Mathematics of Growth
June 1, 2001
With Responses From
Jun 1, 2001
5 Min read time
The Internet is our best hope for preserving democracy.
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 about.
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 calledHouses 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, whenWired 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 them.
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.
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