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Cass Sunstein Replies
For Cass Sunstein's lead article and seven responses, click here: http://bostonreview.net/BR26.3/sunstein.html

I am extremely grateful to the commentators for their collective insight, doubt, and interest in the general project of assessing the system of communications in democratic terms. By way of response, I would like to separate two different claims:

1. A democracy requires both a range of common experiences and unanticipated, unchosen exposures to diverse topics and ideas. For those who accept this claim, democracy might well be jeopardized by a system in which each person decides, in advance, what to see and what not to see. Social fragmentation and mutual misunderstanding are likely if like-minded people are communicating only or mostly in isolated enclaves.

2. The Internet is bad for democracy, because it is reducing common experiences and producing a situation in which people live in echo chambers of their own design. For those who accept this second claim, the current communications system is inferior to one in which general interest intermediaries dominated the scene.

I endorse the first claim. My principal submission is that for a democracy to work well, people should have a common frame of reference, at least some of the time, and citizens must be exposed to topics and points of view that they did not specifically select in advance. From the democratic point of view, it is highly desirable for a democracy to contain a kind of "social architecture" that offers both shared experiences and unanticipated exposures. Notably, none of the commentators has raised any doubts about the first claim (though only Jay Rosen and Michael Schudson discuss it directly), which we might therefore take to be common ground.

But I do not endorse the second claim. I believe that the second claim is basically wrong, because the Internet is allowing millions of people to expand their horizons and to encounter new worlds of topics and ideas. Many people have a lot of curiosity, and they are eager to learn, not least about new topics and the views of those who disagree with them. Many people seek shared experiences with others. Robert McChesney is right to doubt whether there is a natural human tendency to create a Daily Me. Henry Jenkins properly insists that the old communications technologies exist alongside the new ones and that there are, and will continue to be, complex interactions between the two. In any case, Schudson is correct to insist that we do not live all of our lives through the media, and that Americans have a range of common experience in daily life. Simson Garfinkel rightly notes that searches can turn up a lot of unexpected material.

Notwithstanding my rejection of the second claim, I do mean to raise some questions, based on the first claim, about the role of the Internet in a democracy. The first claim offers a distinctive perspective on communications technologies; it suggests that we need to ask a series of empirical and regulatory questions about the Internet, if we are to assess its impact on democracy. To the extent that numerous people are "personalizing" their experience, through the creation of specifically tailored communications packages, there may well be a problem from the democratic point of view. To know whether this is a serious problem, we need much more information. We need to assemble some data about how people use the Internet, so as to know the extent to which people are exposed, most of the time, to familiar topics and congenial points of view. Are like-minded people only or mostly talking with one another? Diversity is a wonderful thing, but fragmentation carries serious social risks, and the Internet may be increasing the degree of fragmentation. The point is not that we already know whether it is, but that we need to be asking the right questions, from the standpoint of empirical inquiry and regulatory policy.

Most of the doubts raised about my essay go to the second claim; they suggest that the Internet is not likely to create problems from the standpoint of democracy. Thus Shanto Iyengar and Ronald Jacobs urge that the Internet is no threat to democracy, even if the first claim is accepted. Iyengar contends that citizens are unlikely to use new communications technologies to reinforce their existing convictions. He presents a useful study, suggesting that many people are entirely willing to seek out opinions different from their own. I would add two points. First, Iyengar's study is limited to people who voluntarily requested information about different candidates. It offers no direct information about current uses of the Internet. Because it is so narrow, and involves people who explicitly chose information about more than one candidate, it shows next to nothing about the extent to which people are limiting themselves to points of view with which they agree. Iyengar does not and could not disagree with the suggestion that many people are deliberating mostly with like-minded others, and using sites that amplify their preexisting convictions.

Second, we should be troubled, from the democratic point of view, even if some relatively small fraction of people (20 percent? 10 percent?) are using the Internet so as to restrict themselves to points of view that they antecedently hold. If the architecture of the communications system makes this kind of restriction easy, and if millions of people take advantage of the opportunity, there is a potential problem for democracy.

Iyengar also criticizes the traditional media, urging in the process that I have wrongly assumed that they "provide a meaningful and an accessible marketplace of political thought." But there is no real disagreement here. My suggestion is only that general interest intermediaries, for all their vices, perform some valuable social functions. The institutions of the evening news and the daily newspaper have offered a shared frame of reference for many millions of people. At the same time, those who read the daily newspaper encounter a number of topics and opinions that they might not have specifically selected in advance. Take a look at today's newspaper, and the point will be very clear—even if you think the newspaper is doing a lousy job. Even if general interest intermediaries are as bad as Iyengar says, something important would be missing in a fragmented communications system, in which intermediaries are bypassed.

Writing in a similar vein to Iyengar, Ronald Jacobs rejects claim two. With some helpful empirical data, he shows that some of the most popular Internet sites work very much the same way as general interest intermediaries. Indeed, they are, in a sense, general interest intermediaries. To the extent that important Internet sites are serving that social role, there is less to worry about. But Jacobs's data, like Iyengar's, is no more than suggestive. Without a great deal more detail, we will continue to lack a real sense of how people are using the Internet. In particular, we need to have a much fuller sense of the extent to which people are using the Internet to engage in deliberation only or mostly with those who are like-minded. The fact that the most popular sites contain links, advertising, and multiple news stories is interesting, but it does not show that concerns about fragmentation and self-insulation are misplaced.

Jacobs, Garfinkel, and McChesney offer other, quite different points, bearing on the second claim but going well beyond it. McChesney and Garfinkel focus on the role of large media firms; Jacobs is troubled by a possible risk, posed by the Internet, to deliberative enclaves. Of course, McChesney is right to think that if a few companies controlled the communications system, there would be a problem from the democratic point of view. But I confess that I am not sure about McChesney's (and also Garfinkel's) claims about the existing market. As he portrays the situation, "two dozen or so media firms" have a dominant position, and nascent companies are at a significant disadvantage. The mere fact that 24 or so firms have a "dominant position" need not be disturbing. This is not at all a small number, and (as I am sure McChesney would agree) a significant question is what they are doing with their position. Notwithstanding the shared concerns of McChesney and Garfinkel, websites and listservs are proliferating at an absolutely astonishing rate, and compared to any point in American history, those who want to speak, or to create communities of interest, have the ability to do so. If you spend an hour on the Internet, you'll find countless examples. Large media companies are not preventing a significant social role for innumerable information sources, and I think that Henry Jenkins is correct to emphasize the interactions between the smaller and larger sources.

In 1960, it would have been entirely sensible to complain that the media market was being dominated by a small number of powerful interests. But any such argument would have to be much subtler today. Notwithstanding McChesney's efforts, I am not sure that it can be made entirely convincing.

Similar questions might be raised about Jacobs's suggestion that new communications technologies will create barriers for deliberative enclaves containing alternative viewpoints. The opposite seems at least as likely to be true. Listservs can be created for any number of deliberating groups, with ease and at basically no expense. Websites can be, and are, produced specifically for African Americans or parents of gay and lesbian children or religious fundamentalists or any group under the sun. Perhaps Jacobs means not that such sites cannot be created, but that in the modern communications environment, they will have a harder time in carving out a niche. But we have little evidence to show that this is so. Of course, Jacobs is right to raise the issue, and here too empirical research would be quite valuable.

Claim one, rather than claim two, is the primary concern of Rosen and Schudson. As they emphasize, democracy requires a public sphere, rooted in a conception of citizenship, which is allowed to function notwithstanding the pressures imposed by two potential enemies: tyrants and markets. At this point in our history, Americans are blessed to have little reason to fear tyranny, and in many domains, we need more markets, and freer ones too. But in the domain of communications, the current danger is that amidst all the celebration of freedom of choice, we will lose sight of the requirements of a system of self-government. From the standpoint of democracy, the Internet is much more good than bad. Nostalgia and pessimism are truly senseless. But it is not senseless to suggest that in thinking about new communications technologies, we should keep democratic ideals in view. The notion of "consumer sovereignty," suitable though it is for market contexts, should not be the only basis on which we evaluate a system of communications. If we emphasize democratic considerations as well, we will have a series of novel inquiries, both conceptual and empirical, about the social role of the Internet. Let's get to work. •

Cass R. Sunstein is Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is Republic.com.

Return to the forum on democracy and the internet, with Cass Sunstein and responses.

Originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of Boston Review



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