a variety of interesting stories from around the country and around
the world, I'll start looking elsewhere for my news.
In a way, it's ironic that Sunstein has decided to concentrate on the
dangers to democracy posed by fragmenting communities, the development
of specialty information sites, and the creation of increasingly divergent
news sources. Most commentators are far more concerned by the decreasing
variety on the Internet and the concentration of media into a few corporate
centers. When I get my news from NPR.org, I'm bypassing my local news
station and joining thousands to get my news from a single national
source. In the world of the Internet, it's increasingly hard for local
outlets to compete with the big guys. Meanwhile, many websites that
claim to offer uniquely customized "local" news are really serving up
wire service stories written by correspondents for the Associated Press
or Reuters. Independence is an illusion.
Ultimately, I'm really not sure if the Internet is more damaging to
democracy by fragmenting audiences into tiny self-segregated groups,
as Sunstein argues, or by doing the reverse. •
Simson Garfinkel is writing his tenth book about computers,
security, and privacy. He is founder of Sandstorm Enterprises and a
regular contributor to Technology Review.
Return to the forum on democracy
and the internet, with Cass Sunstein and responses.